The Catlins Day #3: Mirror Lake and Cathedral Caves

Bam, bam, bam! Attraction after attraction! The Catlins is full of short walks to natural wonders. If you don’t believe us, just check out Day #1 and Day #2 of our Catlins road trip. What’s more, the most expensive of activities we are doing in The Catlins is Cathedral Caves at $5! Well, we think we can spare some change for Cathedral Caves, don’t you?

The thing with Cathedral Caves, caves so big they are said to be like a cathedral, is that you can only access them at low tide. Low tide is around 3.30pm today. Luckily for us, we’re in the freakin’ Catlins, so there’s bound to be another attraction to occupy our time with!

We unplug from our powersite at the Whistling Frog Cafe, Bar & Resort and hit the road for about, say, nine minutes, passing the locked gate to the road to Cathedral Caves. Here, we are pulling into a roadside car park to Lake Wilkie. From here it’s only a 10-minute walk through the forest until we reach the lake. See what we mean? Bam, bam, bam! An attraction every 20 minutes!

Trees with maps

Although Lake Wilkie is the main attraction of this walk, we are mesmerised by the forest itself. You know what we are going to say, don’t you? Yes, this is yet ANOTHER forest in New Zealand that looks different from the last one we visit. Albeit, the last forest we visited was a fossilised forest… But anyway…

The trees in THIS forest look like they have fossils on themselves. Lumpy lines create unusual markings on the bark of the tree, reminding us of the contour lines on a map. Other trees are hollow, making for some fun photos when we a find hole looking right through the trunk.

As for the rest of the forest, it’s pretty wild: moss growing on plants growing on trees. It’s forests like this that put the “diversity” in “biodiversity”.

Walking under the forest giants Walking under the forest giants
The contour lines of a tree map The contour lines of a tree map
Walking alongside Lake Wilkie Walking alongside Lake Wilkie
Spotting a brilliant blue dragonfly Spotting a brilliant blue dragonfly

The mirror Lake Wilkie

Soon enough, we reach a short boardwalk elevated around the edge of Lake Wilkie. Lake Wilkie is a mirror lake! Not the first with vivid reflections that we have seen so far in New Zealand. Although we had never heard of Lake Wilkie before, the vivid reflections and stunning forest landscape puts this lake way up there with what we have seen in Lake Matheson, The Road to Milford Sound and Lake Brunner!

It’s the tannin in the water that gives the lake its dark colour hence such clear reflections. Surrounding the lake are all sorts of flax, occupied by bright blue dragonflies. Magical!

The boardwalk loops back to the main walking track and back to the car park. Now that we have spent enough time gazing at the awesome Lake Wilkie and its dragonflies, we will arrive at Cathedral Caves just in time for low tide.

Caves and large waves

The gate to the steep and narrow Cathedral Caves road is now open. (Oh yeah, somewhere between all this, we swapped our campervan for a much easier to drive Subaru borrowed from the lovely ladies at the Whistling Frog Cafe). Parked up, we give our road-user fee to an attendant, who informs us where to find the caves, plus to keep an eye out on the large swells bringing waves into the caves! Gulp! Nevertheless, it’s better than getting any nasty surprises.

It’s a downhill and winding walk that, sure, is easy enough on the way down but we know in the back of our minds that we have to climb this hill later on…

Where to start exploring these huge Cathedral Caves!

Sea lion and footsteps in the sand

We emerge onto a long stretching white-sand beach. A sea lion is living the life out in the raging swells that the attendant told us about. We follow the footsteps of others who have made their way into the caves before us, because, oh yeah, with such a narrow window to visit these caves, this place gets pretty busy! (By New Zealand standards that is. Have you noticed that most our photos don’t have any other people on them other than us?)

Cathedral Caves

A towering cliff sits at the eastern end of the beach – one that just happens to have a gaping hole in it! We’ve just arrived at Cathedral Caves.

What also gives this place its name is the acoustics – like a cathedral – so we give it a go! It’s not exactly with a rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” but more like manic whooping. Try it, there’s nothing more satisfying in a cave… Other than fun photos!

Getting our token tourist photos

There are two entrances to Cathedral Caves, providing awesome silhouette photos from inside the cave looking out. Everyone is doing the same thing: waiting for the water of the previous wave to drain out of the cave entrance, then a couple of tourists running in, jumping for a photo, then running back before the next wave gets their feet wet. And… shamelessly… we are no exception. That Instagram page isn’t going to find content for itself…

Delving into the giant Cathedral Caves Delving into the giant Cathedral Caves
Our token tourist photo. You're welcome! Our token tourist photo. You're welcome!
Mussels waiting for the next high tide Mussels waiting for the next high tide

Cave critters and ancient formations

It’s not just its size and acoustics that we are loving about Cathedral Caves. A closer look at the walls shows us a few cave critters and the shells of┬ámussels, showing us just how high the tide can go into these caves! Of course, just the very fact that these caves are here is an example of the power of the sea. Unlike many of the caves we have explored in New Zealand, such as Waitomo and Clifden Caves, Cathedral Caves have not been formed by chemical reactions in the limestone. Instead, it is made of sandstone which has been eroded away by waves deep into the cave until the waves lose their erosive power. The waves must be pretty powerful here (and the sedimentary layers of the sandstone just happen to be well-placed for epic cave formations) because Cathedral Caves is one of the 30 longest known sea caves in the world.

Rounding off another awesome day in The Catlins

On that note, we leave the caves, appreciating their beauty from the outside a lot more now that we are not totally distracted by the eagerness to see what’s inside. Or perhaps we just want to put off that relentless uphill climb we know that is coming?

We make it back to the car park with plenty of time before the gate closes for another day. It’s back to the Whistling Frog Resort for another night parked up by the flax bushes and hopefully seeing some crazy weather that can’t make its mind up. (So far, we’ve seen a stellar red sky sunset and a double rainbow. Our camera is happy).

Join us tomorrow for, yes, you guessed it, MORE Catlins adventures. We’re going to be seeing the famous McLean Falls and walking in the wetlands of Tautuku Estuary.

Laura and Robin

the moody and reflective Lake Wilkie
the moody and reflective Lake Wilkie Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Want more?

Why wouldn’t you? The Catlins sound awesome right? Have a look at what else you can do in the Catlins:

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See you tomorrow!

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