Continuing Our Catlins Adventures

Our Catlins experience four weeks ago was one of the (many) highlights of our South Island adventures. Having explored places around Kaka Point and Owaka during the first couple of days, we’d relished our first encounters with NZ sea lions.

One of the many cool things about the Catlins is the information available to help you choose what to see.

It’s not difficult to see from that how many amazing sights there are to be seen!

Owaka – Say It Like It Is

Oh-wok-ah. That’s how it’s pronounced. Literally it means the place of the canoe as traditional Maori waka were built and repaired on the banks of the nearby rivers.

We were grateful for two nights at a free campground behind The Catlins Inn at Owaka to catch up with work and visit their brilliant museum.

There we discovered more history of the area, including several shipwrecks and tragedies. The sinking of the SS Tararua in 1881 was the largest and most distressing. The ship struck a reef at Waipapa Point and was wrecked to pieces in a heavy swell. Although a passenger did manage to swim ashore, help was still a long way off. A young workman from a nearby station rode to Wyndham, many miles away, with the message about the sinking. But it was already too late. Passengers and crew were swept off the deck by the waves. The death toll of 131 passengers and crew (from 151 onboard) still stands as New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster involving civilians. Captain Francis Garrard was also drowned. Calls were made for a lighthouse at Waiapapa Point, which was built three years later.

On the 1st of January, 1874, the immigrant sailing ship The Surat foundered and later sank near the mouth of The Catlins River at Forsyth’s Beach (later Surat Bay). The ship was travelling from England to New Zealand. Fortunately, this time, all the passengers and crew survived. However, many immigrants were bringing tools of their trades with them, and they lost everything. It’s hard to imagine such a tragedy, after three months at sea and so close to their final destination.

Crucially, we found the upcoming low tide times displayed at the museum. You must know these if you’re visiting the Cathedral Caves or Curio Bay.

I saw a sign as I left the museum, which tickled me. It stated that there were two types of people in Owaka. Those who bent their elbows and those who bent their knees. Back in the day, there were ten churches and two pubs in the settlement.

Loved The Offerings At Catlins Lake

Leaving Owaka on Wednesday 7th April, we drove alongside the Catlins Lake – which isn’t really a lake! I asked Barry to stop to see if there were any spoonbills, as we’d read that they’re often in the area. I was amazed to see a pair of binoculars sitting there for anyone to use. How incredible that these are left for passers-by. They ask that you record whatever you spot on the chart. If you see more of a certain species than the previous person, you rub out their number and put yours in. Brilliant!

Sadly there were no spoonbills on my visit, but lots of other birdlife enjoying the lake. Previously someone had spotted six spoonbills so I was encouraged we’d see them at some stage.

Not Much Water At The Purakanui Falls

Our next stopping point was one of the most photographed waterfalls in NZ, never mind the Catlins – the Purakanui Falls. Unfortunately, due to the lack of recent rainfall (which we weren’t complaining about!), there wasn’t much action here! It was still a delightful bush walk, and the trickle of water cascading 20 metres over three tiers was picturesque.

Florence Hills Lookout

Following that we left the road for the Florence Hill Lookout and enjoyed a splendid lunch stop. Nearby information boards were great and I read them with interest.

However, I was appalled at the number of cars/campervans/motorhomes who drove up, had a quick look at the view, took a photo or two then sped off. Florence Hill Lookout – tick. They didn’t stop to look at, never mind read, the boards! I guess few people are privileged to be able to linger as long as we are.

Lake Wilkie

Formed after the last Ice Age, Lake Wilkie was our next chosen destination. The water’s surface was glass-like, except when an occasional Paradise Shelduck flew in and landed. These pretty, noisy ducks are prolific in the South Island.

Along the boardwalk and pathway are informative boards showcasing the different areas of growth zones. It’s such a tranquil lush place, with sunlight dappling through the forest.

The bellbird song (I think?) walking back to the van was captivating. I videoed the sound to share with you:

Birdsong on the walk to Lake Wilkie

Tautuku Estuary Walk

It really was a day of delights! Next up was the Tautuku Estuary Walk. I was excited to spot some more cool fungi along the way. Towards the end, we enjoyed watching mud crabs scurrying into their burrows as they felt the vibrations of our footsteps. Once you stand still for a few minutes, they sheepishly re-emerge and continue their mud eating frenzy.

The saltmarsh is a favoured habitat of the fern bird. Though all the birdlife was too far away for us to see it clearly.

Cathedral Caves Opening And Access

The highlight of our excursions was Cathedral Caves. The low tide that day was at 5.20 pm, and the gated entrance opens two hours on either side. The road isn’t accessible at any other times as it’s Maori Freehold land managed by a Trust. In fact, as you’ll see from the tide times notice above, some days it’s not open at all if low tide is during darkness.

It costs $10 per adult entrance, and Eftpos IS available, despite what it says in the Catlins brochure! We had no cash and were a little bit early, so we went to The Whistling Frog to draw some out. Our laundry was piling up, so we were also looking for a place to stay that night. However, we got cash out, found out the prices ($65 a night), and decided against it! I’m sure it’s a great place, but that wasn’t in our week’s budget.

Returning to the car park a gorgeous old car had pulled up beside us.

Breathtaking Cathedral Caves

We drove back 2km to the Cathedral Cave entrance and arrived at the payment booth. Barry joked we had no one hiding in the back. The lovely welcoming woman told us a story of a campervan that DID try and hide two occupants from paying. Shame on them!

Cathedral CaveS or Cathedral Cave? Theoretically, I suspect they’re both correct! Currently, there’s one long V-shaped cave, formed over tens to hundreds of thousands of years by the mechanical action of waves eroding or collapsing the rock. However, originally there were two caves which later joined at the back to make one.

A delightful 1km winding walk along a well-kept path took us through native bush to reach the sweeping Waipati Beach. After a short walk along the beach, we arrived at the two superb sea-formed passages. Together they measure just under 200 metres with an impressive height of up to 30 metres.

Although we got there around 4 pm, with low tide at 5.20 pm, even at low tide there are wave ‘surges’. Barry and many others got caught out despite climbing up on the rocks and was soaked to his knees! I was lagging behind (as usual!) and climbed up far enough to remain dry.

We were aghast at these breathtaking natural wonders. Apart from the sheer magnitude of them, I adored the spectacular colours and patterns of the rocks.

After meandering around them for about an hour, as you know, what goes down must come up! The walk back to the carpark was strenuous, and we had to stop frequently to catch our breath. About halfway, Barry noticed someone had neatly placed a cardigan on a log at the side. He decided the best thing to do was pick it up and take it to the carpark. The man he met coming down to find it was terribly grateful! His wife had dropped it on her walk when she got too hot and wrapped it around her waist. She’d sent him back down to retrieve it. He was thrilled to see Barry, so he didn’t have to walk any further down and up again.

I missed the encounter as I was mindfully absorbing everything around the path. This looked to me as though it could walk away at any minute and wander the forest like a scene in The Lord of The Rings …

The Heritage Trail

We’d picked up a leaflet a few weeks previously which showed the Catlins ‘Heritage Trail’. Wanting to do this, we decided to drive to the western end of the Catlins to complete the Southern Scenic Route. Arriving late in the evening, we found the most serene and scenic free campground adjacent to the estuary at Fortrose.

It’s easy to find information about camping in the Catlins. The challenge is that the eastern part is managed by the Clutha council. While the western end is Southland District Council. Which makes it interesting.

We returned to a launderette on the outskirts of Invercargill to do some washing. Better, we felt, than paying $48 for one night at the Whistling Frog. They had no cafe/restaurant open, and we’d still have had to pay for the washing machine/dryer. Near the Invercargill launderette is a handy pump out and water fill-up tap too.


Fortrose, named after the Scottish town, is the Catlins gateway from the western end. The heyday of the village was in the early 1900s. Then it was a lively centre of blacksmithing, trade, and there were churches and a school. Nowadays is very quiet, with a few houses that looked lived in but many more looking like cribs.

Later that day (Thursday 8th April), we walked along the estuary to the point across from Fortrose Spit to watch the sunset. It was amazing to see clear views of the whole of Stewart Island from there and watch in awe as the Great Southern Ocean pounded waves on the beach at low tide. Barry climbed up the cliffs to gain even better views.

It’s difficult to describe the noise and majestic power of this body of water. Check out Barry’s photos in his slideshow to see how it looked from above.

An Indescribable Beauty

The following morning I looked out of the window from my bed to see the sublime colours of the sunrise. The sound of the ducks and birds waking up was almost deafening. I bought Barry a book for his birthday that I’ve recently read, called ‘An Indescribable Beauty: Letters Home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand‘. In 1859 and 1862, Friedrich Krull wrote letters to his mother describing the prolific birdlife whose sounds were almost deafening and many other sights. Listening to them that morning and the sweet sounds on the Lake Wilkie Walk, I could almost imagine how it used to be all over this unique country.

Beautiful birdsong at dawn on the Fortrose Estuary

But wait! There’s even more! In the next post we’ll share some of the Catlins Heritage Trail as we made our way east and then northwards …

Barry’s Slideshow

Below there are some magical memories from our journey, especially the Cathedral Caves showing some of the sea surges. Click on the first image to begin the slideshow …

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