The Southern Scenic Route on the South Island of New Zealand is full of absolute gems, many of which I’d already explored over the previous couple of days. The weather had gotten a bit wet as I’d been exploring some of the region’s waterfalls, but as I backtracked to visit some caves that are only accessible at low tide, the rain thinned a little. I took a brief walk at the deserted Tautuku Bay where the coast and the weather felt wild. It was just me and a sleeping cormorant and a sky full of grey clouds above.
The road to the car park for Waipati beach is only open according to the tide timetable. The road, the car park and the beach access track cross private land, so a trust is responsible for opening the road for access and as such there is a cash-only parking/access fee. I arrived at the road expecting the place to be quiet, but instead there was a steady stream of traffic to join and the car park at the end of the access drive was filling up fast. The bush walk was a little slippery from the rain, and a steep decline, taking about 20-30mins to get down onto the beach and then across the beach to reach the caves. The Cathedral Caves are giants: tall entrances leading into dual caves that eventually meet up deep underground. They are perfectly explorable at low tide, but the stinking seaweed where the two caves meet illustrated how high the tide can come. It is worth noting that the trust does not allow access in darkness or in winter months, and it pays to check the access times ahead if you are wanting to include these incredible caves on your itinerary.
I made a point of wandering through several times, starting first in the larger entrance, admiring the rock formations as I entered, and coming out via the narrower cave. This was the busiest of all the places I’d stopped so far on the Southern Scenic Route, and as the tide continued to recede, more and more people continued to arrive. I spent quite a bit of time there myself: despite the crowds, it was an awesome place, and one of the largest caves I’ve visited in a long time. With the sea disappearing gradually to reveal wet sand, there was an incredible reflection of the rocks also as I gradually made my way back along the beach and back to my car.
Thankfully the clouds were now lifting, so as I drove over the hill and reached Florence Hill lookout for the third time that day, there was actually a pretty decent view to look down on with Tautuku Bay, where I’d taken the stroll earlier, laid out below me. Little patches of blue sky threatened to break through as the wind whipped around me as I stood there. I pushed on heading east, with still some distance to travel and the evening setting in. I passed a lot of beautiful scenery that I would have loved to have stopped and admired but I needed to reach my night’s accommodation on the east coast. Leaving the Southern Scenic Route behind, I traversed the winding road that cut away from Ahuriri Flat to reach the southern end of Molyneux Bay just outside of Kaka Point. I’d rented a little cabin at the camping grounds and was quick to check in and head out again, taking the road south towards Nugget Point. This road winds round the beautiful coastline before eventually starting its steep ascent up the height of the peninsula.
As the sun was reaching the horizon, I pulled in at the Roaring Bay car park and headed a little down the hill to a bird watching hut. From here, I was able to watch below as a few hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin were coming ashore. It was a much better viewing spot than I’d had at Curio Bay the night before but as dusk came in, a cold sea fog creeped over the headland. Despite the impending darkness and the encroaching fog, I figured I was practically at Nugget Point anyway, so I might as well just drive the last bit and take a wander down to the lighthouse. There was a red glow on the horizon and the swirling fog chilled me as it opened up and then closed in my view of the coastline. I meandered back to my car in darkness, and headed back to Kaka Point to grab dinner in the local pub.
The fog was all gone the next morning and I was quick to head out and get going. Backtracking again, I drove back to the Southern Scenic Route and cut down to the south coast again, taking the turnoff for Surat Bay. It was a staggeringly beautiful morning as I took the coastal walk along the edge of the estuary and down to the expansive beach. With more time, I would have loved to have done the full walk along the length of the beach and over the headland to the secluded Cannibal Bay, but there just wasn’t the time. I had to get home to Christchurch that night and there was a ridiculous amount of things to see on the way. I made it about half way along the length of the beach at Surat Bay where I found a family of New Zealand sea lions. This species is one of the World’s rarest sea lions, and it was only the second time I was seeing them myself, having seen them a couple of days prior further west on the south coast. They are quite different from the more prevalent New Zealand Fur Seal that I’m used to seeing everywhere, and I was sure to give them a wide berth. There was only one other person on the beach and I took a wide arcing circle around the family to view them from every angle before heading back. Taking the same route back to my car as I’d come along, I got a fright as I followed the estuary back, only to suddenly come across a sea lion in the long grass right by the track. She jumped up and startled me, and I was quick to jump off the track onto the sand below to give her some space.
Back on the east coast once more, I headed back to Nugget Point. This time in the daylight, there was a steady procession of people on the track but with the lack of fog, I could actually appreciate the coastal views and the crashing waves below me. On the final approach to Nugget Point, as the lighthouse comes into view, there are various picture postcard views to take in. The first looked down on a rocky beach below and along the jagged coastline, and then finally the track finishes at a multi-level lookout just under the lighthouse where the nuggets of rock disappear off the coast. For a coastal view, this was one of my highlights on the South Coast, and below the view point there were New Zealand fur seals on the rocks, and pups practicing their swimming techniques in the rock pools created by the tidal movements. It was a gloriously hot and sunny day, and I stayed here for some time, reluctant to leave.
Spotting more fur seals on the walk back to the car, I stopped briefly again at the Roaring Bay lookout to appreciate it in the sunshine before taking the road back to Kaka Point, stopping at the various pull-ins to watch the waves crash ashore. At Kaka Point itself, I got an ice cream to enjoy on the beach before I made my way back to the Southern Scenic Route where it joins State Highway 1 (SH1) in Balclutha. After a couple of failed turn-offs for side attractions (one which turned out to be too far away, and the other which I couldn’t find due to a lack of signage), I eventually turned off SH1 at Waihola to take a very steep road up and over to the east coast again at Taieri Mouth. The water here was a sparkling shade of blue, but aside from the gorgeous colour, there was little to keep me here.
The coastal road headed north some distance before I eventually pulled in just outside of Brighton, to walk down to a stunning stretch of white sandy beach. The part of the beach that I had entered on was empty but I could see in the far distance groups of people nearer the settlement. I took a short walk past some driftwood, enjoying the sand beneath my feet. From here, Dunedin felt ever closer as the settlements started to join together as I continued to follow the coast. It felt like so long ago since I’d stopped in Mosgiel on route south but I still had one main stop to make on the return north. When I eventually found the car park after missing the turn-off, I was dismayed to find it packed and overflowing and strict parking restrictions around it meaning I couldn’t park. I headed up the main road for a bit, finding nowhere nearby or suitable to park, so after a bit I turned round and headed back. Still there was nowhere to park so again I returned to the main road and took another direction, still finding nowhere nearby to leave my car. Thankfully on the third attempt, I managed to catch someone as they were leaving and quickly nipped into the vacant spot.
The trek down the cliffside was steep and rough underfoot and this was the busiest place I’d visited on my whole trip aside from the Cathedral Caves. Not far out of Dunedin and a stop on the Southern Scenic Route, it is yet another beautiful part of coastline so it is easy to see why the crowds were there. It was almost stiflingly hot with no shelter whatsoever, but at least a sea breeze gave a little relief when I eventually got to the end of the track at tunnel beach. I’d heard about tunnel beach some time ago and had been keen to get here for some time, but at first I couldn’t even find the tunnel that the place is so famous for. I wandered around the worn pathways, admiring the coast in each direction until I finally found the entrance. The man-made tunnel through the sandstone leads down to a secluded beach which used to be the private access for a powerful local family. When I reached the bottom, the tide was in, and I was met by gigantic boulders and no visible beach in sight. Still, it was pretty neat, and it seemed that the vast majority of the people that were walking around the cliffs weren’t going down the tunnel. It wasn’t overly obvious and I wondered if some of them didn’t know of its existence.
There’s no set path once you’re on the cliffs but the top soil is well worn where people have trodden and it is possible to walk out over a sea bridge to a cliff that juts out from the headland. Each rise or point gives a slightly differing view of the coastline that spreads away in both directions, and below me the crashing waves added a coastal soundtrack to the scene. I stayed here until the wind started to whip up, threatening to buffet me off the headland as I stood there. It was a tiring trudge back up the steep hill in the heat, and I was hungry. For some reason my GPS didn’t quite match the road layout on the route down the hill to Dunedin but my generally good sense of direction did me proud, and I stopped in the city only to get some food and fuel before heading home. I have some favourite places to stop on the drive north to Christchurch, but it was late in the day already, and there just wasn’t the time. In the peak months of January and February, New Zealand’s tourist hot spots can often feel overcrowded and oppressive, so it was nice to have experienced the peak season in southern Southland and Otago and found them relatively quiet in comparison, with the odd exception. The wild coastline reminded me of the wild coastline from my native Scotland in the sense that it seems desolate, remote and barren compared to other parts of the country. As a result, it felt like I’d found a hidden gem, that thus far, has not fallen foul to the Instagram crowd.