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Exploring the Catlins

Posted by on February 25, 2018

Hello again! We have now started our second campervan adventure through the South Island of New Zealand, approximately 5 years after our first. If you recall, we had a bright yellow wee Mercedes Sprinter van last time – named Sunshine.

Well this year, we’ve moved up a bit to a larger van (we’re too old and high maintenance to cram into a small one these days!). And with that, I will introduce this years campervan…Hello, Dolly!!!

Introducing our campervan, Dolly! (Alongside some of the beauty of NZ)

She’s a glaringly white beast – so we had to name her after a famous sheep (we are in NZ after all), hence Dolly, after the first cloned sheep.

Inside, there is a double bed, dinette, 4 burner stove, microwave, dorm fridge, sink, TV, and bathroom/shower. All we could ever need!

Bedroom and kitchen

Dining room (with bathroom directly across from it)

So once we met Dolly, we packed her up and set on our way. Before we start with our stories, I’ll let you know why we chose campervaning (again) since I know some of our friends back home think we’re nuts to spend Jeff’s month-long sabbatical in a van.

Why explore NZ in a campervan?

We chose to campervan because we wanted freedom to choose where we wanted to go, when, and for how long. It was important to us that we be able to shorten or extend our stay in any given place at will. That’s the simple answer.

Another reason is that the weather in New Zealand is unpredictable at best. It is an island country after all. As we learned on our last trip (where we never got to see Jeff’s beloved West Coast due to flooding), planning our route before we get here is a waste of time and energy – so we learned to live in the moment and go wherever the (warm) winds take us.

This year, our hope was to head to the West Coast first, since we missed it last time. But Cyclone Gita had different ideas. Heaps of rain fell in the central and west of the South Island due to the remnants of Gita…so what did we do? We went south.

To chase the sun (or avoid the rain, whichever you prefer).

So that’s how we ended up in the Catlins.

Introducing the Catlins

I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of (much less visited) the Catlins before. Yikes! I’m not sure why, but I guess I never really got to Southland during my time here or in previous visits.

In fact, all I’d really heard about Southland (aptly named, since it represents the southern area of the South Island) was that life was slower here, people had a strong, distinct accent, and folks were more apt to like country music. Those of you from the southern US, sound familiar?!?!?!?

The Catlins is not a place you’d visit on a typical 1-2 week NZ vacation (unless you had a real reason to), so the people who visit here are those traveling for longer spans of time (think months to a year) or even locals.

And honestly, the absence of tourists everywhere was one reason that I came to love it so much. It was uncrowded and unhurried, not to mention stunningly beautiful. Mmmm, a perfect way to start a sabbatical. Bliss.

To orient you, the Catlins are an area in the Southeast portion of the South Island (see map below as a reminder).

From Dunedin, we took two and a half days to explore the Southern Scenic Route, through the Catlins and eventually over to Fiordland. We used a helpful google map that led us to points (or walks) of interest – it can be downloaded here.

We took in several sights but certainly not all! We tried to do as many of the 20-30 minute walks as we could, mostly to waterfalls.

Things to see and do on the Southern Scenic Route

Nugget Point

Our first stop at Nugget Point was my favorite. If you recall, I’m a huge fan of lighthouses, so to see a lighthouse on our first stop was a sign of great things to come for me.

The lighthouse was built in 1869/70 and was kept by a lightkeeper until it became fully automated in 1989. It is now managed from Wellington, in the North Island.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Fur seals waddled along the shore, though we could not get close enough to see them well.

The “Nuggets” as seen from the lighthouse are pictured below.

The “Nuggets” are the rocky outcroppings that resemble coastal nuggets of gold, especially in the right light.

This area reminded me a bit of Maine and Nova Scotia. The rugged coastline and stunning turquoise waters soothed my soul. The view below is looking back from the lighthouse.

The turquoise blue waters take my breath away!

Around the corner from Nugget Point was Roaring Bay, best known for its yellow-eyed penguin colony and viewing hide (double click for panorama). We were there in the middle of the day, so we didn’t see any penguins (since they were out to sea fishing)…

Roaring Bay – home to yellow-eyed penguin colony

…but we did see tourists doing exactly what the signs said not to do. Boy, that gets my goat! (I know, I know, I’m such a rule follower! Sheesh!) The intent of the viewing hide is to watch the penguins from inside the hide (as the sign states), not from outside it or above it, so as not to disturb the penguins. Sometimes self-centered (or oblivious) tourists burn me up!

Rule breaker caught in action (wink, wink)

Purakaunui Falls and Bay

Our next stop was the Purakaunui Falls (I dare you to say [or spell] that 3 times fast!). These are apparently the most photographed falls in New Zealand, and the most iconic of the Catlins. A short 20-minute walk from the road, these 3-tiered falls (20 meters high) are worth the walk.

Purakaunui Falls

There were also small falls along the way that were beautiful in their own right. The below pic also gives you an idea of the rainforest atmosphere of this area.

Small falls on the walk to Purakaunui Falls

Aside from visiting the falls, we were looking for a beautiful place to stop and eat our lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches and Jeff’s favorite chicken-flavored potato chips in Dolly), so we thought we’d try Purakaunui Bay. Not knowing anything about it, we were taking a chance here. And boy did it pay off!

After a bit of a bumpy and windy ride down a small road, we arrived at a gorgeous beach that turned out to be a surfer’s haven (double click for panorama). As we lunched, many surfers took advantage of the big swells and surfed ’til their hearts were content. We lunched and did absolutely nothing else. It was perfect!

Purakaunui Bay – lunch spot extraordinaire!

Matai Falls

Up the road a piece were Matai Falls (10 meters high), beautifully simple falls. Not unexpectedly, had this been a rainy day, these falls would have been more substantial. I like them in their simplicity – almost like fairy falls.

Matai Falls

The walk to Matai Falls was also beautiful, again through rainforest. I continue to be mesmerized by the size and variety of the ferns in New Zealand.

This also gives you a preview of what Jeff loves so much about the West Coast, which is primarily rainforest.

Rainforest walk to Matai Falls

Tautuku Bay

From Matai Falls, our next goal was to find a place to camp for the night. Using the trusty travel directory that Viv lent us (thank you!), we found a free campground right next to the beach. There was no power or water, but in our self-contained campervan – we didn’t need any.

Tautuku Bay from the Florence Hill lookout. We camped about where you can first see the beginning of the lightest sand (behind the hill)…

We had most of this beach all to ourselves and there were only 2 other campervans at the campground (containing people we never actually saw). Awesome!

We had no cell or internet service, which we are getting used to, so we just enjoyed our evening by having some wine and cheese on the beach, then taking a walk before eating dinner in Dolly. More bliss.

McLean Falls

The next day, we set out for McLean Falls (22 meters high), which ended up being my favorite of them all.

It was hard to get a good picture of these falls since the sun was so bright that the pix were quite glaring. So we just sat and enjoyed them, waiting for a cloud to float by so we could try to get a good shot.

McLean Falls

Again, the walk to these falls revealed some interesting forestry, particularly this tree that had 3 trunks growing sideways (looking for light, perhaps?)…fascinating.

Forest at McLean Falls

Cathedral Cave

From McLean Falls, we visited Cathedral Cave. We hadn’t planned to, since you can only visit at low tide and we had no internet access (nor desire) to consult tide charts. But as it turned out, it was low tide when we were passing by, so we visited the Cave.

This cave is 30 meters high and 200 meters long, formed entirely by the sea. It is located at the end of Waipiti Beach. This was one of the only places where we had to pay to visit ($10NZ pp; to help maintain the road and trail) but we were happy to do so.

In the below pic, squint to see the man at the entrance of the caves, for context of size.

Entrance to Cathedral Cave

Once in the cave, it got dark and a bit narrow and spooky…

Inside Cathedral Cave

…before coming out the other end, where the cave opened up dramatically (again using people for scale).

Cathedral Cave Exit

As we left the cave, a HUGE wind came up and we had to lean into it for the 200m walk back to the track. Bizarre! Jeff almost lost his hat in the process, but a kind man behind us ran it down and gave it back.

After we hiked the 1km back up to the carpark, it was on to our next stop.

Curio Bay

From there, we headed to Curio Bay. We had heard from a fellow British camper, back at one of the falls lookouts, that this was a nice area, so we were excited to see it.

The view of the Bay is below.

Curio Bay

But what you can’t really see from this view are the two things that make this area interesting: (1) a yellow-eyed penguin colony and (2) a fossilised forest.

As per normal, it was mid-day, so we didn’t see the penguins. But we did see the fossilised forest, preserved in the beach, as shown below. It is estimated that this petrified forest is 180 million years old.

Curio Bay fossilised forest

Again, this area was best viewed at low tide. We chuckled as a couple of guys got caught out too far as the tide came in, stranding them momentarily on a rock (don’t worry, they got back safely). Another man got his whole camera bag soaked as an unexpected wave hit him. Ugh, that hurts.

Moral of the story – never turn your back on the sea.

From Curio Bay, we had to make the decision of whether we wanted to press on and finish the Catlins today or if we wanted to stay another night and see the rest tomorrow. We liked the area so much we went ahead and stayed another night.

Weir Beach Reserve

Again, we found a free campground near the beach (Weir Beach Reserve, to be exact), but this time, there were more campers. By the time the campground filled up, there were maybe a total of 35 to 40 cars and campervans.

While we were slightly indignant by this at the start (remember – we’d been spoiled by only 3 campervans, and never seeing another person the previous night), we decided to put on our big girl panties and deal with it. (Ha! This is hysterical to me, since most other places there would be MANY more campers! Yes, we are spoiled indeed.)

What this did provide, though, was an insight into the current state of camping in NZ.

While there are quite a few tourists and locals in campervans, there are also MANY who camp in cars, or old regular vans that have been converted into “campervans”. On one side of us we had 2 girls sleeping in a station wagon and on the other, we had 2 girls sleeping in the equivalent of an old Honda Odyssey. Neither of which had bathroom facilities, and both of which had a modified dorm fridge/sink retrofitted inside.

So this brings to light an issue that NZ is having with camping vehicles that aren’t self contained (ie, contain water and toilet facilities). In previous years/decades, NZ was more open to “freedom camping” ie, camping where you like, assuming it’s not on someone else’s property.

But more recently, now that many vehicles don’t have toilet facilities, these folks took advantage and were polluting NZ with their waste. As a result, there are now more regulations about where you can and can’t camp, especially if you aren’t self contained.  (Another reason we chose a self-contained vehicle, besides the fact that we’re old and earn enough money to rent a moving toilet for ourselves.)

In Weir Beach Reserve, there is a toilet available so these car campers can set up shop legally.

Below is  a pic of the campground, with a gorgeous sunset as the back drop. Tough stuff.

Weir Beach Reserve campground at sunset

The next morning, we got up early to go see the last few parts of the Catlins that we wanted to see, before making our way to Fiordland.

Slope Point

Only a few km up the road from our camping spot was Slope Point, the southernmost point in the South Island of New Zealand.

Slope Point

As you’d expect, this was a rocky, wind-swept point. The winds coming up from Antarctica batter this area.

(Please also note the lack of safety barriers of any sort. Visiting many places in NZ is at your own risk – they encourage you to use common sense!)

Slope Point coastline

The effect of these winds can perhaps best be seen by the look of the trees. They have permanently grown in a wind-swept formation. (Doesn’t that picture make you cold just looking at it??? I feel for those cows!!!)

Slope Point wind-swept trees

From Slope Point, it was off to Waipapa Point, our last viewing point in the Catlins.

Waipapa Point

Since we started with a lighthouse, it seemed only fitting that we end with a lighthouse as well – the Waipapa Point Lighthouse in this case…

This area is known for its shallow waters, which contributed to the worst civilian shipwreck in NZ’s history. In 1881, the SS Tararua ran aground, killing 131 of the 151 people on board. This lighthouse was built after that disaster, and continues to be a reminder of that fatal shipwreck.

The Tararua Acre (cemetery for many of those lost in the wreck) is a short walk from the lighthouse.

Waipapa Point Lighthouse

Here we were also able to see some sea lions lazing in the sun. We captured this photo only as the young pup stretched and yawned before curling back up to his mom and returning to his morning nap.

Sea lions at Waipapa Point

As I continued walking around the point (on walking trails), I inadvertently came way too close to a sea lion sleeping among the brush. Fortunately for me, he didn’t wake up when I passed. I was only made aware that he was there by the tourists above me waving their hands and pointing, warning me to step back. Otherwise, I would have never noticed him. Yowzers!

After our stop at Waipapa Point, our tour of the Catlins was concluded. What an unexpectedly wonderful way to start this year’s campervan adventure! In the end, I suppose I should thank Gita for steering us in this direction.

Now it’s time to make our way to Fiordland where we have 2 day cruises set up. Stay tuned for more on those trips, to come!

6 Responses to Exploring the Catlins

  1. Kathan Griscik

    While I will never understand the fascination with the camper van, I appreciate reading about the beautiful areas you find to explore. The pictures are stunning. I need a copy of the Purakaunui Bay panorama.
    Hope you had a fabulous birthday!!

    • Jen

      Tehe. You know that was aimed at you!!! 😀 This country really is stunning! (And Dolly rocks!)

  2. dsg

    NZ is mesmerizing! Thanks for sharing the beauty! Hello, Dolly!

  3. Nathan

    Very cool photos, story telling, and Dolly 🙂

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