Beneath the Catlins mist lurks a wilderness so ancient, it’s like taking a gigantic step back to the Jurassic period, writes Julia Shallcrass.

Our weekend trip to the South Island's rugged Catlins coast begins at the area's south-eastern tip, Nugget Point, which lords above the roaring waters and rocks buckled by wind and tide.

Searching the horizon for orcas and southern right whales, we instead spy two seals, some 50 metres below us. A mother and pup bounce along the rocks; a puppy-like growl resonating up to our walking trail.

There are all manner of sea creatures to be seen in this far-south wilderness but the one we'd really like to see is the world's rarest penguin, the yellow eyed Hoiho. Along the Roaring Bay shoreline, we crouch in the perfect penguin hide, waiting for one to appear from the waves. We wait, and we wait, while our timid friends are literally out for lunch, but alas, today is not our lucky day.

Dreams of filming Happy Feet dashed, we drive south towards Cannibal Bay. Mist dissipates over the hills, revealing bent trees, shaped in battle against the wind. Even the shrubs here are hardy, having evolved with predators in mind; their brambles preventing scavengers like moa from eating their berries and leaves.


We tread over strewn kelp that squelches and pops. Cannibal Bay gained its moniker after human remains were discovered in the sand dunes by an early surveyor, though I wonder if it would be more aptly named Sea Lion Bay: as we walk we stumble upon a sea lion sanding itself on the beach but make sure we keep our 20 metres' distance.

Another sea lion emerges from the water and tosses its head back. It glides onto the sand, a carnivorous beast walking towards us on all fours, nearly half a tonne in weight.

With its eyes focused on us, it roars. We hurry towards the car park, allowing another couple to capture its beauty close-up - and hopefully not arrest its hunger.

As we drive towards our camp site, we see glimpses of houses amongst the greenery, always painted in southern seascape hues: violets, blues and reds. A hubcap fence proves the point that the Catlins demands conserving of all resources, both natural and man-made.

McLean Falls beckons us next. The queen of all of the Catlins' waterfalls, McLean is spectacular in its tiers and spray, the moss that glistens and the glow-worms that shine after dark.

After a long day's exploring, our accommodation for the night is just adjacent to the falls at the McLean Falls Holiday Park.

Its proprietors are Paul and Lynne Bridson. Visionary Paul applied his background in landscape design to create sustainability between his three businesses, McLean Falls Holiday Park, the Whistling Frog Café and Bar, and the existing farm on the property. He transported outdated cabins and motels to the site from around New Zealand so that these Kiwi relics can live on.

The Café and Bar is named after the musical frogs that sit in the small pond at its entrance. From a menu of flavoursome fresh foods, we choose lamb cutlets with courgettes, followed by decadent chocolate cake.

During the evening low tide, we wander into the bush to discover the Cathedral Caves. Through a forest lined with ferns and shaded by towering native giants, we meet travellers from England and Germany, and some like-minded Kiwis, mainly southerners who "like to really get away from it all".

Within twenty minutes we hear the roar of the sea. The Cathedral Caves stand statuesque, and barnacled - awash one moment with the tide, and the next with travellers marvelling at its lofty ceilings as though it were St Paul's in London.

We wake early the next morning to beat the tide to view the petrified forest of Curio Bay. Its shore lays bare a stone kingdom of podocarp and kauri; its logs lying entrenched in tombs where they have rested for 170 million years.

Volcanic ash and heavy rain preserved these trees' wood in wet mud all those centuries ago, yet they look recently felled. We knock our knuckles hard against the stone, just to make certain we are not 'knocking on wood'.

As we step over the ancient trees, my husband spies them first: in the dunes, a pair of little blue penguins prepare for the day with some yoga-like stretches.

We crouch, silently. One of the penguins senses us, and stands like a statue with its flippers outstretched; as petrified as the forest, frozen in time.