The Catlins – New Zealand’s Best Kept Secret

We have a very special introduction to make to make. It is time for you to meet Bear, our beautiful beast of a campervan!

Bear was born in South Korea in 2004, destined to be a well-respected, hardworking Mercedes minibus (that’s right – we actually own a Mercedes!). His early days are murky – there are few surviving records from this time – but it seems that later in life he was brought to New Zealand. Here, he probably transported some of the 4 million tourists that visit this paradise each year, we don’t know. What we do know is that a lovely young couple from the Czech Republic rescued him from a life of hard labour, kitted him out with a wood kitchen, a double gas hob and grill and the comfiest double bed in the world. They loved him for a year, but all working holiday visas must come to an end, and so we took over as his owners.

We picked him up in Blenheim and drove him down State Highway 1 to Christchurch, where we spent two weeks volunteering in a castle. What a place! Our super friendly, kind and generous hosts Dale and Leeanne have cultivated a thriving community of backpackers and expats, all bursting with enthusiasm for the wonders of New Zealand. There could have been no better place for us to find our feet on the South Island. When we weren’t helping out with the redecoration of their house on the hill, we spent hours in front of the map of New Zealand, in pride of place on the kitchen wall, learning about where we should go and why. When our time came to leave, we had our first big road trip in Bear pretty well planned.

Now, we should probably tell you all about Christchurch, a blooming city full of secret spots, the best botanical gardens in the world and a cafe that serves burgers in pneumatic tubes, but we haven’t got time for that. We could also go on and on about our first night freedom camping by Lake Pukaki, waking up with coffee and toast on the lake shore, but we haven’t got time for that either. And then of course there’s Queenstown, but everyone knows about Queenstown. No, what we want to tell you about are the Catlins, because we’re willing to bet you’ve never heard of them.

Deep down in the Southlands, along the Southern coast of the South Island, lie the Catlins. We have never been anywhere quite like it – native rainforests full of waterfalls nestled alongside pristine, virtually empty beaches, stunning ridge lines hiding ever present agriculture, giving way to discreet bays teeming with wildlife. We reached this surreal coastal strip by heading down to Invercargill – check out the Invercargill Brewery if you must pass through – and then South East to Fortrose, our first stop for a night of freedom camping by the estuary. You can also drive South from Dunedin, along the coast road to Nugget Point. Either way, we recommend taking your time as you explore from West to East or vice versa. Oh, and forget about taking the bus, because there is no public transport in this oft-overlooked paradise. Before you go, be sure to pick up or download the handy treasure map of the area, detailing the best tracks, natural wonders and even where to spot the local wildlife.

Here’s how we spent 4 delightful days in the Catlins:

Day 1

Waking up in sleepy Fortrose is a fine way to begin your Catlins adventure. We cooked pancakes and ate forkfuls of them smothered in peanut butter, banana and golden syrup as we watched the estuary inhabitants carry out their morning routine. Oyster catchers sussing out where to find breakfast and grey shags off on quests we could only guess at.

After breakfast we headed over to Waipapa Point for a gentle stroll up to the timber framed lighthouse for our first real view of the nothingness of the Southern Ocean, and down the dunes to the desolate beach. Well, we thought it was desolate, until the big grey boulders turned out to be fur seals taking a post-brekkie snooze.

Thoroughly refreshed by the Southerly breeze, we spent the rest of the morning working our way slowly along the gravel road that roughly hugs the coastline. Much of the way we passed agricultural pasture, but then just as we began to feel boredom settling in, we’d round a corner to be stunned by a fantastic coastal view or a miraculously hidden rainforest. It was this continuing sense of wonder that distracted us from our map, so we ended up missing a vital turning to Slope Point. But no worries, because we ended up at Niagara Falls instead.

That’s right – New Zealand has its very own Niagara Falls. But don’t get too excited because this is just one of the early settlers having a joke at our expense. The ‘falls’ are little more than an aggravated stream, and the handy information board explains the humour behind the name. Perhaps they anticipated the rise in global tourism and wanted to leave a wry comment for the future. We must admit that the joke fell a little flat, but at least you only have to drive about 100m off the main road to be, we’ll be honest, disappointed.

We decided to turn back here and head on back to Slope Point via Curio Bay. We’re glad we did, because Curio Bay turned out to be one of the highlights of the Catlins. As you head down from the high road toward the coast, Porpoise Bay opens up with its vast golden beach and the rocky headland comes into view. Just beyond, Curio Bay is tucked away, hiding a fossilised forest, a strip of native rainforest and even its own colony of penguins.

Looking back, we’d recommend spending a whole day at Curio. The petrified forest, while rather unassuming when viewed from the cliff edge, is nothing short of incredible up close. Due to a unique combination of settling volcanic ash and a rising sea level, the remnants of a rainforest lie preserved in rock. Look down at your feet and you’ll find rows of fallen tree trunks and tiny stumps so perfectly fossilised you can count the rings in each trunk. Come back at dawn or dusk, and it’s likely you’ll see the colony of yellow-eyed penguins, also known as hoioho, waddling out to sea, hopping over this geological masterpiece. We spotted one lone penguin heading out to sea, but as this was around lunchtime, he or she had probably just woken up late!

When you’ve had enough of looking at a long gone rainforest, head back up to the cliffs and explore a living rainforest. The short, easily accessible track, takes you through a diverse forest dotted with information boards so you know what native plants and trees you’re looking at. Curio Bay can hardly be considered busy compared to other parts of New Zealand, but we did encounter more people here than at other spots in the Catlins. In the living forest, however, it was just us and the birds.

We decided we ought to leave Curio Bay and find somewhere to spend the night. There is a campsite there, but it was a bit pricey and windswept for our liking. We headed back to Slope Point first though, and took a windblown walk out over the wild headland to New Zealand’s Southernmost point. There’s not much there, just a rather understated sign marking the spot, but a sizeable car park, a well-maintained track and a great view out to sea mean you might as well visit. It’s also good to know that, wherever you go in life from now on, it’s all North (unless you decide to go to Antartica).

We left Slope Point and settled down for the night at the Weirs Beach Reserve freedom camping area, just a few kilometres to the North (obviously). This secluded spot, right on the beach but for a strip of native bush, is a great place to chill out after a day spent exploring. There’s a clean long drop and even an outside sink so you can wash your dishes with a sea view!

Day 2

Starting your day in the heart of the Catlins is an experience like no other. We found ourselves filed with a beguiling mix of excitement at what might come and a serene sense of peace from being in such a tranquil place. To be in the Catlins is to get back to the heart of what it means to travel – to see the new, to learn with childlike wonder but also to go back to the old, to let time stretch out, to take a break from the frantic pace of life. And so it was that we found ourselves, almost unspokenly, heading back to Curio Bay. We’d already seen ‘the sights’ but we wanted to take it all in again. To listen to the sea, search the horizon for dolphins, have a go at fishing, unsuccessfully, off the headland that separates Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay. We had hoped to hire out some surf equipment from the Curio Bay Surf School, but high winds kept us on dry land and the porpoise out of view.

After lunch – spicy noodles cooked up on the cliffs – we set off along the main road, through the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park, all tree ferns and untouched podocarp forest, to McLean Falls. A steepish, 40 minute return walk under a podocarp canopy and blooming fuchsia trees takes you to a stunning set of lower and upper falls on a stretch of the Tautuku. This trek was first popularised by Doug McLean, an eccentric early settler who used to lead groups to the falls.

Lake Wilkie, further East along the main road, is also worth a stop. Whilst incomparable to New Zealand’s more well known lakes – it would be unfair to mention Pukaki or Wakatipu here – this forested pond has a distinctly peaceful vibe. The short, circular walk is punctuated with information boards too, so you can learn about the life cycle of a dragonfly whilst stretching your legs.

That evening, we spent the night at our first DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite at the quiet village of Papatowai. A quiet campsite with well placed hedges for privacy, clean flushing toilets, a sheltered kitchen area and only a 2 minute walk to a massive, empty beach – what more could you want for $8 per person, per night?

Day 3

Having checked the tide times the day before, we ambled slowly back Westward, hoping to reach the Cathedral Caves by mid-morning. A quick stop-off at the Tautuku Board Walk for a stroll out over the marshy estuary, and we were right on time for the Catlin’s coasal cave curiosity.

The Catherdral Caves, accessible only at low tide, are a rare geological feature formed by years of tidal erosion. The single cave, like a U-bend laid flat, can be reached from a private car park and down a sheltered track that descends to a gorgeous, golden beach. As the cave is on private land, there is a small entry fee to pay but we say it’s worth it. The cavern towers above you, and the sound of the sea reverberating in its vastness is like some ancient song for the soul. Just be careful of lingering too long near the entrance, as even when the tide is far out, it is prone to unexpected surges. Indeed, we ended up hiking back to the van with wet socks and gum boots full of water…

For lunch – tuna mayo sandwiches – we parked up at Florence Hill Lookout for unsurpassed views across Tautuku Bay. But, feeling in need of iced coffee, we stopped off at The Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai. Take some time to explore the handmade curiosities by local artist Blair Somerville. A bit like the contraptions at the beginning of The Goonies but without the shouting children. Delightful.

We arrived at our second DOC campsite, Purakanui Bay, late afternoon. The place was already beginning to fill up and it’s easy to understand why. This awesome campsite, only $8 per person, per night consists of a neat toilet block and a grassy strip along the low cliffs that form the beautiful bay. We managed to grab a brilliant spot, our back window facing right out to sea.

After dinner, while drinking mint tea in the sea breeze, we were treated to a display by a local sea lion slinking out to sea for a sunset swim. Without doubt the best place we’ve camped in New Zealand.

Day 4

The amazing thing about the Catlins is that you always think you’ve seen the most impressive thing on your trip, only to have it outdone a short while later. ‘How do you top a sea lion at sunset?’ we thought as we ate fried tomatoes, mushrooms and egg on toast on the shore the next day. The answer, it seems, is to visit Purakanui Falls. Apparently, these are New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls, so we wouldn’t dare to stoop so low as to photograph them ourselves. But then we actually went there and realised they were pretty spectacular, so here’s a photograph we took:

‘Onwards to Jack’s Blow Hole!’ isn’t something you can say every day but that’s the Catlins for you. Jack’s Blow Hole is another one of those unique geological features that this place seems to have in abundance. Originally your bog standard sea cave, the gradual erosion of supporting walls has led to the collapse of the ceiling, which means that, about a kilometre in land, you can look down into Jack’s Blow Hole and see the sea roaring through the cavern a hundred or so metres below. If the conditions are just right, it’s said that the water will erupt from the cavern like an exhaling whale. We waited a while, but saw no spurting that day. Even so, it’s definitely worth a visit. To get there, park in Jack’s Bay and follow the marked track to the West. Afterwards, why not have lunch in Jack’s Bay and look out for seals and sea lions too?

From there, as you head North, everything starts to go back to normal, bit by bit. After seeing no real shops for four days, we were somewhat shaken up to find a Four Square in civilised Okawa so we stocked up on crisps and hummus to get over it. We stopped by Nugget Point, often billed as the beauty spot on the cheek of the Catlins, but were rather put off by the hordes of tourists and nowhere to park. We’d had our magical moments, our serendipitous surprises, and we remembered them all as we headed for Dunedin…

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