Not Some Fantasy Land

Exploring The Catlins Coast

There is a place I used to go as child where dolphins surfed perfect barrelling waves, rare penguins nested above a stone forest, and from the same spot you could watch the sun rise and the sun set over the ocean. This was not some fantasy land of my own imagining, this place is The Catlins Coast in the far south of the South Island.

The Catlins as it usually called, takes its name from Captain Edward Cattlin, who bought a large swathe of land in 1840 from the Ngai Tahu chief, Tuhawaiki. The coastline here is rugged, with high bluffs spotted with stunted trees, permanently slanted by the strong southerlies that blow in from Foveaux Strait. Between the headlands are many sandy beaches, popular with wetsuited surfers and thick-skinned swimmers. The long, winding drive along the Southern Scenic Route invites you to take your time, camping along the way or renting a crib (or bach to those north of Dunedin). The area has many unique attractions that deserve prolonged attention.

At the northern boundary of the area is Nugget Point, with its lighthouse, seal colony, and views of the craggy sea stacks for which it is named. The southern end of the area is marked by Slope Point, the true southernmost point of the South Island, a distinction often erroneously afforded to Bluff. In between are the spire-like Cathedral Caves which can only be accessed at low tide from Waipati Beach. There’s Jack’s Blowhole, a large deep hole in the middle of farmland that was formed when the roof of sea cave collapsed. Named after Tuhawaiki, or Bloody Jack, as he was known to European sealers, the blowhole sits surprisingly far back from the coast. There are also waterfalls aplenty, with the multi tiered Purakaunui Falls being the most picturesque, while the unfortunately named Niagara Falls may well disappoint at less than a metre high.

Most of my memories are from family holidays spent at Porpoise Bay, camping or staying in a sunny crib right next to the beach. It is at Porpoise Bay where the tiny, endangered Hector’s dolphin can be seen daily, riding the waves alongside human surfers. No need to spend the big bucks on a boat trip to swim with dolphins when you can simply wade out from the beach, tapping your hands on the surface of the water to attract the inquisitive mammals. They will often swim close enough to touch, although doing so is strongly discouraged due to the risk of passing infections on to these rare creatures. Just over the headland from Porpoise Bay is the petrified remains of a coniferous forest that was buried by a volcanic eruption some 180 million years ago. Although long since turned to stone, the fallen logs and tree stumps littering the shore platform still show their rings and knots.

Adding to the area’s wildlife credentials, the cliffs above this relic of Gondwanaland are home to a colony of the endangered Yellow-eye penguin, or hoiho. The Yellow-eye is weary of humans and particularly sensitive to people coming between their nests and the ocean, so it is important to keep your distance. Less perturbed by people are the more common Little Blue penguin, a family of which had a habit of nesting under our bach. Despite the plethora of endangered wildlife in the area, the most amazing experience for me was falling asleep to the Little Blue chicks, as common as day, chirping and squawking just beneath the floorboards.