Friday, March 30, 2012

Travelling NZ with a toddler: the South Island round up

We’ve come to the end of our five week trip of New Zealand’s South Island, so it’s no surprise that we’ve been hit with a bit of reflection.

We’ve travelled over 6000km starting in Dunedin and finishing in Picton. We’ve argued over directions eight times, even with sat nav! We’ve visited 46 different places. We’ve seen the extreme South of the mainland (Slope Point) and the far North (Farewell Spit). We’ve watched the sun rise over the Eastern shores and set over Western waters. The map below shows our route.

View Larger Map

We’ve each slept in 13 different beds. We’ve had our first experience of staying in a youth hostel as a family - much to the surprise of some of us, it was pretty good, albeit a bit nerve wracking every time we saw a jar of peanut butter. We may even do it again sometime. Mr T has got his bach booking skills down pat and become quite a master at getting excellent rates, so that’s been our main accommodation while we’ve been moving around. We’ve also stayed in a couple of motels and one hotel, but it was no Ritz, believe me! We made one accommodation stuff up, but one's not so bad, in the grand scheme of things, and it meant that we added Akaroa to our list of places visited, which was definitely a good thing. I’m still hankering after a campervan experience and trying to work out how to achieve that.

The littlest hobo has coped with the changes in our lifestyle well, and for the most part seems to be enjoying it. We've managed well with her allergies and intollerences, as long as we made sure we stocked up on oat milk in bigger towns we didn't have any problems. Her asthma and cough seemed better when we were in rural areas, and I am glad to say that the epipens remain snuggled in their packaging. When I asked her what her favourite things in New Zealand were she said 'playing and cafés', but I know from the look on her face that Penguin Place, the Queenstown luge, Hamner Springs thermal spa and staying on the farm in Tasman all ticked the boxes for her. We were all very fond of Queenstown, with so much to see and do in and around there (and the blog posts about that are still to come... we were too busy experiencing it all to write about it at the time) plus we had warm, comfortable, well equipped accommodation with amazing views, which is always a bonus.

The view from our Queenstown apartment made staying in quite appealing

We’ve encountered yellow eyed and blue penguins, sealions and seals, two gigantic sperm whales, a pot bellied pig, chooks, goats, horses, cows and approximately three million two hundred and eighty nine thousand and seventeen sheep. We’ve been bitten by more sandflies than I care to remember, and have the war wounds to prove it.

Cows and sandfly in the middle of a long white cloud

We’ve munched our way through seventy two inches of Subway seven dollar sandwiches, and at least one of us thinks that that is quite enough for now, thank you. We’ve also enjoyed our fair share of eggs, veges, fruit and milk fresh from farms we’ve stayed on and roadside stalls, and this is something that I love.

I've made over 1600 photographs, and so far the netbook is still standing under the weight of it all. That's a hefty slideshow that somebody will have to sit through at some point.

We’ve spent roughly NZ$8000 which is only $1,500 over our original (and possibly slightly unrealistic) budget.

On more than one occasion we’ve been convinced that ‘the land of the long white cloud’ is a truly apt name for this enchanting landscape. Our best view was over Lake Wakatipu on the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy - actually, that was my favourite view ever, not just in New Zealand.

Never have I experienced such diversity in such a small area - from the towering wonder of fjordland to the terrifying beauty of the glaciers and the sobering tragedy of Christchurch, all within a few short hours drive of each other. The glorious isolation and tranquillity that encapsulates you in the soft rolling hills of Tasman is an equally necessary part of the South Island experience alongside watching dusky dolphins dance along the Eastern shores and getting an adrenalin fix in Queenstown (on the luge, of course!).

I didn’t really appreciate mountains until I came to the South Island - the place is covered in them, but they are all so different, and that realisation has been a bit of an awakening. Seeing the mountains swathed in cloud which slowly burns away with the warmth of the sun is a fantastic way to start your day, as is dipping your feet into an icy cold glacial mountain stream.

You could drop a destination or two from our itinerary, but it wouldn’t be the same experience. You could do it in half the time, but then you wouldn’t really feel everywhere, just see it through a glass window. You could double the time we spent, and you wouldn’t be bored; we left most places wanting more, which is a good feeling to carry around with you.

New Zealand’s South Island was everything we expected and more. If it isn’t on your bucket list, it might be time to start reconsidering.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Being humbled in Christchurch

After our accommodation debacle we headed off to find a motel for the night - we pointed ourselves in the direction of the airport, figuring there’s always last minute accommodation around airports, but on the way stumbled upon a great little motel so we stopped there for the night. As I was checking in, the owner started to show me a few places on the map. I noticed that we were staying on the edge of the red zone, which he had kindly marked on the map - a sizeable chunk of the CBD which is currently shut off to the public while dangerous buildings are removed and the area is made safe again. When we’d first talked about going to Christchurch, some friends and family had asked us if we should really go there now, but everything I saw when I researched it suggested that Christchurch was encouraging tourists to start coming back, and we felt compelled to support that notion and include it in our great tour of New Zealand in the same way as we would have done pre-earthquake. We’d searched carefully for accommodation that said it was away from the earthquake hit areas, but here we were, right in the city, a block from some of the worst devastation.

We dumped our bags, then headed out to have a look around and get some food for dinner. We had only been walking for a minute or two when we saw fencing along the pavement - looking through we saw a church, closed since February 2011, the walls cracked and damaged, with Mary standing facing it, as if assessing the damage, made quite a statement. On the opposite side of the road was a motel, open for business with it’s vacancy sign burning bright, while the four houses standing right next to it were surrounded by more fencing, massive cracks visible right through the middle of each roof, the blackened evidence of a fire that had burned inside stood out stark against the white wall, while a recovery worker was busy at the front of the building.

The motel next door was open for business - it amazed me how often we saw buildings standing shoulder to shoulder, one apparently unscathed while the other was a crumbling wreck

It was confronting. A few weeks ago, on the first anniversary of Christchurch’s big earthquake, we watched When a City Falls by Gerard Smyth, which was an excellent documentary showing the devastation through the eyes of a Christchurch local, and of course I had seen the news reports when the earthquakes happened, but nothing could have prepared me for the city that we were starting to see. When I was chatting to our motel owner later, he pointed out that the media shows images of the same buildings over and over again, leading us to assume that the worst of the damage is limited to those few buildings.

Some of the games machines were still inside

The area behind High Street - previously a major shopping area in Christchurch

We continued on, soon coming up against more fencing; this time it shut off entire streets, cordoning the red zone. In front of us was the Crown Plaza hotel, and although it was Friday evening, there was still a team working away, meticulously pulling the unsafe building apart one small step after another. There were a couple of people standing by watching; locals, I assumed, looks of awe on their faces, maybe they were visiting memories of happier times, maybe they were recalling the chaos of that fateful day, or maybe, like us, they were trying to wrap their heads around what they were seeing.

Smashed windows, wooden boards and fencing were a feature around most of the streets of the CBD
We walked on, skirting the perimeter of the red zone, walking carefully over cracked, raised pavements, all around us evidence of the day that Christchurch fell; broken windows, abandoned offices and the tell tale spray paint of the rescue teams who painstakingly combed the city looking for survivors in the days after.

It was Friday evening, a time when you would expect bars around a city centre to be heaving with office workers, keen to shrug off the working week and loosen their ties in preparation for the weekend ahead. The place was like a ghost town. Apart from the constant clunk and whir of machinery, the odd small group of tourists doing roughly the same as we were, and one or two people scurrying home at the end of their day, there was no other evidence of life. Our idea of getting dinner was fast becoming a ridiculous notion - we walked for almost two hours, admittedly with stops to gaze with wonder, before we found a Subway which was open and sold us what would become dinner.

The sun going down in the red zone - the sparkle on the pavement is broken glass, still lying there since the quake

One thing that I found particularly striking was the feeling that all this had just happened yesterday - peering through one section of fence would reveal smashed glass and crumbled concrete, look up and you would see smashed windows, curtains or blinds gently fluttering in the breeze, and everywhere was evidence of time stopping; posters advertising 2011 events, a set of flowerpots on a balcony which had clearly fallen over with the earthquake and their owner never been back inside to pick them up, and desks, stacked high with papers, chairs flung back as their occupants fled, thirteen months ago.

Many of the abandoned houses have ladders hanging from the upper floors 

All of this adds to the feeling of being in a ghost town, but much more than that, it gives a glimpse of the panic of the moment, and acts as a poignant reminder of just how much the earthquake devastated the city - we saw people working every moment we were there, and yet a whole year plus hadn’t been enough time for them to reach these areas, to fix these things. Being so soon after the one year anniversary, we saw dedications attached to fences and lamposts of those who had died near that spot. I was moved to tears several times.

Looking at the flower tributes on the perimeter fence

I found these flowers particularly moving - for the  lives lost on a bus - one of the tributes was for a young boy

We walked the entire perimeter of the red zone, and returned to our motel weary. Only one of us fell asleep easily, and slept soundly.

Pop up shops - made from shipping containers - ingenious!
The next morning, we packed up and left our motel and then drove to the other side of the city centre, to an area known as the pop up mall. We’d walked through it the previous evening and were so impressed - it’s a street of shops, banks and food outlets made entirely from shipping containers which has sprung up since the earthquake. It’s ingenious and I love it. We were looking for a farmers market that was rumoured to have started up near there. I’m so glad that we did return there - the area was buzzing, alive with people of all ages, going about there Saturday mornings and blowing life into Christchurch.

The pop up mall was alive with people on Saturday morning. We joined the queue of people to the left.

We didn’t find the market, but we did find a massive queue of people snaking through the mall, and moving forward at a reasonable speed. Remembering what another tourist had said to me the night before - that the red zone was being opened up for public access this weekend - we joined the throngs, and before we knew it, we were working our way through the usually out of bounds streets to the infamous Christchurch Cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral

Turning the corner and seeing what is left of  the Cathedral for the first time was a humbling moment, seeing the people of Christchurch going through this same passage much more so. The pathway to Cathedral Square was hushed and thoughtful, in spite of the huge number of people walking along. But the atmosphere in the Square was different; uplifting, and a definite positive vibe. It was an amazing thing to be standing in the middle of, to be a part of. I’m so glad that we returned in the morning, that we were able to feel the positive vibe that the people of Christchurch were living by and feel the life and soul of the city.

The Christchurch wizard had plenty to say, and people were gathered around him listening

Yellow ribbons inscribed with messages of hope 

Visiting Christchurch was an overwhelmingly sobering experience, a stark blast of reality that shook us right to our roots and made us shed tears, sit up and pay attention. After 24 hours, we were ready to leave, the weight of sadness bore heavy on our hearts. I have so much admiration for the people of Christchurch; they show such strength and durability as a community. Shining through the dust covered rubble, I could see glimmers of the city that was, and signs of a city that will rebuild itself. I saw a city that I would have loved to visit, and from everyone I spoke to I sensed a determination that one day Christchurch will be that same place again. And I look forward to returning some day soon.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Accommodation blunders in Christchurch

We arrived in Christchurch from Greymouth, via scenic Arthur’s Pass (which from now on shall be known to us as bumble bee alley, but I'll have to come back to that one day), and headed to the accommodation that Mr T had booked a few days ago. After he’d booked it, we’d received an info sheet that explained that the house was actually an old truck, and that linen was not included - no problem, I popped into The Warehouse and bought some discounted bed sheets and we were quite excited at the prospect of staying in a ‘van’. Plus the views in the photographs looked stunning!

We skirted the edge of the city and headed through a few suburbs where we started to see hints of earthquake damage - uneven road surfaces and cracked pavement edges, a closed school, then half-houses, with their insides hanging out, hanging off cliffs. Many of the roads around the cliff walls were lined with stacked containers - I assume to act as a barrier. A few times Gipps sent us down a road, only to find that it had been cordoned off, so we would have to find another way around. It was a sobering experience.

We made our way up the hillside, commenting that there was something comforting about being at the top of the hill, and knowing there was nothing else above us. We turned into the road we were staying in and down quite a steep hill, to the very end of the cul de sac and down a steep driveway. ‘Ýou have reached your destination’ said Gipps. Standing before us was our home for the next three days, clinging to the edge of the cliff , attached by some sturdy looking guide ropes to the rocky surface around it. It had the most magnificent views out to sea. And it terrified me beyond belief;  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be clinging to the edge of a cliff in an area that had been devastated by a major earthquake just a year ago..

We found the keys and let ourselves in - it was gorgeous and cute and I loved it. But I was finding it hard to take it all in beyond the cacophony of alarm bells which were blasting in my head.  ‘A campervan!’ exclaimed the Littlest Hobo, ‘I love it! Where’s my bedroom?’ I glanced up at the mattress suspended in the ‘master mezzanine’ above our heads, as she and Mr T went off to find her bedroom. At the end of the truck, at the same level as the hanging mattress was a small door, high up in the wall above our heads, with a ladder below it. Mr T climbed up and pulled it open to reveal a bedroom fit for a princess, and they both bounded up the ladder enthusiastically.

I sat on the staircase that led from the entry level up five or six unguarded steps to the raised living area, looking down at the unguarded wood burner by my feet. I listened to their happy chatter, as I took in every toddler-unsafe area and tried to imagine sleeping here over night, with the littlest hobo in a separate area to us; an area that was accessible only by a  two or so metre drop to the floor. It was blowing a gale outside, and the house was gently jostled by the wind. I sat and imagined how it would feel if we experienced one of the aftershocks that I had heard so much about the people of the city living through. I sat and imagined trying to sleep.

I glanced out of the window again at the unimaginably beautiful seascape, and noticed the cliff walk three or four metres in front of the truck. The info pack had mentioned a walk at the edge of the property that had been closed since the earthquake. I loved and feared this little place with each shaky breath I took. Mr T and the Littlest Hobo appeared in front of me, she was so excited. Í can’t do it’ I said to Mr T.

So we replaced the key, got in the car and drove, in search of a motel. I think the Littlest Hobo thought I was joking - she kept saying ‘no, we are staying here’ and ‘no, we love our campervan’ and I felt quite stupid - wondering if I was being all over the top and unnecessarily cautious when so many of the people of Christchurch have been living with conditions probably far more terrifying than this since February 2011. But I felt more comfortable with my decision than I did stupidity or disappointment at my wussiness, or frustration at wasting so much money. So we found a motel for the night, negotiated a relatively reasonable rate, and headed off to explore Christchurch. But that, my friends, is a story for another time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Travel inertia

A couple of days ago we were hit by an attack of travel inertia. I had expected this to happen, but not so soon (three weeks) into our New Zealand adventure. When we were travelling through Europe last year, we learnt that travelling slower works better for us; seeing fewer places, but getting to know them more intimately, and from reading other travelling families blogs, I’ve found that this seems to be a trend when travelling with young kids.

The drive to Glenorchy was simply stunning - wouldn't have missed it for any amount of upheaval!
But New Zealand is jam packed full of awe inspiring natural wonders dotted here there and everywhere across the country. The last few days, we’ve seen some amazing sights, but we’ve also covered a large number of kilometres, and we’ve been staying in places for one or two nights, taking things out the car, putting them back in, repacking bags so that we don’t need to get them all out at every stop.

As far as accommodation goes, it’s proved to be more costly than we expected (or than a certain unnamed popular guide book led us to believe), maybe partly due to the fact that we haven't keen to stay in youth hostels as the shared kitchen facilities make us nervous with the littlest hobo’s nut allergy (although I've just booked our first one to give it a try next week - watch this space!). But that means that I’m feeling a bit of frustration that we could have afforded a campervan after all, thus avoiding the constant bed hopping and lack of a firm base. Every time another motor home pulls up beside us in a car park (and believe me, there are so many there’s a very high chance of it…) we enviously check out their digs with a few sideways glances and marvel at how marvellous that particular one must be.

To top it all off, a couple of nights ago the Littlest Hobo was restless in the evening and started complaining of a sore tummy. As I was cuddling her, sitting in the bed that we were going to share that night, she vomited in a much more voluminous and projectile manner than I had even known before in her short life. Of course we were at a farmstay where we were only staying one night, there were no spare sheets in the cabin, and our spare pj’s were in one of the suitcases we’d left in the car, which was accessible only by being attacked by twenty thousand sandflies, so it all turned into a bit of a debacle, which we sorted in the end, but needless to say, it’s not what you need at 10pm in an unfamiliar place.

So when we arrived in the little cabin in Greymouth that we are currently staying in, we heaved a sigh of relief, filled the washing machine and swore that we were never travelling again. Once the littlest hobo was snuggled up in her bed we opened the maps and tore apart our plans for the next two and a half weeks until we meet our friends for Easter, taking out the stops that we’d been so keen to take and instead replacing them with a couple of days with long drives with a week in one place and a week in another. We came up with three different options and on a last minute whim, while we were trying to decide which of the two simpler routes we would take, I said ‘let’s sleep on it and make a decision by tomorrow night’.

I woke to a crisp sunny morning, opened the curtains and looked out to the ocean. There was a whole world out there and it was very inviting. I sat down with the guide books and read a little about the areas we had been trying to decide about, then when Mr T got up we made a plan for our day. We decided to keep it low key; a well needed rest day, stick to the cabin  for the morning, let the Littlest Hobo play with her toys and dance around to her music while we made our final decision so that when we headed into Greymouth in the afternoon we could find some internet access and start making bookings. The thing is, a good nights sleep and the promise of a day off had changed my mind, and I was all set to go with the original plan. Lucky for me , I didn’t need to call on my persuasion skills too much - Mr T really wanted to see some of the stops we had planned too. So it’s back to our first route, minus a stop or two, and I’m sure we’ll get fed up with the moving around again before we get to stop for a longer period, but we just need to keep reminding ourselves that this is our big chance to do it, so it’s now or never!

On a side note, we’ve booked our flights to Hawaii from here, and we’re just about to start planning our Canada/US adventure. We’ll have approximately 12 weeks from start to finish and we need to start on the West Coast (either San Diego or Vancouver looking most likely, as there are people we want to see in each of them) and we have flights booked out of Washington DC. I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it in a campervan this time, but we’re still working out the logistics and budget etc. Any suggestions of anywhere we mustn’t miss would be most welcome at this stage!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

An abundance of nature's wonders in the Catlins

The sparsely populated Catlins is located on the far south eastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Named after Captain Cattlin who bought a section of the land from local Maori in 1840, the rugged coastline and mountainous landscape dare you to explore one natural wonder after another - each time thinking that this must be the reason that people visit.

We booked ourselves in at Nadir Outpost at Slope Point - which stakes claim for the most southerly accommodation of mainland New Zealand; nestled in the hills with sheep ambling past our window and, it seemed during our stay, a permanent gale blowing outside, we felt a million miles from anyone. I was lucky to witness a sensational sunrise from our accommodation, I awoke to a pink hue which intensified as I dragged myself out of the warm bed and into the Baltic morning air with the ten thousand curious sheep (there are definite benefits to pulling your jeans on over your pj‘s when it‘s that cold), well worth the effort to see a rainbow, which landed just at the point that two rolling hills intercepted; it was simply stunning, but gone in seconds, and  while I was quick enough to grab my camera, I wasn’t fast enough to whip out my tripod, which was necessary to do any real justice to the beautiful start to my day.

We stayed for 2 nights, and although we didn’t see every single sight the Catlins had to offer, we left feeling that we’d ‘done’ the region and could tick it off our list. The Catlins is remote, and we’d been forewarned to take enough fuel, food and cash for our visit as they’re not particularly readily available once you get there. We travelled from North to South, which for some reason seemed to be the opposite direction from all the guidebooks I consulted, but that seemed to make no odds, and there seemed to be an equal number of people travelling in each direction..

The first attraction we hit after entering the region was Nugget Point, where we took a short walk to a lighthouse adorned headland to warn passing ships of the picturesque rocky protrusions in the swirling waters below. The path is quite open in places and the drop down the sheer cliff faces to the rocks below, where we spotted Yellow-Eyed Penguins frolicking,  made me glad that the littlest hobo is generally happy to walk next to us and hold hands - I suspect I would feel quite nervous taking a more inquisitive toddler down this track… a theme that developed as our time in the Catlins continued - there are some nerve-racking paths around, but I am fairly confident that's the reason this place is so beautiful.

We munched our lunch in the car (the littlest hobo managed to contain her disappointment that chicken nuggets hadn't materialised from the sea...) in what is becoming our standard fashion when the weather isn't conducive to an outdoor picnic, with the littlest hobo using the car as a jungle gym while we urge her to sit still until she's swallowed her mouthful. A coffee stop is an unwritten rule in our travel day, so when we unexpectedly passed a curious looking collection advertising coffee, we did a u-turn and ordered our daily caffeine fix. I'm glad we did because it turned out we'd stopped at the Lost Gypsy Cafe - a  collection of ingenious inventions made from trinkets that others would most likely toss out with the trash, self-labeled 'fine acts of junk' all gathered in a groovy old bus. We grabbed our coffees and spent half an hour or so looking around. We would have paid the extra $5 each to look around the gallery, but little kids weren't allowed in, so we continued on with our journey.

Hobo, meet gypsy....
With the satnav claiming we still had a few hours to go (luckily we have now realised that a gravel road en route means that Gipps, as it is affectionately known, assumes that you will drive at 10km per hour) and the day drawing on, we debated whether we should really do another stop, but the weather forecast for the next day was rain, rain and more rain, so we pulled off the main road and headed to McLean Falls - in spite of it being the furthest walk of all the falls, we could hardly drive by a place with such a cool name. We weren't disappointed... while the walk was challenging at times and I wished more than once that I'd invested in some hiking boots, when we got to the top, the falls were spectacular.

Mclean Falls - she's not keeling over with boredom, honestly!

The next morning brought the predicted rain, that started soon after we rose, and continued all day. We headed to Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay, where we sat in the car looking out into the bay at the choppy waters in the hope that me might spot a dolphin through the heavy rain that was lashing the windows. When a lull came, we made a dash and spent a short while clambering around on the rocks at the petrified forest - we weren't lucky enough to spot any of the local wildlife (sea lions and penguins frequent the area) but the fossilised logs and rockpools were interesting to explore.

We gave up battling the downpour and made a beeline for the Niagara Falls cafe - I couldn't believe how many good write ups I'd read about this place, and we had to give it a try. The cafe is in an old school house and sells local crafts alongside the cafe - it was a great environment to sit and warm up/dry out while we watched the animals wander by the windows and a stream of hungry locals and tourists arrive for lunch. The food was delicious and filling; I ordered a bowl of seafood chowder and I struggled to finish it.

We battled over whether to do our next activity, as it was pouring with rain and we weren't very well prepared, but I am so glad that in the end we braved the rain because we had such a huge adventure at Cathedral Caves.

You can drive for half an hour in the Catlins without seeing another soul on the road, but at the same time, you will find that as there's an obvious tourist trail, you will tend to the the same people as you move from one of nature's great wonders to another. Having said that, it's certainly not crowded, and you can be standing with ten people around you one minute, then turn around to find you are all alone with only the bird song and the crash of waves to keep you company the next. There is undeniably a disproportionate number of sheep to people in the area - so much so that at long last and after several long months (since our trip to Ireland, to be precise) the littlest hobo has tired of shouting 'baaaaaaa' in a somewhat startling manner every time she sees a field full of the fleecy coated little creatures.


There are lots of short (ranging from ten minutes to an hour) walks, which make it really attractive with a toddler, and some of the tracks are even stroller friendly too. I would definitely advocate a trip to the Catlins on a South Island tour, and there's too much to see in one day. We found that two days in the Catlins was perfect - we had something to do the whole time we were there, and left with a sense of having seen plenty in the area too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Recapturing a sense of adventure at Cathedral Caves

We'd usually do anything we could to avoid venturing out in the rain, so we were battling with what to do in the middle of a torrential downpour on our last afternoon in the Catlins. Top of my list for our time in the region was a visit to Cathedral Caves, but a one hour round trip in the pouring rain with our less than adequate wet weather gear and footwear was less than appealing.

We drove to the car park, ummed and ahhed, drove half way down the road back out again, then screeched to a halt (much to the joy of the campervan behind us) pulled up our big girl panties and did a u-ey. With the caves only accessible two hours either side of low tide, this was our one and only chance - two and a half travellers were going down the mountain.

We parked Jucy and I ran over to pay the meagre entrance fee, while Mr T got the littlest hobo dressed in her decontamination suit (otherwise known as puddle suit and wellie boots). The attendant assured me that we'd be fine in our trainers, but warned me that we may need a torch at the back of the caves - we didn't have one. So we shrugged and made for the path. Under the canopy of the mountainside forest, the walkway down to the beach was a breeze, keeping the wind, and the majority of the rain, at bay - I kept glancing down at people's feet as we crossed paths, glad to see that they weren't knee deep in mud spatters or one shoe down on their way back up.

When we reached the beach, the rain had dulled to what Peter Kay refers to as 'that fine rain that get's you wet right through'. We headed across the sand in the same direction as the people ahead of us, noting that on a nicer day, this would be the perfect beach to linger on, and after a few minutes we reached the entrance to the caves, most apparent for the ten or so people hovering around the mouth, posing with cameras and looking up at the jaw dropping rock formations in front of them. It was pretty impressive.

Those two tiny smudges in the light area are people... these caves were HUGE!

I think it was the size that first struck me - i just hadn't realised that they'd be so big. And I'd imagined the cathedral-like shape to have been formed by looking at a large rock next to a cliff, when in fact this was two mammoth caverns, seperated by a rocky outcrop at the front, but joined at the back, where they tunnel back deep into the rock cliff face - it was quite amazing really.

We ventured inside, and were distracted from the awe of the place for a minute or two by a dead possum lying on the sandy floor of the caves, which had been suitably commemorated by a visitor. I stopped to take a photo, and when I looked up, Mr T and the littlest hobo had disappeared into the darkness at the back of the caves. I hovered nervously, suddenly acutely aware of my echoing surroundings, and that the only other person who had been in the caves had also vanished into the milky darkness...surely they would reappear in a minute or two.

They didn't. I called out. No response. I felt very alone, and somewhat stupid, standing in this cave, with the tide creeping ever nearer, waiting for my family to reappear. I took a deep breath and realised that I was going into the darkness too - my little girl and my husband were in there somewhere! I advanced slowly, and stumbled over a mass of seaweed. Suddenly, I heard the littlest hobo's voice ahead of me - I called out to them and in an unusual moment of ingenuity started to use the autofocus button on my camera, which couldn't focus in the dark, to set of the flash, lighting the way with a series of explosions of light, enough to see Mr T scrabbling around on the floor a few metres ahead of me.

The littlest hobo had dropped one of her boots in probably the furthest point you could reach back into the cave. I cursed myself for buying her black boots. But using the light from the flash we found it, replaced it, and made for the front of the cave down the second path - the opposite one to our entry route. This space  was even more spectacular than the first - whether it was our approach to it - from the darkness into the light, or the formation that the rocks had taken on from the continuous pounding of the waves; standing in this monstorous cavern left us completely awe-inspired once again at the wonder of nature's crafts.

One of my favourite photos of all time - Mr T takes full credit for this one

We spent a while taking it all in then took some photographs in this magical setting, running back into the cave as a particularly enthusiastic wave rolled towards us, and looking up just in time to see the other couple who had been standing close by wade around the entrance with their trousers rolled up to their knees. The tide was coming in, and we were standing all alone in the far cave.

Trying to keep our panic at bay (that was in the good parenting manual somewhere, right?) we backed up and watched the waves; the next few rolled in not far from where we were standing, and we thought about backing up into the cave again and coming around the other side. But mental images of the cave filling with water was enough to put me off that idea. I was reassuring myself that they had strict times when you could visit the caves to keep people safe, and we were still an hour before closing time. Suddenly there was an ebb in the waves, and we made a run for it, shoes soaking and spray flying into our faces, round the rock until we reached the other entrance, where people were still casually ambling into the caves, dry footed and definitely in no danger of that changing any time in the near future. I felt silly again. But the thrill of the adventure had been so exhilarating, and we headed up the beach, laughing, smiling, and with our hearts pumping and feet squelching.

A visit to Cathedral Caves? Yes definitely. In the rain? Don't let it stop you. With a toddler? They'll love the adventure (just as long as you're ready for them to hitch a ride with you back up the mountainside). I'd go so far as to say that if the Catlins wasn't on your South Island itinerary, you should think about adding it just so that you can visit cathedral caves.