The pristine wilderness of the deep South is the perfect setting to stretch the legs and inject a health kick into a photogenic road trip. Skirting the South Otago Coast, the Catlins district, wedged between Invercargill and Balclutha, is a powder-keg of rugged natural wonders. Follow the Southern Scenic Route signposts, off State Highway at Balclutha.
This ruggedly wondrous area derives its name from Edward Cattlin, a ship’s captain who made land claim in 1840. Somewhere along the way, he lost a “t” from his surname. Nugget Point is the first major sightseeing attraction on the Catlins route, which begins south of Balclutha. Gnarly and windswept Nugget Point, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a chunk of China’s Great Wall, delivers the most panoramic coastal views. The steep walking track takes you up to the historic lighthouse that was built on top of the jagged rocks in 1860. Adjacent to Nugget Point, blue and yellow-eyed penguins can be viewed late in the day, at Roaring Bay. Elephant seals, fur seals and Hooker’s sea lions also call Nugget Point home, languidly lazing on the wave-battered rocks at the base of the point, doing convincing impressions of stranded driftwood.
Jacks Beach is a beautiful South Otago beach which is also home to a delightful cluster of eccentric Kiwi cribs. From the beach, an easy 20 minute walk across private farmland takes you to the dramatic Jacks Blowhole. Over 200 metres from the beach, the hole is 55 metres deep and the boom of the blowhole at high tide is thunderously impressive.
In an area awash with waterfalls, Purakanui Falls, within a beautiful bush setting, would be my pick of the bunch. None of the Catlins falls are particularly high – so don’t expect to stumble upon the Niagara! But the dense and lush forest settings accentuate the splendour of cascading water. I visited the falls on a particularly wet day, which turbo charges the visual spectacle. The track is a gentle 20 minute stroll, winding through a mix of silver beech and podocarp forest, climaxing with a sweeping view of the falls. Descend down the stream level viewing platform which provides a far more intimate spectacle of the three tiers that combine to make these falls so divine.
Cathedral Caves are a collection of spectacular sea caves, guaranteed to thrill. The main cave reaches a height of over 30 metres and some of the caves go deep into the cliff, so a torch is recommended. The caves are only accessible at low tide, so try and time your visit accordingly. Tide times are helpfully posted on the entrance gate, and the gate is normally closed if the tide isn’t conducive to visitors.
Curio Bay is a most unusual coastal setting, over 150 million years old, and distinctive for the fossilised tree stumps and trunks that are clearly identifiable on the bay’s rocky shelf. Once again, low tide is the best time to experience the novelty of this preserved, ancient forest. Curio Bay is also home to a colony of yellow-eyed penguins who will appear out of the surf late in the day.
The cute Catlins village of Owaka has become a hotbed for arts and craftspeople. The local galleries are well worth a nosey. If you want to break up the trip with an overnight stay, Catlins Retreat Guesthouse on Owaka’s main road is highly recommended.
Point the car south this winter for a bracing encounter with the Catlins. Thrifty offers plenty of handy pick-up and drop-off locations including Dunedin and Invercargill.