Yesterday I went to Tunnel Beach, near Dunedin.
Tunnel Beach is the result of a father’s love for his daughters a hundred years ago.
The land owner of an extensive farm along Otago’s coast wanted to give his daughters access to the beach at the farm’s edge. The impossible beach lay at the bottom of steep cliff faces.
So, a long tunnel through the earth was built for the children to creep safely through to the beach. The end of the tunnel, where it arrives on the beach is shown above.
At some point Tunnel Beach was opened for public access. In my experience, it’s under visited by locals yet full of tourists. Although I’m from Otago, I found out about Tunnel Beach from an American biker who consistently mispronounced ‘Dunedin’ as ‘Done-Din’.
What I love about Tunnel Beach is the ambiguous mixture of human-made and nature-made structures. The tunnel is obviously a human intervention. Some of the sheer cliffs are cut so beautifully sharp – perfect right angles and triangles – I can easily imagine them emerging from human hands.
Yet their clean geometry is misleading, for they have been cut with the waves and shaken loose by the earth.
Yesterday, I took my 12-year-old nephew to Tunnel Beach.
I liked having his eyes with me. We crouched low in the grass and looked up at the rock faces, thin and massively tall, rising up out of the sand.
Rorschach tests given by God.
We found a face with a winking eye looking back at us and an impossible nose pushed out one side. There was a strange formation where the creature’s hair might have been. My nephew informed me that the formation was Thomas the Tank Engine being worn as a hat. We imagined the clouds above as the steam coming from Thomas’ engine.
As we enjoyed the silly beauty of the sculpture/rock, my eyes drifted towards the waves that had a formed it.
Tunnel Beach is a dangerous beach to swim at: the waves are too powerful, the slope too steep. Yet those deadly waves are beautiful to watch; their coming and going monotonous and promised – one never wonders if a wave will come back again after it departs.
And I thought of the beauty of that. Of the way that both the sculpture and the sculpting process is a mesmerising thing. The process and the result as beautiful as each other – equal worth bestowed on each and neither hidden.
Which is perhaps what gives the maker of these sculptures away: human hands seldom manage such equality of means and ends.
To get to the tunnel that leads you down onto the beach, you need to first walk a DOC track through some paddocks. It’s a lovely walk down and a steep trek up. To reward ourselves we bought fruit ice-cream from a caravan parked at the top.
The quiet man selling ice-creams told us how he had lived as a hermit for many years. Recently he had decided to leave his hermit life and re-join the human world. He was building a house overlooking the tunnel, and selling ice-creams as low-key way to practice participating in society again.
Perhaps his ice-creaming selling is another beautiful process, like the ever-sculpting waves.