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.

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