Monday 23rd November
Southland - The Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park.
The south coast was a very wild and windswept place. Despite our sheltered spot in the dunes we were buffeted a lot during the night. On waking it was some time before we could think of a good enough reason to do anything other than sit up in bed watching the surf!
The motivation arrived in the form of more sunny weather. The sandy beach had a curious tump called Monkey Island used by ancient Maori as a whale spotting station. You could walk to it at low tide, but it was most definitely high tide at the start and finish of our morning run, and with the surf piling in all around it, it remained frustratingly out of reach....
We ran instead along the track known as the 'Heritage Trail' that followed the coast overlooking the beaches. It was glorious - we ran west, with the sun on our backs, the wind in our faces, the skylarks singing overhead and the surf roaring. We ran back with the rain on our backs and calves, and our hair in our eyes (well mine, anyway)! We passed a cliff top cemetery, an abandoned (and what must formerly have been idyllic) campsite, a few small farms and a couple of small cabins with huge picture windows looking out over the sea - presumably the holiday homes of artists or naturalists.
Over breakfast we made plans and discovered that somehow we had got ourselves a day ahead of schedule. It was Monday, not Tuesday! This was great news as it gave us an extra day to explore the South coast, rather than a whistle stop fly past on the way to Dunedin.
We started by visiting the beach just east along the coast from where we camped. Known as 'Cosy Nook' it is remarkable for its granite boulders that reminded its discoverer of Scotland. There was an encouraging sign on a gate with an arrow saying 'Public road all the way', so we drove in through the tiny hamlet around the back of the rocky beach to a small headland where we parked and watched the thundering rollers crashing into the rocks, sending great plumes of spray into the air. As well as seagulls and terns we saw spotted shags flying back and forth, skimming the waves.
Winding back through the hamlet was even trickier than in the way out (think Greek hill-top village)
At one point we squeezed gently past the appropriately named hut called 'Polyfilla Villa' in a way that meant my passenger window was just inches from the bay window of the hut. Inside a wizened toothless old man waved merrily at me without any hint of annoyance at the tourist traffic!
Our next stop was at the fantastic surf beach at Colac. The tides must have been unusually high and seas rough because the beach road was covered in large pebbles washed up off the beach.
The next part of South Island is known as the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park. It's not on the 'blue route' and gets only a brief mention in the guide books, but we loved it.
Stopping in Invercargill was an unfortunate necessity. Bill visited the slowest Maori barber on the island, and I spoke to an unhelpful receptionist in the DOC office, hidden on the 7th floor of a city centre office block. We failed to find the Cafe recommended in our guide book. Spirits lifted, however, after a trip to the ever helpful i-site who once again gave us all the information, advice and maps we needed and a few more besides. The Southland museum was housed in the same building and alongside the exhibits of shipwrecks, seals and meteorology was a glass tuatarium displaying Henry, the 100 year old dinosaur like reptile -aTuatara - whose party trick is to be able to 'freeze'. He didn't move at all in the time that we were there and we just had to take their word that he was real!! His other clever feature is his 'third eye' (pineal gland) in the top of his head, so presumably that helps to prevent him getting seasonal defective disorder. He seemed pretty content in a quiet, contemplative way whilst we were watching anyway!
So, back to the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park....
After Madge Cafe finest pate and cucumber sandwiches we made plans and set off on the Southern Scenic Highway, leaving the beaten track and most of the tourist troop behind us.
The area stretched from Fortrose to the west and Kaka Point to the east. It is known for its remoteness, volatile seas and wildlife.
We started by visiting Waipapa Point and lighthouse. Highlights here were the rock platforms and golden sandy beach where three huge Hooker's sea lions basked in the sun. The small attractive wooden lighthouse was built in the late 19th century following the shipwreck of the SS Tararua in 1881 when 131 lives were lost. There were black and white photos of the lighthouse keeper, and his wife and daughters, playing chess in their kitchen back in the 1960s, and the two girls walking the long track to school prior to the arrival of a school bus in 1970. They were probably the same age as us - what a remote and difficult life they must have led.
Next stop was Slope Point, the southernmost point of South Island and a landscape covered with windswept trees and sheep. (The trees were windswept, the sheep seemed fine!)
To be honest there wasn't much to see but we walked the 500 metre path down to the edge of the cliff to stand by the sign indicating that we were 4803 kilometres from the South Pole and 5140 kilometres from the Equator.
At this point it seemed that the weather front affecting the west coast was catching up with us, and large drops of rain started to fall. We hurried back to the van and drove east to Curio Bay.
Curio Bay is famous for two things (apart from its weather, which by now was appalling, with squally rain blowing up and into everywhere, under hoods, into sleeves and down the backs of our necks).
The first famous thing is that is an ancient geological phenomenon being a petrified forest; secondly it is home to a small colony of the very rare yellow-eyed penguins or Hoiho. This bird is native to New Zealand and has a distinctive appearance with yellow eyes and a yellow head band.
Arriving at the fossil beach via a long flight of steps, we looked across at a rocky inlet with the tide surging in and waves crashing onto the kelp covered platform. There in the surf was a yellow-eyed penguin. It bobbed about in the white water, trying to scramble out onto the rocks. On one occasion a wave did lift it up over the lip of the platform and it started to waddle up through the seaweed, until the next wave knocked it back into the sea again.
On the other side of the beach, two more penguins had been more successful and were making their way up the beach over the rocks towards the bush and scrub at the back of the cliffs. They would jump from rock to rock and then stand and preen themselves, as if posing for the camera, before hopping on. Although we were careful to keep our distance the birds seemed completely unconcerned by our presence.
Meanwhile the rain got heavier and heavier so after about an hour, we returned to the van for tea, delighted to have witnessed the antics of such a rare bird at such close quarters.
We drove on towards our camp site. On our way we came across a land slip where the whole of both carriageways of the road had broken and fallen away into a gorge. We were diverted along some gravel and Tarmac inland of the slip.
We drove up to Florence Hill and looked back at the spectacular Tautuku bay, surf rolling in over a crescent of perfect pale sand, and the red sun setting behind a headland in the rain-heavy sky.
Finally we arrived in the DOC campsite at Papatowai. A lovely sheltered ground next to the beach. It was rainy and almost dark so we turned on the heater, prepared supper, and settled down for the evening, in anticipation of exploring further tomorrow.