My last day in the Catlins was a short one, since I had to return the car that afternoon. But this being the wild and wonderful world of New Zealand, a short day is still packed with more things to do than most long days in other places. In this case, I walked on a beach of petrified forest, had a staring contest with a penguin, and glimpsed the fins of a dolphin, all before lunch.
Porpoise Bay is famous for being a refuge for a pod of Hector’s dolphins (which is the name of the species, not some dude’s pets). I met some travelers who went swimming in the bay, and dolphins just came right up next to them. If you go swimming, signs around the bay remind you to “love us from a distance or lose us forever,” and never approach a dolphin. But when I went, it was too cold to swim, and only a few brave surfers were in the water.
I walked along the beach and scrambled over some rocks, and saw the fins of a couple dolphins as they briefly surfaced in the distance, but they weren’t in much of a show-off mood that day. So I went back to the base of the stairs, moved aside the plank of wood spray painted “sea lion barrier/gate,” and went up to the cliffs above.
Curio Bay, just across the spit of land from Porpoise Bay, is the site of a petrified forest from the dinosaur age–it’s about 180 million years old. Long, flat logs were felled by some force in ancient times and petrified into stone, and the remains are there on the beach for anyone to walk by. I got a thrill reaching out and touching something from another age, similar to the excitement I felt touching Uluru. The tactile can be pretty powerful.
Some of those rare yellow-eyed penguins have set up a colony here too, and one little guy was out for a walk at the same time I was. A circle of paparazzi immediately surrounded him, although most people were obeying the signs asking that people keep 10 meters between themselves and penguins.
Keeping with the theme of things from the time of dinosaurs, I visited the museum in Invercargill and saw a tuatara, which looks like a lizard but is apparently unrelated. They are literally the contemporaries of dinosaurs. The most famous tuatara in the museum is Henry, a young man born sometime in the 19th century and still going strong on a diet of “if it moves, he eats it” and an exercise regimen of hardly ever moving.
It was hard to leave the Catlins. There were more walks to do, and beaches to explore, and even a couple waterfalls to find, but they’ll have to keep for next time. And I do hope there’ll be a next time.
Some people count birds. Others log marathon miles. I chase waterfalls, and I saw five on my second day in the Catlins. That’s a personal record. (That’s also me plagiarizing myself from Facebook, but I liked it for a lead so here we are.)
I started the day off at Jack’s Bay, where I threw a ball for an eager dog and chatted with his owner. The wind was picking up, lifting a whole layer of sand off the ground and hurrying it along to the other side of the bay. I carried on to the Owaka Teapot Gardens, which is actually the yard of someone’s home covered in teapots of all sizes and arranged in whimsical set-ups with garden gnomes and fairies. The next door neighbors know a good kitschy tourist attraction when they see one, and they set up Dollyworld, a doll and teddy bear museum. The entrepreneurial spirit is thriving in Owaka.
I left the dolls and fairies behind for the natural world, and I spent the rest of my day falling ever more in love with this part of the world. It was a beautiful New Zealand day, which means I only had to wear my rain jacket half the time. It had rained heavily overnight, so the falls were gushing water mixed up with a bit of mud, rather than falling more prettily with clearer water. I liked it, though. Nothing like a roaring waterfall to remind you of the power of nature.
Purakaunui Falls is the most popular spot in the Catlins, and apparently the most photographed waterfalls in the country. It was an easy walk on the packed dirt path through the fern-feathered forest, across a small footbridge, and up and down a steeper track to the viewing area. I had the falls to myself for about two minutes, and then a small tour group came down, and a family with small kids, and I saw how popular the place was.
The next stop had a one-two punch of Horseshoe Falls, and farther along that same river, Matai Falls. I only passed five other people on this trail, which suited me just fine, but the people who skipped this stop were missing out.
Florence Hill Lookout was a well-signed spot, explaining the historical and ecological significance of the area. Some of the trees are over 1,000 years old, and in fact it’s the only place on the east coast of the South Island where native forest goes right down to the sea (instead of being interrupted by any of the many introduced species). This was a Maori fishing village, a Maori and Paheka whaling town, and the site of a sawmill before it became protected land.
My penultimate stop for the day was McLean Falls, which involved a 30-minute walk, only 20 minutes of which could be described as leisurely. The last part of the walk was a steep climb up a switchback path, on uneven stairs made of stone and slippery packed dirt. But was it ever worth it!
The McLean Falls were certainly the most impressive falls of the day. I sat on a rock a little to the right of the upper part of the falls and stared at them for about half an hour, mesmerized by the sights and sounds.
The last falls of the day were Niagara Falls, and they barely qualify as falls at all, more like a hiccup in the river. But if my Catlins map is going to count them, then so will I. My favorite part of this stop was the sign that showed a photo of the more famous Niagara Falls, just in case you needed a comparison. Nice to see everyone has a good sense of humor about it.
I spent the night at a farmstay/hostel at Slope Point. It was a working farm with a few small buildings of basic rooms for rent. I chatted with an Australian family and a French couple, and we all sat around the kitchen table listening to Van Morrison on my iPod while working on a jigsaw puzzle and eating dinner. The Aussies and French were keen hikers, so they told me about the big walks they’d been on that day, which sounded cool, but I wouldn’t have traded my day of waterfalls for anything.
One of my favorite things about traveling in New Zealand was that, no matter how popular the tourist spot, it never felt truly overcrowded. Locals told me that tourism has been down in the last few years, ever since the economic crash, but it’s back on the upswing now. Still, you can visit the most stunning natural places without thousands of people jostling for space to get a good shot on their iPhones. Then there are places like the Catlins, in the southeastern part of the South Island, which are even less visited than Milford and Rotorua, and all the more beautiful for being quieter.
I drove through the empty farmlands of the Southland when crossing from west to east, and spent the night in Kaka Point, at a hostel set up on a hill over the small town. The tiny cabin I stayed in used to be a family summer retreat, and now the elderly woman who inherited it runs it as a hostel during the summer season. The decorations hadn’t been changed since the mid-1960s, and it was so similar to the cabins I’ve been to in northern Michigan that I expected my mom to come in at any moment to tell me to hurry up and get down to the lake.
I hurried up and drove to Nugget Point before sunset. After navigating more jaw-clenching unsealed roads, I arrived at the parking lot. The skies were threatening rain again, but what else was new, so I put my raincoat on and started the walk out to the lighthouse. Naturally, it started to rain, so I moved a little faster, but not too much, since there’s no guardrail here and a steep drop to the rocks below. I only passed three people on my walk out to the lighthouse, and just four on the way back; I loved admiring the scenery in total peace and solitude.
The rain stopped after about 10 minutes, and in another 10 I was at the lighthouse, a standard white structure built in 1870 and automated in the late 1980s. Just beyond the lighthouse lie the rocks that give the point its name. I believe these are just tiny rock islands, and not rock stacks formed by crumbling arches, like those at the Twelve Apostles.
I watched seagulls swoop and dive, and noted the chalky white cliffs that reminded me a little of Dover. On my walk back, I realized that the screaming I was hearing wasn’t the screeching of a seagull; it was a different kind of piercing sound. I looked down the cliffs and saw fur seals on the rocks below! One was making an awful racket while a couple others splashed around in a little pool formed by the tide. I’d read that fur seals like to spend time around here, but I never expected to find them by their call. (Important note: These might actually be sea lions. I have no idea how to tell them apart, and apparently they both make screaming noises, and both can be found at Nugget Point. If you can tell from the photo what I’m looking at, let me know!)
I drove just a short way down the road to another parking bay, and walked down the steep path to Roaring Bay. It was a lovely spot for the beginning of the sunset. To the left, the Department of Conservation (DOC) had built a viewing structure so that you can watch the famous yellow-eyed penguins without disturbing them–they’re nervous creatures. Some idiots still climbed outside the structure and leaned over to flash their cameras at the penguins, of course, but mostly people stayed in the little bunker and watched from a distance.
I’d seen one penguin waddling up from the ocean when I was farther up on the path, and I’d rushed to take super-zoomed photos before he disappeared. I needn’t have worried, though. He was still there when I got to the viewing structure, and he was still there when I left half an hour later. He was a preener, that penguin. He waddled a few feet, stopped, combed his left side with his beak, shook his head, combed his right side with his beak, flapped his wings a little, reached around to get his back with his beak. Repeat. It was funny to watch, and a little mesmerizing. He was a fine looking fellow, and maybe deserved to preen a bit.
(I have no idea what the sex of the penguin was. Also, I know that they need to proceed up the beach very cautiously, as this one was doing, in order to be aware of predators lurking in the rocks.)
I saw another penguin on the sand at a little distance from the first, and when I asked the couple next to me if they saw any more, they pointed out another one huddling in the rocks. I also spotted a lone fur seal up the beach; whether it was contemplating penguin dinner or just enjoying the sunset, I don’t know.
I didn’t want to drive that gravel road in the dark, so I started back, and watched the sky turn gorgeous colors out the passenger side as I drove. I had a quiet night in before seeing more natural splendor the next day.