The Catlins: Where nature shapes people

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade finds the unspoiled beauty of New Zealand's southeast is wasted on some.

Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins is well worth enduring the winding gravel road down to the campsite for. Photo / Supplied
Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins is well worth enduring the winding gravel road down to the campsite for. Photo / Supplied

"What a waste of a nice beach," tutted the man next to me at the Florence Hill lookout over Tautuku Bay.

"Not a house anywhere. Not even a tent!"

I suggested that some people might see that as an advantage, but he was clearly unconvinced.

Some people shouldn't be allowed in the Catlins.

All over the place like a rash, the French understood; so did the parties of Germans and Dutch, and lone explorers from Brazil and the Czech Republic and Finland. They were all out there, cycling, surfing, tramping and camping, thoroughly immersed in the unspoiled natural beauties of this tucked-away area on the southeastern coast of the South Island.

Liz, the warder at Cathedral Caves, calculated that around 70 per cent of people coming through were from overseas; which, frankly, is a disgrace.

So was her report that many of the Kiwi visitors who do arrive simply drive away again on learning that there's wading involved.

It was totally their loss, I decided, as I followed the deer prints along the beach to the caves, rolled up my pants and plunged into the shallow channel that barred the entrance. Inside, they were soaring, airy and spectacular, and entirely worth wet feet and sand inside my shoes for the rest of the day. Some things deserve a bit of sacrifice.

Really, though, it's not as if the charms of the Catlins require much in the way of physical effort: all along the road, which is a coastal detour off the Southern Scenic Route from Te Anau to Dunedin, are signs to paths promising walks of 10, 20, 40 minutes return.

A well-made track through bird-filled bush to a gift like the wedding-cake layers of Purakaunui Falls foaming white over mossy black rocks, or mirror-like Lake Wilkie perfectly reflecting the trees around it is hardly a penance.

Admittedly, some rewards are a bit harder to earn: there may be steps, as up to the 22m drop of McLean Falls, or a long path out to the views at Nugget Point, where the sea breaks around a cluster of rocks below a classic lighthouse, itself illuminated by golden evening sunshine.

There is certainly a lot of driving along winding unsealed roads, to beaches empty of people but enjoyed by groups of sea lions snoozing on the sand.

Dotted here and there are simple wooden cribs decorated with paua shells and driftwood; but the Catlins give everyone room to breathe.

Blair Somerville works on his latest 'gadgets and gizmos' in his workshop at the Lost Gypsy Gallery at Papatowai. Photo / Supplied

There near the end of summer, the weather still perfect, the most crowded place I found - and I'm talking around a dozen people - was Porpoise Bay, where Hector's dolphins surfing in the breakers had lured six swimmers into the 13C water while the rest of us watched from a grassy bank.

They are the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, so the best way to see them is from Brian Smith's boat on a Catlins Marine Encounter.

In the clear waters of the bay, we were soon surrounded by these cute little creatures, just 1.5m long with a rounded Mickey Mouse-ear dorsal fin. Brian counted 19 as I hung over the side, eye-to-eye with them as they slid past, taking just as much interest in us.

"Nosy buggers, I never get sick of them," he said fondly as he manoeuvred the boat, obligingly running it backwards so I could lean over the stern to watch them riding the wave.

Three pods live in the bay all summer, around 50 altogether, feeding on mullet and crabs, raising their young, and "just cruising," says Brian.

Around the point, in Curio Bay, live more rarities: yellow-eyed penguins, which pop out of the sea in the late afternoon to jump and waddle across the rocks of a 180 million-year-old petrified forest back to their burrows for the night.

Appealingly ungainly, they can also be seen from a hide at Roaring Bay near Nugget Point, as they scramble a surprisingly long way up the hillside to disappear into the bushes.

Actually, not all the area's treasures are outdoors: both Waikawa and Owaka have museums full of small treasures (excluding, that is, Owaka's disturbing century-old hand-carved doll in a possum fur fright wig).

Halfway between those towns is the Lost Gypsy Gallery at Papatowai, where Blair Somerville sits in the workshop built on to the side of an old house truck, working on the latest of his "gadgets and gizmos" - when I visited, an illuminated Gummi Bear clock. All around are clever and amusing games and automata, a turn of the handle or press on the button producing something witty and unexpected.

The truck, the garden and the gallery are an absolute delight - just like the Catlins.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: The Catlins stretch of the Southern Scenic Route runs between Kaka Point and Fortrose, a 45-minute drive east of Invercargill.

Accommodation: Try Catlins Cafe Accommodation in Owaka.

Further information: See catlins.org.nz.

The writer was a guest of Venture Southland.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 20 Sep 2014 21:18:07 Processing Time: 1638ms