Tokanui, NZ to Papatowai, NZ

33.4 mi / 10.2 mph / 2377 ft. climbing
Home: Papatowai DOC Campsite

Part of the value of our roof last night was the rain, and the showers were forecast to continue a bit into the morning, but with a sheltered overhang we could get the bikes packed and wrapped before we headed out into it. We tried to dally as long as possible, but our host dropped by with a combination of friendly greetings, helpful information and advice about the road ahead, and a bucket and tools to get the place turned over for the next guests. Totally fair especially given how good they were about letting us check in early, so we hit the road in drizzle heavy enough for us to put on our rain pants and jackets, at 9:40am.

We made good time in the really light traffic for the first 23 miles (maybe 20 cars passed us, and near the end we passed the logging operation that almost-sadly brought an end to the most cycling-respecting log-truck drivers we’ve ever met). The combination of sweat-inducing hills and lessening rain allowed us to get out of our Gore-Tex partway through. And atop those hills we also returned to native New Zealand forest for the first time in days, something I had been expecting to appear sooner along this “Southern Scenic Route” through “The Catlins”. But whether farms or forest, we have no complaints.

Riding through the Catlins bush, not too bad even with a bit of rain.
After a few days of farmland, some proper mountains are now getting in our way once again.

Thus by 12:30pm, we had covered 70% of the day’s distance, and we stopped for lunch at Whistling Frog Cafe and Campground (our AirBNB host, in a bit of mild racism, cautioned against stopping there because the Indian family that runs isn’t cleanly, but it seemed fine to us). Little did we know that it would take nearly twice that amount of time to cover the last 30%!

The first problem was that after eating our plates of loaded nachos (and then flourless chocolate cake dessert), Rett got really cold in her damp clothes and hair, despite putting on increasingly drier and warmer layers. Then the rain increased, so we waited that out under shelter (with a hot tea at least keeping Rett from descending into hypothermia).

Two hours later we were finally ready to move on, but not far. Our racist, helpful AirBNB host had recommended the Cathedral Caves, giant sea caves are only open when the tides and weather are favorable, and since we had hit low tide almost perfectly, we couldn’t skip it. The problem is that while the rain-compacted gravel access road isn’t that long, it’s a steep up-and-down. We managed to lever our bikes to the top, but then just hid them down a path through the bush and walked the rest of the way downhill to the entrance station (NZ$10 per person) and the trailhead.

The 300-foot downwhill walk to the beach through the coastal rainforest was nearly as good as the Cathedral Caves themselves. I figured at this point I knew what New Zealand forests looked like, but this place in the Catlins had new twists we hadn’t seen before.
Holy WHAT THE FUCK?! Luckily this giant tree-insect-interdimensional-alien creature seemed benevolent and didn’t eat Rett.
Down on the beach, looking straight south from the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand.

The Cathedral Caves are a giant U-shaped tunnel under an oceanside bluff, with two black openings looking out to the sea. They’re only accessible at low tide, and at the top we were told we had about an hour before we had to head back up. I’ve never been in a place like it before; “cathedral” is apt, as the ceilings are up to 90 feet overhead; no crawling necessary here.

The west entrance to the Cathedral Caves.
Rett heading deep into the Cathedral Caves.
Rett standing near the deepest, turnaround-point of the caves, lit by the clouds over the sea.
Caves where all the water is underfoot, not dripping from above. I had half thought of coming directly here and eating our packed lunches; had it continued to rain, it would have been a dry shelter to sit and eat in!
Rett attending church inside this natural cathedral.
Rett (and some other people) exiting the eastern mouth of the Cathedral Caves.
The eastern mouth of the Cathedral Caves.

As an added bonus, deep inside the caves, at the point where a pile of stones ran down the tunnel (like the skulls in the Way of the Dead in ‘The Return of the King’), there was a penguin! A blue penguin, the smallest species, difficult to see in the dim light, but my camera could pick him up when he didn’t move around too much.

A blue penguin!
I guess like I had been thinking of using these caves as shelter from the rain, this little guy must have had the same thought!
The penguin’s point-of-view, looking toward the two entrances/exits of the Cathedral Caves.
Rett looking for Michelangelo’s artwork on the ceiling of this cathedral.
Rett dancingly proving scale for the Cathedral Caves.

Years ago I came up with a “game” (“exercise”? “chore”?): find the southernmost (and north/east/westernmost) place on the globe where you have set foot. And not in some broad sense like “Florida”, or “New Zealand”, but, mentally go back to whatever vacation you were on, travel you made, fire up Google Earth, and find the specific point on that day where if you would have taken one more step south, that would have been the new record.

For me (and Rett), every southward step (or pedal stroke) we’ve taken since we landed in New Zealand four months ago has been our personal record. But today, on the low-tide beach stretching out in front of the Cathedral Caves with only Antarctica beyond, I set the record likely to stand for the rest of my life. It’s not actually the southernmost point of New Zealand, but it unexpectedly turned out to be a rather memorable place. Maybe it will become meaningless when we ride to the tip of South America, but for now, northward we go!

Me, as far south as I am ever likely to be, roughly -46.6086.

The attendant at the trailhead helpfully offered to flag down a driver to give us a lift back up to our bikes, but we figured that would likely take as much time as just hoofing it ourselves. Finally we were covering forward miles again, but we were stressing ourselves out because we couldn’t remember the hours of the food truck we were counting on for dinner (and didn’t have service to check).

Riding the Catlins Coast.
In full sun, this scene from this hilltop viewpoint would really pop, but even in clouds it wasn’t chopped liver!

We needn’t have worried, because we made it to the food truck just before 5pm, and it didn’t close until 6:30pm. Even better, it sits right at the entrance to the DOC campground, so we had time to pick a site, set up, and get out of our wet clothes before dinner.

Peake’s Kitchen currently holds a 5-star rating (with 59 reviews) on Google, something hard to believe for the only dining source in this barely-a-town of Papatowai in the barely-populated Catlins. We ordered inside the store (well stocked with everything we would have needed to make our own dinner, including beers), and the clerk handed us a little bag with napkins and utensils, but also a couple of fun random retro candies for us to enjoy while we waited for our order to be cooked at the truck. “Ah ha!”, I thought, “that’s a super-simple gimmick to spark joy in your customers and get them to boost your ratings higher than they really ought to be”. Then when our order came up (after the cook not only wiped down the picnic table for us, but fetched a couple of armchairs with backs to make us more comfortable), the little pots of aioli had small sage leaves in them. “Ah ha, another score-boosting trick that they must have read on!” But then we finally bit into our meals (lamb roll for me, burger for Rett), and holy fucking shit, they were 5-star sandwiches even if it had been sandflies in the aioli and lumps of coal in the utensil bag! Literally perhaps the best meal we’ve had in New Zealand. The radio playing pretty much Rett’s personal soundtrack, and the arcade console where I played “1943”, didn’t hurt either. And the sun even came out for the first time all day!

Our 10-star meals at Peake’s Kitchen.
Us after a satisfying meal and satisfying day.

DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites are usually very primitive, in remote locations with pit toilets and limited water sources. So this one was unusual not just that it was in “town” right behind a store and restaurant, but it had flush toilets and an indoor kitchen area (containing only sinks and counters and not stoves/refrigerators/microwaves/electricity like a holiday park, but still!) A luxury end to an unexpectedly-long day.

Our spot at Papatowai DOC campsite.


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