Justine Tyerman

International Travel

The Catlins: Ending the roadtrip

The Catlins: Ending the roadtrip

Lighthouses and sea lions act as bookends to Justine and Chris Tyerman’s Easter road trip in the Catlins where they drove the Southern Scenic Route.

Remote Jack’s Bay with its pristine white sands is unbelievably beautiful, especially on a calm, sunny autumn morning. I envied the 20-30 bach owners with their properties right on the beach in this remote south-eastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island.

It was Day 3 of our Catlins roadtrip on the Southern Scenic Route and we were brimming with excitement at the adventures that lay ahead. First up was Jack’s Blowhole at the end of a scenic coastal walkway, about one hour return. It’s a giant gash in the earth, 55m deep, 144m long, 68m wide and 200m from the sea. Even on a calm day, the force of the water swirling and churning far below was riveting. I’d love to see it spouting in a southerly storm with a big sea running.

After brewing a quick cuppa in our handy little JUCY Cabana kitchen, we drove to pretty Purakaunui Falls, a very popular spot. The lovely ten-minute walk alongside the stream that feeds the falls is through a lush forest of totara, tawhai, matai and kotukutuku with native birds flitting among the branches.

At the foot of the exquisite three-tiered falls, there were dozens of tourists and photographers with tripods and extremely long lenses, trying to capture the perfect image. It’s one of the most photographed waterfalls in New Zealand so if you want time alone here, get up early or stay late.

The track to the 22m high McLean Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Catlins, was closed by a rock fall so we consoled ourselves with lunch at the award-winning Whistling Frog Restaurant. The blue cod was the best fish I’ve ever tasted, washed down with an ice cold Monteith’s crushed pear cider. The restaurant is the hub of a substantial accommodation complex with cabins, motels, chalets and tent sites.

Well-fortified, we set off towards Cathedral Caves, stopping at Florence Hill lookout with sweeping views of perfectly-curved Tautuku Beach to the south and Tahakopa Bay and Long Point to the north. This is the only area left in the South Island where native forest covers the land from the hilltops to the sea. Some trees are over 1000 years old. There’s an abundance of wildlife with native birds, New Zealand sea lions, yellow-eyed and little-blue penguins and albatross frequenting the area.

Access to Cathedral Caves is across private Maori land so there’s a charge of $5 per adult and $1 per child. The 1.5km track through kamahi/podocarp forest drops 100m to Waipati Beach and then there’s a 10-minute walk along the sand to the caves. Our timing of the tides was accidentally perfect. We were able to explore the entire sea cave system which has two huge entrances joined by a V-shaped passage. It’s one of the finest in New Zealand, and at 199m, among the longest in the world.

In contrast to limestone caves, which form by the chemical action of water dissolving calcite in the rock, sea caves are formed by the action of the waves eroding or collapsing the rock.  

We took a torch so we could examine the ceiling, up to 30m high, and deep recesses of the Jurassic sandstone which dates back about 160 million years. Just inside the west or first entrance, the ceiling is much higher, indicating an area of roof collapse. Over time, such features create skylights like Jack’s Blowhole.

To avoid disappointment, make sure you check the tides and the closing time of the track. The caves are outstanding and well worth the fee and the one-hour hike down and back up.

The petrified forests at Curio Bay had long fascinated me and again our timing was spot on. The tide was well out allowing us to explore this rare phenomenon.

The incredible story of how the forest was formed is recorded on a series of excellent information boards overlooking the rock platform where the tree trunks and stumps are lying, set in stone.

 A lush forest stood here about 170 million years ago with ash-covered volcanoes nearby. After heavy rain, a great flood occurred submerging hundreds of kilometres of land under mud, ash and rocks washed down from the volcanoes.

The ash in the floodwaters was rich in silica which impregnated the trees, turning them to stone. Thousands of years of pounding by the sea have worn away the soil to reveal the fossilised trees.

I lost track of time as I wandered around the tree trunks and stumps, frozen forever in time, trying to imagine the forces of nature that could bring about such an event. The fallen tree trunks still look like timber but when you touch them, they are hard, cold stone. You can even see the growth rings in the stumps. The forest was alive when New Zealand was part of Gondwanaland - and we’re able to see the remnants of it today.

At the southern edge of the platform, waves of kelp were surging and swirling up and down a narrow channel in the rock. I stood there transfixed until the incoming tide began to lap at my feet and the kelp threatened to envelop me like a thousand slimy eels.

Hoping for a glimpse of the rare yellow-eyed penguins at this location, we found the perfect spot to park our JUCY campervan overnight, at a camping ground right on the seashore.  But Curio Bay’s penguins were in hiding, along with the endangered Hector’s dolphins... so a return trip is definitely on the cards.

The recently-opened Tumu Toka CurioScape at Curio Bay has a café and outstanding interactive museum with a wealth of information about the region.

Before heading south, we climbed to the top of a headland where the views were stunning. An information board there said that by 1840, with 1000 whalers operating in New Zealand waters, the southern right whale was already becoming scarce. The invention of the explosive-tipped harpoon in the 1860s made other species of whale harvestable because the device caused whales to float when dead. I was horrified to read that 65,966 whales were killed worldwide during the 1961-62 season.

Twenty minutes south, we reached Slope Point, the southern-most tip of the South Island. A ten-minute walk through private farmland, the point is a windswept, ruggedly-beautiful headland where the trees grow horizontal to the land and the waves of the southern ocean crash onto rocks sending walls of spray high into the air.

A signpost marks the exact spot as Latitude 46 40min 40 sec South; Longitude 169 00min 11 sec East. From here, the Equator is 5140km north and the South Pole is 4803km south. It was blowing a freezing cold gale but photos just had to be taken at the signpost and on the cliff edge above the pounding surf.

Our last stop on the Southern Scenic Route was the Waipapa Point lighthouse, at the far southwest corner of the Catlins. It’s the site of New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster. In April 1881, 131 of the 151 passengers onboard the ‘S.S.Tararua’ lost their lives when the steamer was wrecked on the reef just offshore.

A short walk takes you to the cemetery where many of the victims were buried. In response to this tragedy a lighthouse was built and become operational in 1884. Automated in 1976, it remains active today.

I read with great interest the Instructions to Lightkeepers in 1866.

‘Keepers are required to act as signalmen, telephonists, and undertake such duties as may be required of them, without receiving any extra remuneration.’

Other duties included cleaning, routine maintenance, gardening and tending the ‘Tararua Acre’ gravesite.

A couple of sea lions were cavorting in the turbulent surf near the lighthouse. It seemed fitting that our Catlins odyssey began and ended with lighthouses and sea lions. They are quintessential images of the Catlins and my enduring memories of this remote and beautiful corner of Aotearoa.

See part onetwo and three of Justine’s road trip.

Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of JUCY Rentals. Pick up a vehicle from JUCY Rentals at Queenstown, Christchurch or Auckland Airport. You can also explore magnificent Milford Sound with JUCY Cruise and stay at JUCY Snooze in Queenstown, Christchurch and Auckland.