Starting Point: Invercargill
Ending Point: Balclutha
Kilometers traveled: 328 km over 2 days
After we escaped from Milford, we laid low in Invercargill for a night and had some really good food at the local Irish pub. Then we decided to spend a few days in the Catlins. The Catlins are farmlands and coastline along the southern coast of the South Island. We had heard that the Catlins can be gorgeous in good weather or absolutely miserable in bad weather. We rolled the dice and were rewarded with pretty decent weather which meant that our time there was spectacular.
The Catlins are known for their rugged coastlines and amazing wildlife. A poem we found on a plaque along the track to Nugget Point sums up the Catlins beautifully:
Deep, relentless forces
buckle the layered land
Hiding bays and beaches between
long, low folds of mountains
With rugged rocky headlands
butting into the sea
We spent two days bouncing our way along winding gravel roads, in and out of bays and mountains, small towns and grand farms, as we explored the Catlins.
We hiked at Waipapa Point, home of the worst shipwreck in NZ history. 130 people died here when their boat became stuck on the reef off this rugged coast. People from the shore watched, helpless against the tides and weather, until the ship finally sank, drowning 130. It created a huge change in maritime safety in NZ, leading to the requirement of lifebelts for each person on board ships and the building of the lighthouse here. Waipapa Point is also a favorite napping spot for sea lions. We came across a ginormous bull sea lion napping on the beach.
We stopped off to view fossilized trees in Curio Bay. Embedded in the tidal flats and only visible at low tide, they are one of the best examples of a Jurassic forest left in the world today. We skipped around from tidal pool to tidal pool, finding all sorts of interesting things, from bright green algae, to fossilized trees that looked like they were just cut down and placed there yesterday, to funny little sea snails and noisy oystercatchers. Yellow-eyed penguins, known by the Maori name of Hoiho, live here as well in the dunes and the grass. But they are the shyest of the penguins and we didn’t see any while we were there.
We hiked through native bush to see amazing tiered waterfalls and blowholes located 200 meters from the nearest shoreline. Everywhere we stopped we ran into seals and shags and the ever-present and very sassy gulls.
We wandered across pastures full of sheep to get to the most southern point on the South Island, Slope Point. The wind was whipping like mad while we were there. We had to be careful of our footing as we peered over the cliff to look at the Southern ocean, one of the most unpredictable and stormy seas in the world because all the weather rolling across it is unchecked until it hits the New Zealand coast.
We finally saw yellow-eyed penguins out at Roaring Bay, on the way to Nugget Point. We watched two wander in from the surf and then we waited quietly in the hide for quite some time before another one popped out of his nest on the grassy hillside right next to us! It’s nesting time for them, and the parents take turns. One stays in the nest with the chicks while the other one goes out to hunt for food. About a day or so later, when the first parent returns, they swap out jobs. We watched the one who popped out of the nest make his way down the hillside to the beach and then into the surf…off on a search for food. Most likely his mate was one of the ones we saw wandering in earlier. I never thought we would be lucky enough to see a yellow-eyed penguin. They are the most endangered and rarest of penguins, and also very skiddish and shy. To be able to sit on a beach and see them was like getting your biggest wish on Christmas morning. At the same time it was such a serene and peaceful moment. We’ve been so lucky on this trip to see so many amazing things and this will go right up towards the top of our list of the best things we’ve experienced.
The Catlins was like a microcosm of so many of the cool things you can see on the South Island. Every time we turned a corner or ventured down a remote and lonely road we found something new and astounding to look at, whether it was another postcard view or very accessible wildlife. We never knew what we would find around the bend and it made for a very interesting and fun adventure.