Cruising the Catlins (and Dunedin)

April 2021

For a long time I have been itching to head south.  Not quite as far south as Stewart Island but south to Dunedin and beyond to the Catlins, an area that covers the south east corner of the South Island.  I finally made it during the Easter break (which in New Zealand includes the Friday and the Monday), and better yet, I had managed to persuade my partner to come with me – winning all around lol.

We left Christchurch just after midday on Thursday, hoping to avoid the worst of the Easter weekend traffic.  Our plan worked and despite the multitude of trucks and campervans we had to pass, we arrived into Dunedin around 5pm – just in time to join the city rush hour traffic!  Fortunately we did not have to far to go to our ocean front hotel, right on the esplanade of St Clair – the seaside suburb of the city. 

We didn’t have an ocean front room (to expensive) but our room was lovely and we could see the sea from our balcony 👍🏻.  The tide was right in and somewhat wild but despite that there were a number of surfers braving the waves.  I wasn’t aware when booking the hotel, but apparently, St Clair Beach is a very popular with surfers, having New Zealand’s most consistent surf break and this weekend, they were hosting the South Island Surfing Championships! 

After settling in to the room, we made the short walk to the local shops to get some food for our drive tomorrow  and fish and chips and wine for our dinner – pure class 😂 and we enjoyed a quiet night in, in preparation of our early start the next day for our Catlins day trip.

I had spent many hours mapping and planning our day (yes, I am that person) and had an itinerary down to the 5 minute intervals 🥴, including tracking weather and tides (which is a must for some of our stops) lol.  As we left the city in the still almost darkness (it was almost 8am) it was raining! I prayed the weather websites I had consulted had it right and that it would clear up.

First stop was a petrol station to stock up on coffee, breakfast and fuel to make sure we were ready for a day on the road with virtually no shops and little phone reception – it was still overcast and raining, not boding well for our first viewpoint 🥴

We left the city on State Highway 1, the longest and most significant road in New Zealand running the length of both islands.  Not surprisingly it is a good road and in this area, runs through picturesque farm land.  We tuned off the main road to head towards our first stop at Nugget Point.

Nugget Point gets its name from the gold nugget shaped rocks (some imagination is needed to see this shape) just of the headland.   From the car park area, it is just a short, relatively easy walk up to the lighthouse, which was built in 1869 and the viewing platform over the ‘nuggets’.   

Thankfully the sky had cleared and although it was not sunny, it was still beautiful with the sun breaking through the clouds on to the sea.   It was windy though and I could not stay on the exposed part of the viewing platform for too long with fear of being blown off lol!  There is a small sign near the track which describes Nugget Point as the “meeting place of rock and waves and wind and tide” – I think that sums it up nicely.

Back on the picturesque road again and the rain started again.  Of course, rain + sun = 🌈👍🏻.

Now there are many waterfalls in the Catlins, and if you have more time, you could spend an entire day visiting waterfalls alone.  Our one day whistle stop tour means we had to choose one, and we chose Purakaunui Falls. 

The falls were only a short 10 minute walk from the carpark, through a native podocarp and beech forest filled with beautiful bird song and just as we reached the falls, the clouds parted and blue sky appeared above the waterfall for the perfect picture 😁.   The waterfall is 20 metres tall and cascades over 3 tiers.  Apparently, it is one of New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls and even appears on a postage stamp (if you remember those things lol).

It may be worth noting that there is no phone reception in much of this area, so we were relying on the offline app to get around and we were initially concerned when it directed us along an unsealed road … but never fear, we finally made it out on the main road and we were soon at our next stop at the Lost Gypsy caravan were we had a quick break to caffeinate again 😂and grab an amazing freshly baked hot cross bun.   The caravan itself (and ‘museum’ in the surrounding area) is a weird collection of ‘automata and curios’ (one person’s junk is another person’s treasure) which definitely worth exploring if you have the time.

Back on the road and we had a quick stop at the Florence Hill look out for a view over the perfectly curved Tautuku Beach and out to the Southern Ocean before continuing on a few kilometres to the car park for Cathedral Caves.  We paid our small fee for the car park (more of a donation towards the maintance etc.) and headed down the track through the bush towards the beach.

The caves are only accessible 3 hours per day around low tide so planning was essential to make sure we were here at the right time.  It is also closed during the winter months.  It took us around 10 minutes down the bush lined track and 10 minutes along a beautiful wide wind swept beach – thankfully the sun was out again and it was not too cold.  I loved the bush lined beach.

There were a few people around, but not too many and we managed to avoid the larger family group which would have ruined all my photos 😂. 

The caves themselves have been gouged out of the Jurassic sandstone cliffs by the waves over tens of thousands of years and it is worth taking a torch (or ensuring your phone has a torch on it) if you want to explore the back of the caves.  They are up to 30 metres in height, resembling cathedrals (with some imagination).

It only took 12 minutes to walk/trot back up from the beach to the car park – my weekly hill walks must be paying off 👍🏻.

Just as we got back to the car park, it started to rain … the heaviest rain we had had during the day.  In fact, come to think of it, it seemed to rain every time we were in the car lol.

Our final stop was Curio Bay.  The home the endangered yellow eyed penguins and an incredible petrified forest.  Unfortunately, it was the wrong time of the day to see the penguins as they typically come in from their day at sea near dusk.  Of course, to see the petrified forest, we needed to be there around low tide and they did not correspond. 

The petrified forest dates back to the Jurassic period and the tree fossils you can see today, are approximately 170 million years old.  It was incredible that you can still see the rings of the trees in the ‘stone’.  The trees are the ancestors of Kauri and Matai, and were alive when New Zealand was part of Gondwanaland … if only those trees could talk.  It was a bit windy, but the sun was shining and the contrast of colours between the sky, the sea and the rocks was stunning. 

Just a short walk from Curio Day is Porpoise Bay.  You can probably guess that it is common to see Hectors dolphins in the bay.  We found a spot overlooking the bay to park up for lunch but unfortunately there were no dolphins today.  Before our long drive back to Dunedin, we took a  quick look at the view point over Curio Bay – guess what, it started raining and the wind picked up again, just as I was trying to take photos of birds in the distance but the wind was blowing me around on the exposed headland.   Again that amazing combination of sun and rain resulted in a  rainbow into sea 🌈.

We had an uneventful 2.5 hour drive back to Dunedin (if you don’t count the massive flock of sheep slowly making their way down the road) and the surf competition was still going (it started early in the morning).  We watched it for a little while before enjoying a well earned meal at Spirit House, an Asian fusion restaurant just a few minutes from our hotel – I highly recommend it if you are in the area. 

The next morning we had planned to have a relaxed morning and go for a walk but I woke to see red reflected in the windows of the houses across from us – that was it, I was dressed and out of there in a minute and boy was it worth it, what a beautiful sunrise.  (Not quite the pyjama clad dash I did in Stewart Island – at least this time I had clothes on 👍🏻 lol).

It was a lovely walk around to the Sir Leonard Wright lookout.   The walk took us along St Clair beach, through parks and a little along an ocean front road and then back along the beach – 8 km in total.  It was a great start to the day.

We headed back to the room to shower and change before driving into the city.  I bought a 50c map from the Information Centre and did a little self-guided heritage walk.  Unfortunately, the map didn’t give much information and had pretty poor photos showing the buildings, but it did give me some structure to my roaming so I guess it was worth the 50c?? lol

Dunedin’s history dates back to the arrival of Māori in around 1100AD.  Little evidence is left of their time here, in a place they called Ōtepoti, but it is considered that they survived on seal and moa.  Almost 600 years later, in 1770, Capitan Cook arrived in the area, quickly followed by European sealers and whalers decimating the local wildlife populations.   

The 1800’s brought the gold rush and a Scottish settlement, that turned in to New Zealand’s first city in 1865.  It was also the largest and richest city at the time.   The new settlers tried to replicate Edinburgh and many of the buildings from that time give the city the character it has today.  The name Dunedin come from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh – Dùn Èideann.   Apparently the ornate Victorian and Edwardian buildings are regarded the best collect of such architecture in the Southern Hemisphere.  Dunedin is also home of New Zealand’s first university – Otago, which was founded in 1869.

My walk ended up at the at the First Church, built in 1873 – the last time I was here photographing the church was 8 years ago, in the snow!!! This time I was fortunate to have some sunshine 👍🏻

From the city, I drove out to the peninsula to Larnch Castle – a mock castle with beautiful views and stunning gardens with plants from all around the world.  Unlike the map I had in town, the entrance fee (you can pay to just look around the gardens or the gardens and castle) to the castle provides you with a brochure that has lots of information about the castle and grounds.

Despite all the “Scottishness”, the castle has no real Scottish roots and Larnch was actually born in Australia and lived most of his life there or in New Zealand.   (At that time, these settlers still considered themselves British despite never setting foot in the mother country.)

Apparently, it is New Zealand’s only ‘castle” and was built by European mast craftsmen in 1871 by William Larnch for his wife Eliza.  No expense was spared.  Unfortunately, over the years the castle and grounds was left and both were in poor condition when purchased by the Barker family in 1967.   They have spent the subsequent decades restoring both the castle and gardens to their former glory (and beyond the case of the gardens) and the entrance fees allows them to continue this work.

The final thing on my list for the day was a walk to Tunnel Beach, a beach just outside of the city.  OMG, the path down was so steep and I was already dreading the walk back up just a few minutes in to the walk down!  This is another beach that you can only access 2 hours either side of low tide.  On this day, low tide was 4.30pm and the track and its nearby on road parking was already busy at 3pm!   

After the steep path down, I reached the tunnel which was narrow and dark (it is a tunnel after all  🥴) but it was all worth it when I made it to the to the beautiful beach surrounded by cliffs

By the time I got back to our hotel, I had most definitely earned pizza for dinner!

Our final morning and it was 19c at 6.30am so I was up early again for a final walk along the sea front and beach.  The sunrise was not as nice as the day before but was so warm and beautiful and surfers were already out warming up for their competition.

Sadly it was then time to get packed and head north, not without a short stop for lunch at the Fishwife at Moeraki village (yes, it is near the Moeraki Boulders).  They have great chips and are amazing for fresh Crays (if you like that kind of thing lol).

Its worth noting that Dunedin has so much more to do than just the mostly outdoorsy things I did.  It has a great museum, brewery tours, albatross and penguin colonies, wildlife boat cruises – definitely something for everyone!

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