Just finished a road trip through the Catlins area in New Zealand’s Southland. Been a few years since I rode that road . . . what an amazing place it is.
Wildlife – much of it threatened species – in luxuriant abundance, wild golden sanded beaches, life-filled forests set to the music of waterfalls, historic lighthouses, and more walks than you could cover in a month.
Tie it all up with some particularly attractive accommodation options . . . no, there are no five star hotels, not even some fairly average hotels. The real gems are to be found on the farms and in the homes of the locals.
First, however, a few words of warning: There are no ATMs between Balclutha and Invercargill, but many businesses are happy enough to give cash out with purchases. There is minimal cellphone coverage in the area – some around Owaka but that’s about it. There are public telephones at various points. There is little in the way of fuel along the way – Owaka, Papatowai and Fortrose only – and it’s expensive. Fill at Balclutha or Invercargill before you set out.
Ideally, allow at least a couple of days to really get the best out of the area.
The main road winds its way 158km from Balclutha to Invercargill a little inland from the coast, but along the way there are several side-trips to the main scenic points of interest:
To Kaka Point and Nugget Point
To Surat Bay, Jacks Bay and Purakaunui Falls
To Waikawa, Curio Bay, Slope Point, Waipapa Point and Fortrose
Distances given below are from Balclutha.
6.1km: Kaka Point and Nugget Point
Past Kaka Point township, which is 14.5km down Kaka Point Rd, a narrow road winds its way to Nugget Point where, on a spur of rock that juts into the sea, the Nugget Point lighthouse looks over seal and gannet colonies below. The track to the lighthouse is only 10 minutes each way and offers one of the best views along the Catlins coast. The locality is named after a collection of wave-rounded rocks, The Nuggets. Expect to see NZ fur seals, Southern elephant seals, NZ sea lions, sooty shearwaters, the rare yellow-eyed penguin and many other bird species. Take binoculars if you have them.
At nearby Roaring Bay you can watch penguins come ashore and is best visited in the hours just before sunset. But please refer to the comments about wild life below. These ain’t Disney animatronics and they need to be treated with great caution.
25.1: Tunnel Hill Walkway. A short walk leads to what was the southern most railway tunnel in New Zealand. Completed in 1893 it is 246 metres long and was hand-dug. The bricks for the lining were made nearby. Take a torch . . . it can be a bit scary without it. 20min return.
26.5: Cannibal Bay – Turn off here on to Cannibal Bay Rd. Great place to look for New Zealand (Hooker) sea lions. There you may find remains of a forest buried by blown sand and evidence of moa hunter living areas. The pretty beach got its grisly name probably as a result of human remains being found by archaeologists which suggested a cannibal feast in pre-European times. Can also be accessed by a walking track from Surat Bay – see below for details.
Owaka Museum, 10 Campbell St, Ph 03-415 8323. Owaka Museum, Wahi Kahuika (the meeting place), provides a window on what made the Catlins the place it is today. Multi-media exhibitions present stories on Maori and pioneers, shipping, farming, forestry, rail, military and life in general enhanced by Catlins collection items.
From Owaka you can take the coastal road through Surat Bay, Jacks Bay and Purakaunui Falls
Surat Bay. In 1884 the sailing vessel Surat was wrecked in the bay that now bears its name.
Cannibal Bay Walk. At the end of Surat Bay there is a track through the sand dunes to Cannibal Bay. Return trip around 2.5-3 hours.
Catlins River Walk. This is one of the the longest walks in The Catlins. It is a one way track so walkers need to be dropped off at one end and picked up at the other. Approx. walking time one way is 5 hours, is self-guided and well marked. You will encounter untouched Silver Beech forest along with many bird species including the rare Mohua or Yellowhead. Surat Bay Tours, operating from Surat Bay Lodge (see below) can drop you at either end and collect you again.
Jack’s Bay: On the southern side of the Catlins River. Named after the famous Kai Tahu tribal ariki (paramount chief) Hone Tuhawaiki (aka Bloody Jack because of his frequent use of that great Australian, and Kiwi, adjective). Biggest attraction here is the blowhole, a 55m deep chasm that formed when the roof of a a sea cave collapsed. Follow and keep to the painted markers on the walk up to the blowhole which is 200 metres inland from the sea. Also great views of the coastline. Return trip – 1 hour. Note: Springtime access may be restricted due to lambing. Please check first.
From Jack’s Bay you can continue on and around to Purakaunui Falls without going as far back as the main road.
Purakaunui Falls. Lovely short forest walk amongst silver beech and large podocarp forest. Easy track. Return time 20 minutes. Locals claim that these are the most photographed falls in NZ, a claim I would have to look askance at. Huka Falls, just north of Taupo in the North Island, would see a vastly greater number of visitors than this exquisitely beautiful, but remote, cataract. Best viewed late morning – but lovely any time. The car park has a pleasant picnic area with toilets. The walk to the falls is worth it for the forest alone. Bit steepish for the last 100m with steps built by the same 9ft high contractors DoC uses to build all their steps. But you’ll cope.
If you continue on down to Purakaunui Bay you’ll see the dramatic cliffs that featured in the move “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.
Greenwoods Farmstay, 739 Purakaunui Falls Rd. Ph 03-415-8259 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sheep, cattle and deer farm within walking distance of the falls. Attractive well established home. Your host, Alan Burgess, enjoys taking guests around the farm and down to the Purakaunui Cliffs.
Surat Bay Lodge, 19 Surat Bay Road. Ph 03-415 8696 Email: email@example.com.
47.8: Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls Walk
If you remain on the main road a 20 minute walk through regenerating native forest brings you to Matai Falls, the larger of two forest-surrounded waterfalls here.
The Lost Gypsy Gallery Main Rd. Blair Somerville (the Lost Gypsy) sits in his green house bus, the Lost Gypsy Gallery, and works away making a collection of . . . er, ahh, ummm, what are they? . . . little wonders – part physics, part engineering and mostly humour. He calls them automata. Gadgets and gizmos made out of bits of junk that wind, tinkle, light up, whistle, ring – all sorts of unexpected things. He runs what he calls “The Winding Thoughts Theatre of Sorts”. Costs $5 to go in (pay at the house-bus) and it’s the cheapest bit of fun you’ll have along the road.
56.9: Florence Hill lookout for a view down the length of bush-backed Tautuku Bay with the Frances Pillars at the western end of the bay. The pinnacles show in a spectacular way the conglomerate rock formation, which outcrops in various places in the Catlins.
58.7: Tautuku Nature Walk This is an easy short self-guided nature walk. Allow about 15 min one way.
59.1: Lake Wilkie. A short walk (100m) takes you to Lake Wilkie, small but completely surrounded by bush filled with bird song, especially when the rata trees are in bloom, attracting nectar eaters like tui and bellbirds. Along the track are interpretation boards explaining the process of forest succession and the different types of plants that can be seen
65.1 Turn off to Waipati Beach and Cathedral Caves.
The caves are one of the major attractions along the Catlins coast. They are only accessible for an hour either side of low tide and care must be taken when walking to avoid being cut off by a rising tide. Freak waves can also give you a chilly soaking. The caves are a cluster of inter-locking sea caves reaching back into the cliffs for over 100m, and made the more impressive because of their height, 30 to 50m. The carpark is 2.7km from the main road and it’s a 20min walk down a steep track to the caves. Allow 1hr down there. You’ll need a strong torch if you want to venture far into the caves themselves. There is a gate at the road that remains closed until it is safe to enter. Charge of $5.
77.6: Side trip to Waikawa, Curio Bay, Slope Point, Waipapa Point and Fortrose
At this point, if you are travelling from the Balclutha end of the road, you can take a side trip to Waikawa, Curio Bay, Slope Point and, via the coastal road, as far as Fortrose. Or you can simply take in Waikawa, Curio Bay and, perhaps, Slope Point, and return to the main road here.
Niagara Falls. 2.5km from the main road, turn on to Manse Rd, s/posted Niagara Falls. They are only 100m off the road. Cross over the bridge and turn l. A surveyor with a sense of humour named them – they’re more than just a set of rapids, but not much more. But, hey, it only takes a minute for a quick peek.
Niagara Falls Cafe and Gallery. 256 Niagara Waikawa Rd. Highly regarded by the locals. All day menu with homemade food. Open for breakfast, lunch and a la carte evening dining. Specials include whitebait, Bluff oysters, green lipped mussels, salmon, and venison. Fully licensed with a good selection of NZ wine and locally brewed beer and cider. The Gallery has locally produced arts and crafts.
Historic Concrete Horse Trough. Built around 1890 to give the coach horses a welcome drink after the slog up Cemetery Hill from the beach.
MUSEUM / INFORMATION CENTRE
Waikawa and Districts Museum 604 Niagara Waikawa Hwy. Ph 03-246-8464 Email Waikawamuseum@hyper.net.nz. Apart from being the local information centre, it’s also a well presented local museum with the usual collection of bric-a-brac and local historical mementoes. But for $2 it’s worth a look. The staff are very friendly and very helpful. Need local advice? Just ask.
Curio Bay: Curio Bay is the site of a petrified forest. The beach here was once the floor of a Jurassic-age forest that grew about 170million years ago. A volcanic eruption nearby buried the trees in ash. For millions of years they lay beneath the sea floor and when they emerged wave action eroded the softer sandstone created by the volcanic ash to expose the harder fossil wood of the tree stumps. Fossil forests such as this are not found in many places in the world. The remnants of stumps and fallen logs are visible at low tide. They are not instantly recognisable but after a few moments you’ll pick them out embedded in the rough rocks of the beach.
A (not so) polite request: Please don’t steal bits of the fossilised wood. You might think it really doesn’t matter – just a little chip. Unfortunately thousands of those little chips over the years (taken by unthinking, uncaring idiots) have reduced the size of much of the remaining features. Just don’t bloody do it, OK?
Yellow eyed penguins: To the east at the bay a yellow-eyed penguin colony nests in the scrub-covered slopes behind the foreshore. The birds are best viewed in the very early evening as they return from a day’s hunting out at sea for food. They bring it back to the chicks in the nest. Another (not so) polite request: Please treat the birds with great care. They are very timid and very frightened of humans (with good reason). Keep your distance from them – at least 10m. Most importantly, do not get between them in the water and their nest in the scrub. They won’t come ashore while people are between them and their chicks. (Would you, if you were them?). The scrub-covered nesting area is an absolute – I mean total, absolute, no allowances for anyone – no-go zone. Just don’t bloody go there, OK? Otherwise the whole colony will be closed off and no-one will get to enjoy one of nature’s rarest penguins. In the summer a DoC ranger will be on site to make sure that idiots are kept under control.
Hectors Dolphins: Over at Porpoise Bay a colony of Hector’s dolphins makes its summer home. Take a walk over there and with luck you’ll catch them in action.
Curio Cottage 521a Curio Bay Rd. Ph/fax 03-246-8797 Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Iconic kiwi bach right on the beachfront. Open plan living and kitchen room area has sea views, old rimu floors and a wood burner for warmth. Music, CD player, books and games are provided. Laundry facilities. Sleeps up to six. Also a studio (sleeps 2-3).
Curio Bay Holiday Houses Curio Bay. Ph 03-246-8552 Email email@example.com. All Curio Bay rental holiday houses are fully self contained including blankets, linen and towels. They are on separate beachfront locations. All have their own private beach access. Holiday houses start from $110 per night through to $190 (1 night stays are OK). Email for prices, fact sheets and photos.
From Curio Bay, as an alternative to the run straight back to the main road, why not go to nearby Slope Point, the southernmost point in the South Island, nearly 5km further south than Stirling Point at Bluff. If you were planning to go to Bluff because of its reputation as the southern tip of the island . . . sorry. Wrong. If you are into that sort of thing – you know, Land’s End to John ‘o Groats etc – then continue on Waikawa Curio Bay Rd and turn left 10.3km away on to Slope Point Rd. The road doesn’t go as far as the point, so you’ll have to hoof it the last little bit.
(Note: Access to Slope Point is through private farm land, no access is allowed 1 September – 1 November due to lambing).
The wreck of SS Tararua in April 1881 on the Otara Reef off Waipapa Point was the worst civilian maritime disaster in New Zealand’s history. Of 151 passengers and crew, 131lost their lives. As a result of the tragedy, the Waipapa Point Lighthouse, was built in 1884 to warn shipping of the dangerous reefs in the area.
The Union Steamship Company’s SS Tararua hit the reef on 29 April 1881, on a voyage between Dunedin and Melbourne. According to the Historic Places Trust website “there was initial confidence in the likelihood of rescue, but the hours dragged on and conditions worsened. The following evening the ship broke up and sank with the loss of all still on board.”
You can often see sea lions on the beach.
118.3: Fortrose. Small village near the lagoon at the mouth of the Mataura River, on Toetoes Bay.
Farmstay Bed and Breakfast
Fortrose Retreat 2150 Tokanui Hwy. Ph 03-246-9557. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Luxury accommodation (Qualmark 5-star) self cont. cottage set on a hillside alongside your own patch of native bush on an 850 acre sheep farm. 2 brms (1 king dble and 2 king singles). Outside double spa bath, fully equipped kitchen, 2 tvs, DVD and CD player, laundry fac. Tariff incl cont. bfst. Tw/dble $200-220, ex pers $50.
Greenbush Bed and Breakfast 298 Fortrose Otara Rd. Ph 03-246-9506 Email email@example.com. Greenbush was originally bought as a 50-acre block by the present owner’s, Donald McKenzie’s, great-grandparents in 1865. Three further generations of McKenzies have farmed the land which is today a 1000acre sheep and beef farm. Accom is in three ensuite bedrooms ( 1 king, 1 queen, 2 king sngls), guest lounge with tv. The character house in set in a mature garden with some of the trees 150 years old. Complimentary farm tour, includes a visit to Lake Vincent, a natural lake on the property that is home to Canada geese, black swans and paradise ducks. Qualmark 4-star. Sng $200, tw/dble $250.
Fortrose Café 5 Moray Tce Fortrose 9875
140.6: Turn off to Waituna Wetlands.
Southland was the first place in New Zealand to have a wetland officially recognised under the Ramsar Convention when 3500 ha of peatland area, known as the Waituna Wetland Scientific Reserve was registered in 1976. A further 15,400 ha was added in 2008 which included the three major estuaries; Toi Toi, Awarua Bay and the New River. These three estuaries are a unique feature of Southland and are still relatively unspoiled compared to similar waterways in other parts of the country. This area is home to the secretive Australasian bittern and the tiny fernbird. Both species have disappeared from much of their former range. Get more information from the Doc Website.