Not too many travelers go further south than Te Anau and Milford Sound. Those who do, however, and travel between Invercargill and Dunedin, have the possibility to take the scenic route through the Catlins and are rewarded with amazing beaches, stunning waterfalls, and beautiful scenery. And lots of gravel roads, yes, that too.
The southernmost point
The South Island’s most southerly point is actually at Slope Point in the Catlins. However, that place is rather difficult to access because it’s far away from anything and only accessible via a gravel road.
The small town of Bluff is almost as southerly and it’s also where the State Highway 1, which runs through both islands, ends. That place is therefore much more convenient as the southernmost point of the island and so at Stirling Point in Bluff there’s a sign where you can take your picture as proof that, officially, you’ve reached the end of the South Island. Or you can just go there and stare at the sea, look at the small islands off the coast, and dream of going even further south to Stewart Island.
On the map, the Catlins route doesn’t seem too long but it would take a minimum of two or three days to properly explore the region. We didn’t know that when we started but realized we’d have trouble doing all we wanted to do when we had lunch in Curio Bay (we started in Invercargill – just look at a map).
Before lunch, we spent about two hours on the beach at Waipapa point lighthouse – an empty beach with only seabirds, even a colony of spotted shags. With some patience and luck you can find beautifully colored paua shells or fragments of them.
On the beach at Curio Bay, millions of years old fossilized trees are exposed for a few hours around low tide. They don’t look particularly pretty but the mere thought of these trees lying there since millions of years is crazy. It’s a really special place.
A walk through yet another enchanted forest leads to McLean falls (I love the forests in New Zealand! Walking through one is like being in a Lord of the Rings movie). The waterfall is beautiful but it’s better to watch it from a safe distance: The stones are extremely slippery; I learned that very fast.
When going back down, we saw two guys walking along the water. Then suddenly, we heard a cry and a splash; one of them had slipped and fallen down the waterfall into the, fortunately deep enough, pool. His head had been only centimeters away from the stones, it could have ended badly but luckily he got away with the shock. We too.
Walking trails, waterfalls, beaches, lakes, forests, … there’s a lot of everything in the Catlins but it’s impossible to do it all in a day. We didn’t manage to go to Nugget Point that day so we went there the next morning.
At Nugget Point, a lighthouse towers on a huge cliff, the rocks fall dramatically to the sea on three sides. The beaches below and the huge rocks offshore are a perfect and sheltered habitat for fur seals and sea birds. A short walking trail leads to the lighthouse and offers, once again, amazing views of the sea and the coast.