When I was a kid the Catlins always sounded an interesting place to visit – there was a slightly mysterious ring about the name. Our family had many camping holidays in remote areas around New Zealand, but for some reason my father wasn’t drawn to the Catlins, which is great because now I had the chance to explore this unknown corner of the South Island. I discovered it is an area with a fascinating geologic history, rich with wildlife, has prehistoric forests and a wild coastline.

We drove south from Dunedin, passing Balclutha on the northern edge of the Catlins. There were small waves breaking on the beach at Kaka Point, and Rick decided it was time for quick surf. It was mid-summer and the waves looked inviting but when I entered the water in my spring short leg and armed wet suit, my eyes popped open with surprise. Man it was cold. The southern ocean chill seeped in through the thin rubber suit – I hate to think what the water temperature is like in winter. I cut my surf short as the breeze picked up. Wrapped in a towel as I changed by the car, I certainly felt invigorated and welcomed to the Catlins Coast.

The wave-eroded rocks at Nugget Point are likened to the shape of gold nuggets

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

People have lived in this area since around AD1350. Early nomadic groups of Māori sparsely inhabited this southern region living mainly near river mouths. They travelled north from Rakiura/Stewart Island to hunt, and to obtain suitable trees in the large stands of rainforest to make canoes. Whalers and sealers from England and Europe were the next explorers to visit the southern coast of New Zealand hunting the coastal waters for the abundant New Zealand fur seals and whales.

The name Catlins comes from the Catlins River, named after a whaling captain, Edward Catlin, who purchased a block of land beside the Catlins River in 1840 from a local Māori chief.

Black clouds are skimming the horizon behind me at Nugget Point

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

The rugged coastline beyond Kaka Point runs out to Nugget Point where a lighthouse stands perched on finger of land, the tip of which is surrounded by rocky islands. The wave-eroded rocks at Nugget Point are likened to the shape of gold nuggets. The lighthouse began operation in 1870 to provide guidance to coastal ships trading along the coast to the Clutha River.

The path out to the lighthouse is along a narrow ridge. On a rocky outcrop far below, Royal Spoonbills nested in the sparse vegetation; seagulls scouted the ocean for fish and New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) rested on the rocks below. On the horizon storm clouds were gathering beyond the rock stacks with a rain shower heading our way.

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The interesting names in the Catlins continued as we wound our way along a narrow gravel road out to Cannibal Bay. The name had a sinister ring to it, which amplified in my imagination as we arrived on a darkish-grey afternoon. I was wondering if we were going to find human skeletons buried in the sand dunes. Apparently the beach owes its name to the human remains once found here by a surveyor. So my guess wasn’t too far from the truth. But what I had come to see were the New Zealand sea lions. Cannibal Bay is a ‘haul-out site’ for the critically endangered New Zealand sea lions (rāpoka), one of the rarest sea lion species in the world.

The New Zealand sea lion (rāpoka) is one of the rarest sea lion species in the world

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

As Rick and I walked along the beach I noticed something dark catching a wave. It rode the wave artfully into the shore and morphed from what I thought may have been a dolphin or shark into a sea lion that ran up the beach at speed. I was surprised how fast it moved. He had his eye on a brown female sea lion. With mating on his mind the two strong and powerful sea lions had a vocal wrestle in the sand. She was clearly not interested. Eventually the male had his way for a short time before the female wriggled free and marched down to the sea with her nose in the air.

We continued along the beach passing several logs that on closer inspection were actually sea lions. Surprise. The track cut across a headland to Surat Bay – named after the ship Surat that was wrecked on the bar on New Year’s Day 1874.

Rick had his eye on the surf break at Cannibal Bay and decided to brave the cold water. After his surf I was watching him walking back along the beach when suddenly he broke into a run. Funny – there was a female sea lion chasing him along the beach. I had to laugh as it was an odd sight, but Rick was not impressed as he bounded back to the car. The female eventually lost interest and went back to her business. Rick said that as he walked along the beach earlier with his board she tossed a flipper full of sand his way. Strange as we’d walked by her earlier in the day and she hadn’t even stirred.

The Purakaunui Falls

Our next detour off the main road was to the Purakaunui and McLean Falls. The Purakaunui Falls are stunning falls and we were lucky to have the place to ourselves when we visited. I enjoyed the walk into McLean Falls on the Tautuku River as the path through the rainforest provided interesting photographs with fresh running streams surrounded by lush forest. The McLean waterfall cascaded down a series of drops that could be explored, depending on how adventurous you were.

The road meets the ocean again at Papatowai, crossing an estuary bordered by ancient forests from the time of dinosaurs. The unique lowland forests of New Zealand contain ancient plants found nowhere else in the world. The tallest trees towering above others are five members of the podocarp family: rimu, matai, totara, miro and kahikatea.

South of Papatowai the road climbs to an expansive overview at Florence Hill lookout. A long white sweeping beach, Tautuku Bay, stretches south with forest running down to the sand. We stop and take the forest walk down to Tautuku Beach. The light filtered down through the tall trees lighting the ferns growing among the tree trunks. It was a peaceful walk down to the beach, and the forest looked as if it had not changed for thousands of years.

A rainforest garden surrounds the Tautuku River near the McLean Falls

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

We had booked a couple of nights at the campground at Curio Bay and on arrival we wandered around the large camp looking for a sheltered site with a view, among the rows of flax bushes cleverly grown for shelter. Our site overlooked a beautiful stretch of coastline where large waves were sweeping up through layers of kelp and pounding into the rocky shore. From the clifftop I was mesmerised watching the waves explode into high showers of spray as they hit the rocks. The wildness of the southern ocean was a powerful force that has fascinated people for centuries.

After setting up camp we walked down to examine the remains of a petrified forest frozen forever in time in the rocks at Curio Bay. In the Jurassic period about 160 million years ago a forest occupied the low swampy coast that extended south from Curio Bay. A sudden flood of ash from a volcanic eruption buried the forest. Over centuries, the sandstone beds that covered the forest have been eroded by the action of the sea, to reveal broken petrified logs, remnants of the original Jurassic forest.

The walk to Tautuku Beach passes through ancient forest

This was a fascinating story and it was hard to believe we were standing on an ancient forest from the time of the dinosaurs. I could see the circle of a tree trunk that had been severed at its base and the remains of long stone logs lay scattered on the foreshore. Fossil forests of this age are very rare anywhere in the world.

But that is not the only amazing aspect of Curio Bay; after dinner, near dusk we returned to the Jurassic forest to watch for hoiho or yellow-eyed penguins. We were not alone in our desire to see the penguins – a crowd had gathered and people were sitting quietly, watching out for these taonga (treasured) species. Ngāi Tahu, the main South Island Māori tribe, have a special relationship and knowledge of the hoiho.

The light was getting dim when I spotted a couple of penguins emerging out of white water and scrambling up onto the rocks. Like a couple of old people they got to their feet and with their white chests out waddled across the rocks at a leisurely pace, stopping now and then to look around, shake the salt water of their chests and preen their feathers. The penguin’s leathery feet looked as if they had a layer of black tar underneath. They eventually made their way up into the undergrowth where their nests were hidden from view.

The fossilised remains of tree trunks from an ancient forest at Curio Bay

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

Considered one the world’s rarest penguin species, the hoiho live in the south-eastern South Island, on Banks Peninsula, Rakiura/Stewart Island and other outer islands including Auckland and Campbell Islands.

I was a little concerned that the crowd of people might scare the birds from going up to their nests, and along with most of the others we left the birds in peace so the penguins would make their way home. The species number is fragile, so although it was amazing to see them I wondered if more needed to be done to protect the breeding habitat of these rare penguins.

South of Curio Bay is Slope Point the southernmost point of the South Island. From here the road travels past Waipapa Point and Fortrose before it winds inland to Invercargill and on to Bluff.

My plan was to take the ferry across to Stewart Island so we made our way to the ferry terminal. The ferry had just landed and there were some very white-faced people disembarking. Looking out to sea it was rough and Rick was looking at me sideways.

The Māori name hoiho means ‘noise shouter’, referring to the penguins shrill call made at breeding sites

Jane Dove Juneau Photo ©

“Do we really need to go to Stewart Island in such bad conditions?” Rick asked me. Well of course we do. But then again I am a terrible sailor and we only had a limited time – the thought of sailing two trips in rough seas just didn’t make sense. Reluctantly I gave up my dream of Stewart Island for this trip and settled for a walk around Bluff Hill/Motupōhue. I will have to return to visit Stewart Island when I have more time to explore the island.

I was captivated by the rugged coastline of the Catlins, along with the ancient rainforest and interesting range of wild life, from New Zealand sea lions and fur seals to the quirky hoiho yellow-eyed penguins. The geological history of the area was fascinating. To learn that Curio Bay has a petrified forest from the Jurassic era, a time when most of New Zealand was under the sea, was at the least, surprising. The Catlins Coast certainly lived up to my expectations of a place of mystery and intrigue.