Fun With Friends and Wildlife In The Catlins

Out of all the friends we have in New Zealand, Tracy and Rod are the ones we’ve spent the most time with since returning last August. We stayed in their Wellington flat in November before flying to Christchurch and again in January before sailing to the South Island. Over New Year, we camped at the Norman family bach (NZ North Island Holiday Home) at Anauara Bay. So when they informed us in January they had a holiday booked at Kaka Point in the Catlins over Easter weekend, we weren’t sure where we’d be. As luck would have it, our extended travel itinerary meant we could coincide our visit to the Catlins with theirs.

In case you don’t know (because I sure didn’t before we learnt more about the South Island!), the Catlins are at the south-east corner of the South Island –

Chilling In The Bays

We meandered to Molyneux Bay, just before Kaka Point, from Balclutha on Saturday 3rd April. Large sailing ships used to sail from Port Molyneux harbour up the Clutha River to Gabriel’s Gulley to pick up gold for export. But a major flood in late 1878 carried silt down the Clutha and changed the river’s course forever. The town that had been built around this activity slowly petered out afterwards. Now there are only information boards to tell of this areas busy past.

We were ‘killing time’ before meeting Rod and Tracy who were out enjoying a 12 km walk, so we chilled along similar nearby beaches. I believe our next destination was ‘Hay’s Gap’. Someone at a recent campsite had told Barry you can pull mussels and paua off the rocks at low tide, so long as they’re big enough.

We spotted remarkable rock formations in an array of hues. Many mussels and occasional paua clinging to the rock face. And seaweed! Oh my goodness, you can’t imagine how much of it there is and how many different shapes and sizes there are. Barry had a wonderful time finding collections to capture – not literally, obviously!

Also several massive, colourful starfish. I love starfish and vividly recall taking photographs of them while in Raglan on holiday in February 2004, for a presentation at a national conference in England I’d organised called ‘Valuing Midwives‘. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here it is:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.

Then, smiling at the man, he said…..“I made a difference for that one.”

As the National Midwifery RnR (Areandare of course!) Lead, I used this as an analogy for making a difference to midwifery recruitment; one midwife at a time.

There weren’t as many on the beach as in the story above, but there were more than previously seen in one area. One looked rather dried up and lifeless. I used some seaweed to pick it up and put it gently back into the sea, but it was too late, sadly. Others had managed to keep themselves under water …

I spotted something glittering in the distance and walked towards it. We found this amazing artwork on driftwood. I think it’s a Mexican crocodile?! Isn’t it brilliant?

First Sealion Sighting

We’d lingered long enough and knew Tracy and Rod were at their holiday apartment by late afternoon. Rod and Tracy were staying in a delightful studio apartment with a spa bath overlooking Kaka Bay and had sought permission from the owner for us to ‘camp’ in the ample car park.

Driving back to Kaka Point, I spotted a solitary sea lion on the beach, so we stopped for a closer look. Not too close, though. We’d read the signs. We were terribly excited! Little did we realise how many we’d be getting close to over the following days and weeks!

Found only in New Zealand, these sea lions are one of the rarest sea lions in the world. Known also as Hooker’s sea lion, and whakahao in Māori, they’re endangered with a population of around 12,000. Male and female look vastly different. One of the largest New Zealand animals, they have marked sexual dimorphism; adult males are 240–350 centimetres (7.9–11.5 ft) long and weigh 320–450 kilograms (710–990 lb), while adult females are 180–200 centimetres (5.9–6.6 ft) long and weigh 90–165 kilograms (198–364 lb). The male also has a type of ‘mane’ similar to a lion.

You’ll see more in the video to come, and in Barry’s super shots.

An evening of Chicken Ciabatta and Cards

The apartment was divine, with a spectacular view. I’d brought ready-cooked chicken, some coleslaw and ciabatta bread. A few games of cards that were heaps of fun followed an easy dinner and catch up.

No Smoke Without Fire

The next morning after breakfast, I looked out and saw black smoke rising behind the van. It looked rather ominous. I called Tracy, Rod and Barry to come out and see. Some of the bush was alight in the back garden of the house above, where there’d been a party the night before. Possibly the embers of a BBQ?

Barry and Rod rushed up after Barry moved the van to the other end of the drive – just in case. Someone was on the phone when they arrived. “I hope you’re calling the Fire Brigade?” Yes, she was. The volunteer firefighters arrived incredibly promptly; they’d been out chopping trees down so weren’t far away. Rod helped run down the road with the hose to find water, as the event coincided with a local power cut. Thankfully the fire was successfully put out. Such unexpected excitement!

Nugget Point

Our itinerary for the day included a trip to nearby Nugget Point – named because of the nugget shaped rocks off the headland. This is one of the ‘must-do’s of the Catlins.

We were fortunate not too many other visitors had a similar plan for Sunday 4th April. The lighthouse, like most others, is now automated. The views from the walkway and the end of the headland are spectacular. Striking colours in the water appear due to the meeting of the oceans. Artfully designed information slates tell stories about the beautiful area.

Built in 1869-70, the imposing lighthouse is 9.5 metres high and situated 76 metres above sea level.

New Zealand fur seals and sea lions were basking on the rocks below as we walked along the track back to the car park. From December to February elephant seals stop here too. It’s a very special place.

Roaring Bay

At the lower end of the Nugget Point road is Roaring Bay. A yellow-eyed penguin colony live and breed here. During the winter months (March onwards), it’s okay to walk on the beach before 4 pm only. The yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho Megadyptes antipodes are endangered, sensitive creatures and must be respected in the hope they won’t all die out. There’s a Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust based in Dunedin which does all it can to protect them – Sign up for newsletters! I have …

We walked to investigate the nearby hide for viewing the penguins quietly in the evenings. It was lunchtime for us, so we were able to make the precarious descent to the beach for a picnic. We didn’t make it to an evening’s viewing due to timings, sadly. But we were destined to see these stunning beings a few weeks later.

Pulling Mussels From The Shell

Do you remember that Squeeze song from 1980? I do vividly. It was one of their most popular songs and featured a piano solo from Jools Holland. Apparently, it was written about one of the band members experiences in an English holiday camp. Once I’d recalled it the song played over and over in my head. What I didn’t realise is there are absolutely no mussels involved! I’ll say no more …

Driving back to Kaka Point, we decided to see if there were any mussels and/or paua on the rocky beach as the tide was going out. Barry and Rod got to work finding the biggest ones, and I’d brought a bag to collect them. We were anticipating mussels for dinner! We only found a couple of pauas that weren’t large enough to take – there are quite rightly strict rules about how big they need to be for them to survive – the legal size is 125mm.

Barry also found ‘booboo’ or cat’s eye snails – complete with their ‘eye’ which is a lovely shell. I’d never seen them inside a snail before, only the shells on the beach when we’d camped along the east coast.

Cat’s eye is the common name for the lid or operculum of the common sea snail Turbo smaragdus. When the snail is threatened by a predator or is exposed above the tide, it withdraws into its shell and the operculum seals the opening. After the snail has died and decomposed, the operculum falls free of the shell.”

Kaka Point Pub

We popped into The Point Cafe & Bar before returning to the apartment and campervan. The place was packed with locals of every shape, size, age and background, it seemed. A fishing awards ceremony and sausage sizzle were on—what a great place; most amicable. There was a cohesive, happy local community feel to the surroundings and a general joviality of the people. I found the men’s toilet sign rather amusing too!

After another splendid evening chatting, laughing and playing cards, we retired to the van and early next morning Rod and Tracy set off for a day of exploring. We said farewell for now – and hope to see them again when we (eventually!) get the ferry back across Cook Strait to the North Island.

A Walk Through Tunnel Hill

Our first stop of the day was at Tunnel Hill, where the Catlins River Branch Railway used to run through. Dug by hand, it reminded us of the many tunnels on the Inland Waterways system back in the UK.

Seeing Seals Relatively Close Up

Next was Cannibal Bay. We thought we’d see a few more sea lions along this coast – but we hadn’t appreciated how fortunate we’d be in seeing probably twenty that day. Some were lying contentedly along the dry dunes, occasionally flicking sand up onto their bodies to cool down. Others were lying close to their partner. Then at the end of the bay, a whole group of them were heard before they were seen.

We watched pups coming in from the sea – and being chased away by other adults until their own parent arrived. We saw a couple who seemed to be undergoing what looked like a mating ritual too. It was the most incredible experience to witness these creatures from a safe and sensitive distance. Watching them relaxing. Swimming. Flirting. Fighting! You certainly wouldn’t want to mess with them! Barry has some superb shots in his slideshow.

I captured a few videos of the sea lions at Cannibal Bay – one of which is posted on our YouTube channel:

Also on the beach were three chickens! We were highly amused by this and failed to discover where on earth they’d come from. They were rather friendly and gathered at the van door before we left. Watching them scratch and eat sandhoppers on the beach was hilarious.

Windy Surat Bay

Although we could’ve walked from Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay, it would’ve entailed walking right through the middle of the sea lions. It would be a brave soul to attempt that! We were heading to a free campground in a car park at Owaka for the night.

Surat Bay was named after the vessel which was shipwrecked there in 1874. We’d discover several more tales of doomed ships in the following days. It’s a precarious coast to sail around. The wide sweeping bay was gorgeous – the wind howled around the corner and Barry got clicked away shooting the patterns on the sand.

Barry suggested we walk the return journey along the sand dunes, which is the link to Cannibal Bay. But we got hopelessly lost and ended up walking through someones farm!

We had so many amazing adventures during our first three days in the Catlins. And to think I’d never heard of this area before this year!

Barry’s Brilliant Slideshow

There’s always outstanding images from Barry – this post even more so! Click on the first one to begin the slide show …

3 thoughts on “Fun With Friends and Wildlife In The Catlins

  1. Pingback: Continuing Our Catlins Adventures ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  2. Brilliant photos as usual Barry! It’s not an area we ever got to but it looks stunning.
    Very surprised there was no drink on the table for the card game though!!!
    Cal and I are now fully vaccinated but aren’t going out to sit outside at pubs yet, it’s too flippin cold!!! xx

    • Kia Ora Phil and Cal. The Catlins is fantastic. Post two will be published soon with even more superb images.

      There was definitely drinking happening with the cards. Just not in the game table 😂
      No vaccines for us here yet. Don’t think it’ll happen before we come back there. But playing it by ear.

      Hope it warms up soon! X

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