My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Catlins”

Completing the Southern Scenic Route

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.

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…

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