With our final few days in New Zealand, we decide to explore the nooks and crannies of two of the South Island’s lesser visited areas, the Catlins Coast and the Otago Peninsula. Located in the southeast corner of the South Island, these two areas are known for dramatic coastlines, gorgeous waterfalls, and amazing wildlife encounters. Here are some of the highlights of the places we visited on our 3.5-day roadtrip up the Southern scenic coast from Bluff to Christchurch.
Camping at Curio Bay
Straight off the ferry ride from Stewart Island, we picked up our car in Bluff and headed up the coast to Curio Bay, arriving just before sunset. The strong winds that made the crossing back to the South Island so rough are still howling, making our little coastal campground seem a little less than ideal to say the least. It is almost sunset when we arrive, and the angry, churning sea is slamming relentlessly into the rock formations along the bay. We stop to photograph the intense wave action from the road overlooking the bay just before the sun goes down. What a greeting!
We’d be lying if we said that we weren’t nervous about setting up our little tent in these conditions, but we discover that crazy strong wind conditions must be the norm. The tent campsites are set in a maze of 10 feet tall flax bushes that have been planted and harvested to create protected, little camping spots.
At this late hour, most of the spots have already been taken, but we finally find a little, private nook where we can stay for the night. It definitely feels like we are sleeping in a giant corn maze, but the tall plants do their job well and allow us to sleep like babies on this windy, windy night!
In the morning, we wake up, break camp and head up to a viewpoint over the bay to have our breakfast. It’s still so windy that we eat in the car while watching the seagulls struggle to fly in the wind. Just a few minutes up the road, we visit the petrified trees/forest at Tumu Toka that is exposed by the low tide. The fossils are kind of cool, but they are definitely upstaged by the giant waves that are still pounding the coastline.
The Catlins is known for its beautiful waterfalls, which is serendipitous, because waterfalls just so happen to be one of our very favorite nature subjects. First up is McLean Falls, a nice 40-minute return hike up a lush gorge to a gorgeous multi-tiered series of waterfalls at its end.
About halfway to the top, we spot a small waterfall just below the trail and decide to check it out. We follow a short, steep track below the trail for about a hundred feet and arrive at this beautiful little scene that nearly takes our breath away.
The attractive rock formations and bright green moss make this waterfall super photogenic. Most people walk right on past this set of falls, and we love having this gorgeous spot all to ourselves despite all of the people around.
We’ve seen a lot of pretty waterfalls in our day, but this has to be one of the most beautiful we have ever had the opportunity to photograph!
After shooting the lower falls to our hearts’ content, we continue taking the trail up to the top to the 22-meter tiered upper falls, which is just as spectacular. Man, we are loving this spot!
From there, we continue driving up the coast to Matai Falls which is practically dry due to the lack of rain this summer on the Southern Coast. We leave without a single picture of the falls but do find this graceful fern unfurling for our cameras.
Our last waterfall of the day is Purakaunui Falls, which is one of New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls. After the short hike in, it is clear to see why this impressive falls is such an icon of the Catlins.
Roaring Bay Penguin Hide
We arrive at the Roaring Bay Penguin Hide in the early evening when the yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho return from the sea. A short walk on the cliffs above the bay leads to a hide high above the shore where you might be lucky to spot a penguin or two landing on the rocky beach and then waddling up to their nests in the shrubland. New Zealanders are fiercely protective of their penguin population, and we are a good distance from the action, but it is still really cool to see wild penguins doing their cute penguin antics.
Nugget Point is just a short drive from Roaring Bay, so we head there to catch the sunset. From the parking lot, we take a spectacular trail skirting the coastline high above the ocean below. The coastline is rocky and dramatic and could definitely give Big Sur in California a run for its money. We spot a few seals on the way out to the lighthouse where we have a front row seat as we watch the clouds in the sky light up for us as the sun goes down.
We head to Surat Bay first thing in the morning in hopes of seeing some New Zealand sea lions/whakahao hanging out on the beach. It’s a pleasant walk through the dunes along the bay, and we are lucky to come across one of the big fellas laying in the sand just beyond the surf. Even at a distance, he looks enormous and intimidating, and we watch him quietly from the dunes above hoping that he won’t protest our company. In the short time that we are there, the tide slowly creeps up and eventually disturbs his slumber. He lifts up his enormous torso to avoid the waves, and, when a large enough one comes, he is gone in a flash. It is impressive to see how quickly he can move when he wants to!
Dunedin is the gateway to the Otago Peninsula, and it is a cool, little town. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to explore the city, but we time our short visit for a meal since we have heard that it has a wonderful food scene. We grab a quick lunch at a tasty Malaysian restaurant before checking out some of the city’s cool street art decorating some buildings around town. With its beautiful architecture, stunning location and hip vibe, Dunedin definitely makes an impression, and we make note that this is a place where we would like to spend a lot more time in the future.
Otago Peninsula Drive
From Dunedin, we head out to the Otago Peninsula for a jaw-dropping drive along the curvy roads that snake along the mountains and coves of this ruggedly beautiful area. This area definitely warrants several days for a proper exploration and we only have an afternoon, so we pick and choose a few spots to check out this time around. First up is Hoopers Inlet where we spot among the quiet coves some wading birds, including the Pied stilt, Marsh sandpiper and the Pukeko, feeding in the calm waters right beside the road.
From there, we head to Allans Beach where we take a nice afternoon stroll. Almost immediately, we come across another sea lion who is busy making a sand blanket to protect himself from the flies and sun. We give him a wide berth but practically step on a young fur seal who is napping tucked beside the rock formations.
Royal Albatross Center
In the late afternoon, we visit the Royal Albatross Center and join one of their very informative guided tours to learn more about this amazing seabird. Our guide is a charming young woman who clearly takes delight in sharing her knowledge of these majestic giants. This is the world’s only mainland albatross colony, so it is only possible to see them on a guided visit and visitors are kept a safe distance from the breeding birds. The closest viewing is only possible through an observation window, although there is a chance to see them soaring high above as you hike up to the viewing box. Be sure to look down, too, because you will also likely see some nesting red-billed gulls as well as some random sheep.
At first, we are a little bummed to be restricted to shooting from behind glass, but the winds have really picked up this afternoon making us extremely grateful for the protection from the elements. It is an incredible experience to watch nearly a dozen juvenile Royal Albatross taking full advantage of their 3-meter wingspan to brave the crazy, strong winds at Taioroa Head on this day—what a sight!
After seeing the birds, we also take a short visit to historic Fort Taiaroa, a former military defense post built just below the albatross colony. There you can see a fully restored Armstrong Disappearing Gun from 1886, the barracks and even a viewcam of a few of the nests in the colony above you.
In between Dunedin and Christchurch is the charming little fishing village of Moreaki where we camp for the night. We are here to photograph the Moeraki Boulders at sunrise, so we wake up at 5 am and drive a few minutes up the road to the visitor center at Koekohe Beach. The sky looks dubious at first, but, at the last minute, the sun breaks through the clouds, treating us to an amazing, colorful sky. What a treat!
There are about 50 of these spherical boulders scattered along the shoreline, some in clusters and some all on their own. It took about 4 million years for the boulders to form inside the mudstone cliffs bordering the beach. They were released onto the beach as wave erosion exposed them, and there are still more trapped inside the cliffs that will eventually make their way onto the beach.
The boulders are huge and perfectly round, and their cool texture reminds us of Daenerys’ dragon’s eggs from Game of Thrones. We spend the next two+ hours having fun photographing the boulders from all sorts of angles.
Moeraki Millennium Walkway
After getting our fill of the boulders, we take a short hike along the Moeraki Millenium Walkway back in the village, where we see fur seals frolicking in the surf and Spotted shags resting on the rocky outcroppings. The trail finally comes to end at an overlook to a gorgeous orange-sand beach below us.
The South Island is chock full of beautiful coastline and hiking trails like this, making us want to come back to explore all the more.
Lunch at Fleur’s Place
Before leaving New Zealand, we decide to treat ourselves to a fantastic lunch at Fleur’s Place. The cute, little building perched right on the water in Moreaki appears to be little more than a charming old fishing shack from the outside. With just one step inside, it is clear why Fleur’s has become a must-do foodie destination for seafood lovers who flock here to eat the exquisite dishes prepared from fish bought off the boats just meters away each morning.
The food, beautiful presentation and atmosphere is every bit as good as it was hyped to be. Matt enjoyed a tomato-based seafood chowder and three types of fish, while I had an unbelievable mushroom risotto. The Crème brûlée we shared for dessert was exquisite!
This is the only $100 lunch that the two of us have ever had in our lifetime, and trust us when we say that it was worth every penny. If you are in the area, make sure to stop in for a meal to remember, but be sure to make a reservation at least a few days ahead of time, even for lunch. This is essential!
Smelling the Roses
One of the best parts about a road trip for us is being able to explore all the nooks and crannies of a place and to be able to stop and “smell the roses” whenever a good subject pops up. We pulled over beside the road countless times on our road trip to photograph the sheep, beautiful birds and pretty scenery that we passed. Here are a few of the random shots we captured along the way.
Looking back, it’s pretty amazing to see how much we were able to pack into our 3.5-day roadtrip from Bluff up the southern scenic coast back to Christchurch. Even so, we were definitely wishing we had a lot more time to slow down and explore this area more thoroughly. This felt like the perfect ending to our three-week long exploration of the southern half of the South Island, and this small taste of this amazing country definitely left us wanting a lot more. We finally made it to New Zealand, and it will definitely not be our last.