While New Zealand's South Island tourists' flock to Queenstown and Fiordland, the Southern Scenic Route leads to a haven of peace and quiet on the Catlins coast
Among the many very good reasons for visiting New Zealand’s South Island, the wonderful scenery of Fiordland and the opportunities for outdoor adventure in Queenstown attract the great majority of tourists. Those who don’t venture further south than Manapouri, gateway to the majestically serene Doubtful Sound, will have all the choices they need for a fantastic time in this captivating region. But they will miss the delights to be found in the far south of the island.
That well-worn phrase ‘off the beaten track’ was never more appropriate. The first section of the Southern Scenic Route runs south from Manapouri through gently rolling hill country. The nearest you get to a traffic jam here is two cars in a row (yours and another). On the 90-kilometre drive to the Waiau River estuary, the population consists largely of sheep and cattle. At Clifden, the historic suspension bridge over the river is now disused, but boasts the longest span of any suspension bridge in the country. In Tuatapere, the Yesteryears Museum (3 Orawia Road; 03-226 6681) is a charming private collection of rural Southland antiques, doubling as a café serving excellent coffee and snacks.
Invercargill, no more than half a day’s drive from Manapouri, is the only conurbation in the far south. Its main attraction for tourists is the access it affords to Stewart Island, reached by ferry from Bluff, a few miles south. In the city centre, just down the road from the Civic Theatre, the quirky Zookeeper’s Café (50 Tay Street, Invercargill; 03-218 3373) is a good spot for lunch.
The captivating Catlins
From Invercargill, State Highway 1 heads inland on its way across to Dunedin on the east coast, while the Southern Scenic Route drops down to the coast at Fortrose, the western limit of the Catlins, a region of tiny settlements, rugged cliffs, deserted beaches and quiet roads. Here we took the first of many gravel tracks that need to be traversed to appreciate fully the natural beauty of this coast. At Waipapa Point, we saw our first sea lion. A few kilometres on, another unsealed road leads to a small parking area, and a 10-minute walk away is Slope Point, the southernmost tip of South Island - and most probably its windiest spot.
One of the main attractions of the Catlins for us was its remoteness. There are no banks or ATMs and mobile phone coverage is patchy. The population of the entire region is less than 1,500. As most visitors are weekenders from Invercargill or Dunedin, there is a limited choice of accommodation. You won’t find five-star hotels, but you will find a friendly welcome everywhere. We loved Catlins Farmstay (174 Progress Valley Road, Tokanui RD 1; room and breakfast $180-$250), run by June and Murray Stratford, whose family farms 1,000 acres in Progress Valley. Their spacious, modern farmhouse is reached by a gravel road from Niagara, so named by a surveyor with a sense of humour, after a waterfall about a metre high on the Waikawa River. On the first night of our stay, June’s three rooms were occupied, so she took us down the road to a luxury bungalow that she and Murray had built for their imminent retirement. We wouldn’t need keys, explained June, as they never bothered to lock the doors. Within minutes we had spotted a kingfisher, perched on a post in the Waikawa estuary. At dusk, we drove a short distance to Curio Bay, where we observed yellow-eyed penguins making their way across the shore to their nests in the scrub.
If you rush through the Catlins, you won’t have time to appreciate its very special nature. We spent a day exploring the small area around Curio Bay. When the tide recedes, it exposes a petrified forest of trees felled millions of years ago in a volcanic eruption and later revealed in fossilised form by the pounding of the waves. On the other side of South Head is Porpoise Bay, where the resident pod of Hector’s dolphins obligingly made an appearance. Situated on the headland itself, in a spectacular location, is Curio Bay Camping Ground, which is open to day visitors and has a small store for provisions. Surfing is popular here, and a surf school operates from the camping ground (03-246 8552; www.catlins-surf.co.nz).
Eating and drinking
In the whole of the Catlins there are only a few motels, backpacker hostels and camp sites, so little hope, we thought, of finding a really good place to eat. How wrong we were: at the Niagara Falls Café (256 Niagara-Waikawa Road, Niagara, Tokanui; 03-246 8577), we ate two dinners that would have merited lavish praise in the most sophisticated of cities, never mind out here in the sticks. These meals to remember included Bluff oysters, rack of lamb and the best sticky date pudding I’ve tasted anywhere. With wines like Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir to savour, we were very contented customers.
From Progress Valley the Chaslands Highway twists and climbs around the eastern edge of the MacLennan Range. Just east of Chaslands, there is an access road to a car park, from where a 30-minute walk through forest and along Waipati Beach leads to the imposing Cathedral Caves, accessible only two hours before and after low tide. A little further on, Florence Hill Lookout is an unmissable stop, affording superb views over Tautuku Bay. Close to here, in Papatowai, is the base of Catlins Wildlife Trackers, an ecotourism organisation run by Fergus and Mary Sutherland (5 Mirren Street, Papatowai RD 2, Owaka; 03-415 8613; www.catlins-ecotours.co.nz). They offer self-catering eco-cottages and guided walks or tours of the area.
Further east, Owaka, the largest township in the Catlins (population 400), is a useful stop for fuel and provisions. Before leaving the region at its eastern fringe, it’s certainly worth making another detour, 8km along a gravel road that borders the Pacific Ocean on its way to the rocky headland that is Nugget Point. Like many of the star sights in the Catlins, a little more effort is involved to reap the full reward: a 15-minute walk along a rocky ledge leading to the lighthouse at the point, where fur seals bask below on the rocks.
We continued north on the Southern Scenic Route to Dunedin. There was much more of New Zealand to look forward to, but the magic of the Catlins remains a vivid memory.