A visit to Dunedin’s Tunnel Beach is guaranteed to spark your sense of adventure – and imagination. Every time I come here I feel as though I’ve stepped into the pages of an Enid Blyton mystery or the Cornish setting of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.
The hand-carved tunnel cut into the 60 metre-high cliff that leads you down to a wild, boulder-strewn beach is the type of secret passage often written about by Blyton. And standing atop the peninsula as the ocean sweeps around it is awe-inspiringly beautiful and spine-tinglingly thrilling. Yes, this is Central Otago, not the Cornish cliffs of England, but the windswept and wave-beaten dramatic landscape holds a sense of mystery.
Tunnel Beach is easy to get to, though the path there and back is quite steep. Access is via a track across private farmland, and it's open year round (except in lambing season from August to October). The start of the track begins at a carpark on Tunnel Beach Road, signposted off Blackhead Rd, 7.5km southwest of Dunedin.
The first thing that comes into view is the spanner-shaped rocky promontory and magnificent sandstone sea arch. You can walk upon the promontory and look down at Tunnel Beach, out to the Southern Ocean and along the rugged coastline.
Then step back in time through the rocky passage that leads to the beach itself, excavated in the 1870s by local politician John Cargill, son of Captain William Cargill. It was the private beach for the Cargill families. Local legend tells of the tragic drowning here of John Cargill’s youngest daughter (though historians have found no evidence). Several kilometres away his brother Edward Cargill built a castle, The Cliffs (now known as Cargill’s Castle). Today it lies in ruins and is closed to the public, though one day the Cargill’s Castle Trust hopes to reopen it, along with a walkway that would connect
it to Tunnel Beach.
The best time to visit Tunnel Beach is at low tide. This allows you to explore the beach, look for fossils in the rocks, and marvel at the weathered sandstone cliff that rises majestically like a sentinel. If you look hard enough, you’ll see a face in the rock. g