Summer road trip in the Catlins
The Catlins is a roadtripper’s dream, where winding roads weave a hilly mixture of picturesque landscapes and booming seascapes, lined with high cliffs, dotted with boulders and lonely expanses of huge golden sandy beaches and bays. This southeastern part of the South Island is like a world of its own, a kaleidoscope of dramatic coastlines, idyllic meadows, ancient rainforests and heart-rending waterfalls. Then there is the wildlife, from frightened sheep staring at you on gravel road detours to lazy sea lions, cheeky penguins, playful dolphins and passing whales. This wind- and wave-swept wilderness realm of the Great South is a captivating place to soak up the splendor and elements of nature on a photogenic escape.
The harsh natural splendor of the Catlins with all their enchanting attributes lies along the south coast and is wedged between Invercargill and Balclutha. The gnarled and windy Nugget Point is the first major attraction on the tour route. This spectacular foothill bears an uncanny resemblance to a piece of the Great Wall of China and offers a breathtaking coastal panorama with the sound of the sea, the endless ocean and the sheer cliffs on either side of the route. The well-sculpted walkway is a 30-minute walk and flanks the razor-sharp ridge of Nugget Point. The walkway culminates at the 1869 lighthouse pinned to the rugged peak and towers over New Zealand‘s most dynamic marine mammal zone. The lonely lighthouse watches over the roaring ocean.
You will spot numerous fur seals, elephant seals and sea lions dozing on the rocks below, making convincing impressions of stranded driftwood while the fingers of algae caress the sea. Adjacent to Nugget Point, blue and yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted in the beautiful little bay of Roaring Bay until late in the day. Jacks Beach is beautiful coastal scenery that is also home to a delightful collection of eccentric kiwi cribs. From the beach, an easy 20-minute stroll across private farmland takes you to the dramatic Jack’s Blowhole. Over 200 meters from the beach, the hole is 55 meters deep and the blow of the blowhole at high tide is incredibly impressive, especially in rough seas. In an area flooded by waterfalls, the Purakanui Falls, in the middle of a beautiful bush landscape, are my choice.
None of the Catlins waterfalls are particularly high – so don’t expect to stumble upon Niagara! But the dense and lush forest landscapes emphasize the magnificence of the cascading water. I visited the falls on a particularly wet day, which boosts the visual spectacle Turbo. 10 km east of Maclennan, the footpath to Purakanui Falls begins on Waikoata Valley Road. The trail is a gentle 20-minute walk that winds through a mix of silver beech and podocarp forests and culminates with expansive views of the falls. Descend the creek level observation deck, which offers a much more intimate spectacle of the three levels of jet black rock that make these falls so divine. My second favorite waterfall spectacle in the Catlins is the McLean Falls, the highest waterfalls in the region and just a 20-minute walk through the enchanting rainforest.
Cathedral Caves are a collection of spectacular sea caves that are guaranteed to provide thrills. The main cave reaches a height of over 30 meters and some of the caves go deep into the cliff, so a flashlight is recommended. The caves are only accessible when the tide is out, so plan your visit accordingly. The acoustics are amazing. Tide times are helpfully posted at the entrance gate, where a small cash fee is required, and the gate is usually closed when the tide is not conducive to visitors.
An indispensable stop is Papatowai, a cute village of 30 people, nestled in the native bush and fringed by spectacular beaches. But the biggest traffic stopper is the Lost Gypsy art gallery, where the incredibly creative artist and extraordinary tinkerer Blair Somerville holds court.
Made from recycled odds and ends, including junk collected from the beach, Blair’s ingenious flair for intricately crafted automatons, crazy gadgets, and “electrics,” as Blair calls it, is wondrous, whimsical, and disrespectful. There’s a sheep skeleton that rides a bike, a tin whale that you can bring to life by hand … and it goes on. Positive Pythonesk.
The main gallery is in a converted Leyland Comet house bus from 1951, while an adult-only gallery beckons in what Blair calls the theater, where a carnival of even more extravagant creations awaits. Te Papa was keen to test Blair’s wonderful creations, but he refused. He’s planning a national tour next year. Be sure to stop by and let yourself be enchanted by his wonderfully wacky works. Carol drives the neighboring espresso trailer – and she makes the best mochas on the south coast! While we were talking over coffee, a Kereru cloud broke out of the bush and turned the spectacle off.
With your curiosity piqued, visit Curio Bay to experience the masterful expression of the might, power, and magnificence of nature. This is an extremely unusual coastal landscape that is over 180 million years old and is characterized by the fossilized tree stumps, trunks and fern prints clearly visible on the rocky shelf of the bay. Once again, low tide is the best time to experience the novelty of this ancient forest that defies time. I was amazed at this rare phenomenon of trees from the Jurassic period, preserved by silica in the ashy floods that plunged this forest into the debris field during a volcanic eruption. The forest grew again, only to be covered again by further volcanic activity. It is noteworthy that these trees stood before the bird life appeared in the world.
Curio Bay was accentuated with the recent opening of the multi-million dollar Tumu Toka Curioscape. Your Gateway Experience is an interactive, state-of-the-art museum experience with touch screens and fabulous exhibits of this petrified forest. It costs just $ 10 per adult to step into the gallery and you will gain a much better understanding of the breathtaking forces of nature that played their part in shaping what Curio Bay looks like today. They have a great coffee shop too. Curio Bay is also home to a colony of yellow-eyed penguins that emerge from the surf late in the day. It’s always amazing how human-like some of their behaviors are, waddling out of the surf like shoppers in a mall.
Further west, a melancholy atmosphere awaits at the Waipapa Point lighthouse. A passenger steamer called the SS Tararua hit the reef off Waipapa Point on April 29, 1881. It took 20 hours to sink, but when the seas were stormy few were able to get ashore on the lifeboats. Of the 151 passengers and crew, 131 were lost and it remains New Zealand’s worst civil maritime disaster. Three years later the lighthouse you see today was built. It was the last wooden building to be erected in New Zealand and serves as a poignant reminder of the harrowing tragedy.
Where to sleep? Trying to beat the Catlins in just one day sells you dead. Take your time, soak up the splendor, and spend at least one night at Catlins Mohua Park near Owaka, which specializes in providing unique opportunities to truly “get away from it all”. Owned and operated by Lyndon and Gill McKenzie, they stand out for their impeccable hospitality, inside knowledge, wonderful countryside and wildlife tours, and extremely charming authenticity. Mohua Park’s four cozy eco-cottages are surrounded by lush rainforest in the truly beautiful Catlins River Valley. The eco-cottages are designed for two people, but pull-out divans in the living area allow up to four people in a cottage with a curtain room divider.
The cottages are TV and phone free quiet areas, although I have to admit that I downloaded Sky Go on my laptop over the free WiFi. You can book as a self-catering stay or as a bed and breakfast stay. Secluded and quiet, the wonderfully stylish and spacious, independent eco-accommodation huts enjoy a magical view over the hilly pasture, in the middle of the 8 hectare protected forest reserve. I was lulled to sleep by Baa Baa lambs in the neighboring paddock and the evening calls of the native birdlife as the rolling hills were gilded by the setting sun. At dawn the morning choir was almost operatic. The park’s extensive trapping program keeps stoats, rats, wildcats and possums safely at bay. This dream place is a wonderful place to relax and unwind. Mohua Park has 4 kilometers of natural hiking trails that you can explore like a playful boy scout.
Admire the sculptures of the Moss Garden, take in the native fauna and flora, including the majestic 500-year-old Matai trees graciously protected by the QEII Covenant. The icing on the cake of the Catlins Mohua Park experience is the variety of guided tours offered by Lyndon and Gill. There’s the Sunrise Tour, where yellow-eyed penguins go out to sea from a private location, a range of sights and attractions, as well as fur seal and sea bird watching. There’s the Beach, Bush, & Waterfall Tour, which includes a parade of the district’s highlights, including Cannibal, Purakaunui, and Tautuku Bays; Sea Lion Watching, Lake Wilkie, Purakaunui, McLean, and Matai Falls; and the magic of the Nugget Point Lighthouse. I joined a few other guests for Lyndon’s Coastal ATV Experience.
It’s a boisterous ride in a Can-Am ATV through private farm estate in Tahakopa Bay on the Catlins Coast. After we had admired the sandstone rock formations on the coast and marveled at the towering cliffs as far as Papatowai, we shot along the wide sandy bay. Lyndon was desperate to see the yellow-eyed penguins struggling to survive on the mainland, with many of the chicks suffering from some form of diphtheria in recent years. Then we visited the lush coastal farmland, very close, with the sheep and cattle grazing heartily on the lime green paddocks. As with many farmers in these areas, regenerative agriculture is in vogue, with sections of rainforest being protected alongside regenerating forests and huge indigenous plantings.
The Kamahi trees were in brilliant bloom. An exhilarating spectacle was when Lyndon took us on the dependable ATV right up those towering cliffs, which made the steep incline easy. We giggled at the windswept macrocarpa trees that were blown up from the predominant south side, we froliced like playful children in the rock pools down at Long Point and enjoyed the enveloping beauty of this blessed bag of New Zealand. And Lyndon took us to a lovely private waterfall that will take your breath away. Enjoy a blissful escape into the wild with the expert professionals at Catlins Mohua Park. www.catlinsmohuapark.co.nz
Are you planning a trip to the Great South? From our southernmost town of Invercargill to the greater treasures of Stewart Island, the Catlins, Gore, Western Southland and beyond, make your first stop at the area’s official websites. www.südlandnz.com
Mike Yardley is our Resident Traveler at Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.