New Zealand 4: Catlins National Park

We decided to hire a car from Queenstown onwards rather than take buses – a tough decision as buses would probably work out cheaper plus they offer the opportunity to get some sleep, have a bit of down time or catch up on your blog. However in New Zealand there are so many places nearby or around the locations you visit that are hard to get to without a car, plus it provides the fantastic freedom of stopping where you want, when you want, or even changing your route at the last minute. We booked with Apex car hire and paid just over $600 for 10 days with unlimited km and fully covered insurance for the both of us so we could share driving, but it is always worth checking on comparison sites.

We left Queenstown at just after 10am and arrived at Nugget Point in the Catlins at around 2:30 after having a stop along the way. Nugget Point is right on the coast and boasts a lighthouse – perhaps the reason for most visits – but the highlight for us was walking the 10 minute coastal track to the lighthouse and hearing the sounds of seals wailing. Not only were there seals climbing over the rocks below us but we also spotted penguins hanging around on the rocks. It was really cool being able to observe them in their natural habitat. On our drive back we stopped off at Roaring Bay as you might be lucky enough to glimpse Yellow-Eyed Penguins, however it wasn’t our lucky day so we continued driving along the bottom of the national park heading West.

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We took a detour on our route to visit the Purakaunui Falls, parking up and taking a 10 minute walk through the bush to reach the base of the falls. I will be honest, it was slightly underwhelming but that may be the time of year and lack of rain (if you google images of Purakaunui falls you will find images way more impressive than mine) and, anyway, after quite a number of hours in the car it was good to stretch our legs. Speaking of underwhelming, we also stopped at Niagara Falls, playfully named as it is the complete opposite in grandeur and beauty to the original. In fact, it is barely a trickle of water down a stream – we didn’t mind as we were driving past but do not go out of your way for this!

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Purakaunui Falls

At around 6pm we pulled into the Cathedral Caves parking lot, where you pay $5 NZD each (for adults – $1 for children) to cross private land, first walking through the bush, down a jungle trail, and then along the wide beach to reach the Cathedral Caves, which you can only access at low tide. The Caves were interesting but nothing spectacular for me – after seeing deep and wide caves in Vietnam and Malaysia apparently I have become a bit of a cave snob – however the walk there and back with the late afternoon sun glistening the ocean and the wet sand made it worthwhile for me.

The highlight of the drive across the Catlins, however, might be when we had to brake suddenly as an enormous herd of sheep were in the road ahead of us, being scurried in by sheepdogs. We had a similar experience on another point in our road trip when a man had to get out of his car in front of us because of the sheep that had escaped the field we were passing; he was not at all amused, but I find it all rather entertaining. 

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We continued driving west and arrived at our accommodation – Slope Point Backpackers – at around 8pm, where we had paid $25 NZD each per night for a bunk room. With the accommodation on a farm we were allowed to feed the sheep and goats, but judging by their aggressive pursuit for the food in my hand and their lack of understanding of the concept of sharing or waiting their turn (honestly, the number of times I had to have the same discussion with them about their table manners) you would think they hadn’t been fed in weeks. It was a strange sensation to have the sheep almost suck the feed out of the palm of your hands, and slightly frightening watching the goat poke its tongue out in between its teeth to inhale the food in a lizard-like way. Plus its “baa” sounded artificial, as though mimicked by a human, so I just couldn’t trust it.

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Anyway, after feeding the animals and feeding ourselves (much more of a priority) we headed out on a late-evening walk; it’s slightly disorientating but also lovely that the sun doesn’t set until around 10pm. We didn’t get very far down the road before we were approached by a female dog and her puppy; now, I’m not usually a fan of dogs and I know insanely little about breeds, but this one seemed to be stocky like a bulldog but more tame in nature like a pug. That’s all I can offer you I’m afraid, but the mother was gentle and affectionate and the puppy playful and scrappy, and they just wouldn’t leave us alone. Ok, and we weren’t exactly feeding them off, either. When we eventually pulled ourselves away and continued walking, we looked back to see the dog and the puppy sat in the middle of the road, just watching us leave. Heartbreakers.

We walked slightly uphill before reaching a sheep field – unsurprisingly – and hung out by the fence watching these curious creatures. I realise that makes us sound a bit odd, but they are so fascinating the way they just sit there, curled up, staring at you. Then again, we were just stood there staring at them, so… We eventually wandered back the way we came and back past the dogs, waiting for us at the side of the road. They joined us as we walked past, the bigger one running alongside me as I picked up speed, before finally turning back when they realised we were leaving them for good.

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The following morning we took a short drive to Waipahtu where we parked up and embarked on a 3 hour bush walk that led to two waterfalls and looped back round to the car park. I call it a bush walk but it felt more like a jungle hike, having to clamber across fallen trees and navigate the constant sludge of mud on the trail. Although a good mix of uphill, downhill and flat (compared to a couple of full-blown uphill walks we have done) and therefore not physically demanding in this way, the concentration required to not slip over and constantly search for less hazardous routes was equally demanding, and therefore exhausting. Unfortunately neither of us fell arse over tit into the mud, but we did have a number of extreme slips and near-misses.

This time the waterfall was very much worth our efforts, with the first one being a landscape fall distributed over a wide section of rocks and the second being a portrait gush of powerful water plummeting over a narrow gap in the cliff to the rocks below. Here I clambered over large, slippery rocks to get close to the point where it met the water below and had a refreshing spray from the impact.

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Back at the car we decided to drive 15 minutes in the opppsite direction to get to Tokanui as we had been told by our accommodation that they had fuel, a shop and a pub (“everything you need”) and we desperately need to refuel both the car and ourselves. Our disappointment when we arrived at this desolate, slightly creep town was palpable, and our $4 limp, soggy toasties pretty much summed up the experience. But, hey, you can’t win at everything, can you??

We then drove east to Waikawa to pop into the museum, where we learned more about the local history and the number of shipwrecks in the Catlins, before driving on to Purpoise bay where we walked along the beach in bare feet for an hour, letting the ocean cool off our toes after our morning climb. Again, the highlight came completely by surprise – as we were nonchalantly trotting along the beach our eyes casually drifted to the male surfers riding the waves, where we then happened to spot a trio of dolphins surfing the waves just a few metres away from them, heading towards the shore. I find it hard to explain the emotions I felt and why, but as we stood there – frozen to the spot – watching 3, then 5, then 8 dolphins ride the waves towards the shore, all in a line and completely in sync, capturing them in their natural habitat pop up out of the ocean and back in again, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Honestly it was beautiful to watch.

After our moment with nature, we drove 5 minutes up the road to Curio Bay in the hope to have even more – in the summer, between 5 and 6pm, you might just catch a glimpse of a Yellow-Eyed Penguins bringing their babies back to their nests in the rocks. Once again we weren’t lucky enough to spot any, however with the evening sun blazing down on us and the waves crashing into the rocks a few metres away from us, it was a really peaceful way to spend an hour. 

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Slope Point access point

 

As our last stop of the day we drove down to Slope Point, 5km from our accommodation and the most southerly Point on the South Island of NZ. As we drove down towards it, to our right we were blessed with a wide, panoramic view across the New Zealand mountains and ocean, the sun beating illuminating the greens and blues. We parked up and took the 20 minute walk across the grassy hill to the most southerly point on the cliff edge, took the obligatory photos and took a slow amble back to the car, enjoying the evening sun on our backs and wind in our hair.

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Back at our accommodation for the night, we had dinner and packed our bags in preparation for an early(ish) start to Te Anau.

LS

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