Look down – if you must
Two must-see Otago attractions will get the heart fluttering, writes Steuart Laing.
On one’s approach, gentle pasture and a wide horizon give few hints as to what lies ahead. But when your fingers touch the platform railing at The Chasm, the void below will seem to tug you downwards. The Sandymount chasm is awesome.
Once you’ve recovered and rejoined the main track, Lovers Leap beckons only minutes away.
By now, surplus adrenaline could be causing havoc with your nervous system. The massive vertical drop at the edge of the pastureland would make most people quiver at the knees.
Lovers Leap, like The Chasm, provides a sensation of either vertigo or a need to stand back from the platform railing.
The sight of waves crashing through an archway 100 metres freefall below doesn’t seem romantic. As I peered over the edge the words ‘‘dashed’’, ‘‘flailing’’ and ‘‘tormented’’ came to mind.
The Chasm and Lovers Leap duo of attractions probably make more hearts flutter than all the other Otago attractions put together. From Sandymount car park, a 10-minute walk, firstly through a tunnel of macrocarpa trees and then across pasture land, will get you to these sights.
If you want to continue to a more mundane spectacle, you can follow the muddy track that circumnavigates Sandymount to a side-track leading down to Sandfly Beach.
The descent provides a novel experience through sand gullys tucked between marram grass ridges. Sandymount is one of the South Island’s highest sand dunes and provides the opportunity to make the fastest descent you’re likely to make on your own two legs.
At the eastern end of the beach you can climb into viewing platforms and watch yellow-eyed penguins waddling up steep slopes to their nesting sites.
But all I saw were patches of guano and trails left by penguins out at sea during the day, fattening themselves for the breeding season.
At the far end of the beach a cigar-shaped animal lay at the high tide line. The information panels at the beach say to stay more than 10 metres away from sea lions but half-an-hour later, the sea lion looked huge.
I’d spent the intervening time crawling towards him, but at 20m distance, made a decision to retreat. I edged from a prone position onto my knees not wanting to scare him, and then slowly stood. He raised his head and managed a yawn. With aching back and stiff legs, I staggered away. A couple of days later I read that an elderly man had been attacked by a sea lion in New Plymouth and congratulated myself on surviving my encounter unscathed.
I retraced my steps up the enormous dune. Recent rains had wet the sand so that each footstep held firm.
If you visit Sandymount, you can choose from several walking options. The Chasm and Lovers Leap are a must-see. But so is Sandfly Beach. Remember to conserve energy when you’re racing down the sand hill. And treat sea lions with respect.
High dive: Water surges into the collapsed cave at Lovers Leap.
Keep clear: Treat seals with respect because they can be aggressive.
Seal alert: Sandfly Beach from the Sandymount Road.