Cathedral Caves on the Catlins Coast

It’s a 25-minute steep descent through damp forest to reach the beach that leads to the Cathedral Caves on the Catlins Coast and longer, of course, to climb back up again. I picked up a bit of pace on my way down the track until I came across Mary, an octogenarian bent double over two walking sticks who was hauling herself painfully up the track at snail’s pace. I paused my more rapid descent to speak to her and give us both a breather: “Was it worth it?”

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“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “Quite stunning. All of it—this walk, the beach, and the caves.” Not a bad effort, I thought, when you are 86 years of age.

The walk down the track dips steeply through mature podocarp forest. The beach is wide and wild and can only be accessed two hours either side of high tide. Even then, an occasional rogue wave can douse the unwary.

And then there are the caves—a series of great lofty caverns with walls of crumpled and buckled rock scooped out of towering cliffs. Giant buttresses have been worn smooth by centuries of the sea’s heavy caress. One roofless canyon was filled with misty spray; its walls drizzled with small waterfalls seeping from the lip of the cliff. Around its feet swirled gardens of bull kelp.

The snarling sea, creator of these monumental edifices, had drawn back enough to let us walk the stretch of golden beach. In the deep recesses, the roar of the sea was out of earshot, the only sound an occasional drop of water landing from the ceiling 30 metres above. 

The caves are privately owned and administered by a Maori trust, and there is a small fee charged to help upkeep the track. The road is kept in good repair for motorhome access. The gate will be closed if the tides are not right, and there’s no access between 7.30pm and 8.30am. As well as the 25-minute walk through the forest, the walk along the beach takes about 10 minutes. I hadn’t asked Mary how long it had taken her to make the excursion. It took us two hours and a bit of horsepower to climb back up the track.

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