An incredible perspective of Auckland's underground lava caves

by Vomle Springford / 30 November, 2017

Ancient spaces 

A new digital mapping project reveals the richness of the city’s subterranean lava caves.

The spooky-looking lava caves on this page are real. But these are not photographs – they’re digital images made up of millions of points mapped with a 3D scanner. Over the past 18 months, Chirag Jindal and Peter Crossley carefully carried a $100,000 piece of equipment into 10 caves under the Auckland isthmus. They wanted to depict the mystery and majesty of the caves in a way that would capture the public’s attention.

The images on these pages are a marriage of science and art. Jindal, a researcher, digital artist and architectural graduate, and Crossley, a speleologist, took a LiDAR (Light Detection Ranging) scanner into the caves. The device shoots a laser, calculates how far the laser has gone and repeats this 1000 times per second, spinning around to create a cloud of points that measures the space.

Unlike our volcanic cones, these ancient spaces – some up to 40,000 years old – are unseen by most, as they are located under private properties. Many caves, formed by lava flows, have been destroyed or filled in because of urban development and, although they can be given protected status, a fine doesn’t deter developers, says Crossley. “We’re in danger of losing lava caves in Auckland. There aren’t many left, and most are like the volcanic cones themselves – damaged.”

Jindal says the idea behind the project was to create an archive of the caves in their current state for any interested parties – like Auckland Council, for example, which funded the project through its Regional Environment and Natural Heritage grants programme, with the help of the New Zealand Speleological Society. “Peter’s doing a scientific study and I’m trying to make it easily relatable to the public and bring it to the public eye,” says Jindal.

Crossley, who has been documenting caves for over 40 years, says there are millions of photographs of lava caves, but these images are unlike anything else he’s ever seen.

“They’re very abstract and ethereal. You hear of a cave, there are legends about caves, there are Māori legends of caves, but it’s all in the mind – there’s no substance to it. If you go in there [to the cave], then there’s substance… but this [depiction of the cave] is just a thought in a computer, almost a visualisation of thoughts, of the images in your mind. It’s the skin of the cave.” It’s this alternative view of the caves that they hope will invigorate and excite the public to value these natural features.

The caves also carry history and legends which the pair want to preserve for the future. Crossley believes one of the caves they scanned, in Mount Albert, was where chief Rurangi and his hapū escaped to after an argument with his brother who lived nearby: “You know what relatives are like – the brother came up with an army and laid siege.” Legend has it they escaped through the cave, arriving at Meola Reef.

“I think what makes us human, as opposed to animals,” Crossley says, “is the fact that we can think back and we’ve got legends and memories of the past and we are able to conceive these things. It would be a shame if we lost the reality of these legends and heritage.”

Above and top picture: A cave under a road in Three Kings. Chirag Jindal says there’s a power in seeing the caves in the context with houses: “I think that’s the big picture here – these caves have been around for 10-40,000 years but it’s because of that aggressive urban sprawl in the last 200 years that they’ve been neglected. They’ve ended up in this absolutely uncanny relationship with the built environment, where they’re in the back of someone’s garage and you open the sliding door and you’re in a cave.”

A cave in Three Kings, which was partially destroyed by rubble when a road was constructed.

A “god’s eye view” of caves in Mangere. The scans are connected together to show the whole cave. “Whenever you see these bright luminous points, what’s happening is that the points that are closer to the scanner look brighter because there’s more of them, so you can imagine the scanner is taking a sphere of points, anything that’s closer is going to pick up more points. In the image they appear a lot brighter because they are more dense but the actual aesthetic you get at the end makes it seem a bit luminous,” says Jindal.

Cross sections through a cave under a Mt Albert house. “When you look at the cross section, you really get an idea of what the space is doing and what the space is like because it is continuously evolving – one 10 metres is not the same as the next. It kind of shows how much the cave evolves,” says Jindal. He says these images create a sense of enticement when caves overall are not enticing, they are kind of “grotesque”. Crossley disagrees: “They are not. They’re lovely!”

The exhibition, Into the Underworld, runs 9 Dec-24 Dec at Silo 6, Wynyard Quarter.

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