Southland Roadie – In To The Catlins
I was really hungry but I couldn’t help but hover at the various pull-ins overlooking the bays on Riverton’s margins. Southland was already proving to be a wild coastline, but here, on the edge of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Invercargill to the east, the calm waters lapping on the beaches gave an altogether more idyllic feel to the place. It was a little overcast but I was really liking Riverton’s vibe and I put the hunger aside whilst I meandered.
Eventually I took the bridge to the far shore and parked up outside the Te Hikoi Southern Journey museum. This small museum turned out to be quite well done and even though it was compact, it was full of displays about the area’s early settlers and the regional fauna. By the time I’d had a wander round the museum, the shoreline and eaten, the day was really getting on, and I was realising that I wasn’t going to have time to do everything around Invercargill that I had wanted.
I took the road just before Invercargill to cut down to Oreti beach, the long stretch of sand at the opposite end of the bay to Riverton, made famous by the Fastest Indian Burt Munro who practiced his land speed record attempts here before heading to the US where he got his World Record. The beach is a recognised road in New Zealand with a speed limit, but I first walked on to it and up onto the dunes before deciding that I’d take my non-4×4 car out onto it. I could see in the distance patches of sand that weren’t so suitable but near the entrance to the beach, the sand was pretty compacted making for a very smooth drive and I smiled at the simple pleasure of it.
I had really wanted to do a riverside walk in Invercargill but just didn’t have the time anymore. My night’s accommodation was still a few hours away and I didn’t want to turn up in darkness. It was time to keep pushing east and I skirted the city, taking the road to Fortrose followed by back roads to reach the southern coast at Waipapa Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse wasn’t open to the public and the wind was picking up but there were plenty of people that had taken the unsealed road to get here. Most people stayed up on the track, but I went down to the rocks below and was away in a reverie when I realised that there were some creatures sleeping there. A couple of New Zealand sea lions were completely unperturbed by my presence but as their reputation precedes them, I gave them a wide birth. I’ve seen plenty of New Zealand fur seals on my travels round the country, but this was my first time seeing native sea lions. I hadn’t even known that such a species existed until that trip but I had read about their aggressive tendencies. As most of the visitors only went as far as the lighthouse and back, I was one of only a couple of people who spied them.
Continuing on the Southern Scenic Route east, I pulled up at a small car park next to farmland and again found myself one of several people picking my way across the private land to reach Slope Point, the Southernmost Point of the South Island. It was exposed and blowing a strong gale by this point and apart from the sign, it was effectively just a worn piece of headland taking the full brunt of the southern weather system. But the steady stream of people visiting meant it was difficult to get a photo of the sign without others in the photograph. This part of the coastline east of Invercargill was notably busier than that west of the city, but being in February, still in the height of summer, this was still not as busy as New Zealand’s more famous landmarks and for that I was glad.
It was an unsealed road (albeit in the process of being sealed), that brought me from Slope Point to Curio Bay, my stopover for the night. The lodge I was staying in had its own access down onto the beach but the evening light was drawing in and I was quick to head down the road to the car park near the campground. From here, a path lead to a lookout over the rocks below which was so busy I couldn’t get a good vantage point. Heading through some bushes, I found myself at the top of a flight of stairs down to the rocks below and in the reducing light, a crowd was gathered at a makeshift rope fence. Finding a spot among them, I trained my eyes into the distance to see what everyone was there to get a look at: hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, one of New Zealand’s endemic but endangered flightless birds. There were 3 of them in the far distance which I did my best to get a photograph of, but after a while, when no others appeared, I turned round to meander around the petrified forest that was embedded into the rock below my feet. On my way back to the car once back up on the clifftop, I happened upon a penguin in the bushes, relatively close up.
The next morning I loaded up the car before taking the track down to the beach. The clouds were grey and the beach seemed abandoned. This place is known for spotting Hector’s dolphins, one of the smallest dolphin species in the World, in the surf off the shore, but there were none to see the day I was there. I headed north for a bit, past a resting cormorant and across a couple of streams that crisscrossed the sand. As I often do on coastal walks, I was in a bit of a reverie, eating my Cookie Time cookie for breakfast when I was suddenly hit on the back of my head. At the same moment as I recoiled in shock, I saw a seagull grab my cookie and try to make off with it. I thwarted its attempt, regaining control of my now contaminated cookie, and although I wasn’t going to eat it once it had been in a seagull’s mouth, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the bullying seagull have it either! I couldn’t believe the force of its wing as it had hit me on the head swooping in, but chuckled to myself a little, wondering how it must have looked from a distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the first of 3 bird wallops in the space of 12 months.
Shortly after getting hit on the head, I turned around and headed south, past my lodge and to the far end of the beach where the campsite sat above. Heading up onto the headland, I meandered around the coast on the margins of the popular campsite, ever hopeful of seeing dolphins, cutting round from Curio Bay proper back to the coastline where the penguins had come ashore the night before. This time I was able to get a spot at the lookout over the rocks below, but by now mid-morning, there was not a penguin in sight. The rope was gone from the rocks, and the petrified forest was fully open for exploring, the penguins having long headed out to sea to forage. Behind the cliffs, I took a walk through a small forested area before leaving Curio Bay behind to continue my drive east.
Before long I was leaving Southland behind and crossing into Southern Otago. I was now deep within the Catlins Conservation Park, a part of the country I’d wanted to visit for some time. There were plenty of places of interest on the Chaslands Highway, but my first stop involved a detour off the main highway to McLean Falls. Receiving a lot of rainfall, Southland has plenty of waterfalls to visit, and this is one of the most famous in the region. It was a perfectly manageable walk from the car park but it was also a very busy place. Unfortunately it also started to rain which meant dressing up in full waterproofs to make the journey into the forest. I might have stayed here a little longer if it wasn’t for the rain and the crowd of people trying to get the same photos from the same two places, but after marvelling at the gushing water for a while, I decided to head back, deciding to grab lunch at the eccentric eatery by the junction with the main road.
It wasn’t far from here to the turnoff to the road down to Waipati beach. The access road is only open according to the tides, so although I was planning on going here, I was a few hours early till access would be allowed. Even though it was raining, the Catlins is all about getting outside, so a little along the road I parked up at the Lake Wilkie track and headed into the bush. I pretty much had the place to myself, and it was very quiet, just the sound of the raindrops on the leaves and water to keep me company. A nature walk led me round a boardwalk that hugged the southern edge of the tannin-coloured lake. Perhaps on a nice day there would be some wildlife to spot here, but I saw none, returning to my car to dry off as I pushed on to the next stopping place.
The road from here climbed up and over a steep hillside. A couple of lookouts were in the clouds as the rain continued to move through and from here the main highway cut inland quite a bit, winding up and down in altitude through rolling green hills thick with vegetation. Eventually a pull-in marked the start of a short forest walk to the duo of Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls. It was a very easy and short walk with some weather protection from the thick foliage. There were much less people here than at McLean falls meaning I almost had these to myself.
With multiple waterfalls in the region, I’d picked the most accessible ones to visit due to time, and from here I headed off the main highway to a busy car park for Purakaunui Falls, another well known waterfall in the area. The amount of people in the car park far outweighed the people at the falls themselves thankfully, and despite how busy it looked when I first parked, I managed to get the falls to myself for a good few minutes before a group of people piled in. Of the three falls I’d visited that day, this was by far my favourite, a broad cascade with a close-up viewing platform. The rain had eased to a drizzle although there was a bit of shade from the foliage, but I was pleased to see the weather was thinking about improving as from here, it was time to back track to the tidal-access road and one of the region’s best spots…