Entranced By The Catlins Heritage Trail

We’d planned only two blogs about our adventures in the Catlins. However, we soon realised there’s so much amazingness to share that three are needed to do it justice. If you’ve read the first two, and then to the end of this one, I’m sure you’ll see why. Undoubtedly we failed to see everything we wanted due to lack of time!

The Catlins area is nestled neatly into the southeast corner of the South Island. Like a mini treasure trove of jewels. The Heritage Trail would be the diamond, resplendent with sparkle and shine.

Our Heritage Trail started from the end, at Fortrose, according to the brochure! Unfortunately we missed the opportunity to do the two there, starting at Waiapapa Point 10 kiliometers away, number 11.

Waipapa Point

A large carpark is the start of a short walk to Waipapa Point Lighthouse. Built in response to the April 1881 SS Tararua tragedy, when all but 20 of the 151 people aboard perished, it became operational in 1884. In 1974 it was automated and remains active, although there is no public access to enter the building.

It’s fascinating to read the lighthouse was actually built in sections – in Scotland! Then shipped to Waipapa Point. The sections clearly made it safely to prevent further disasters.

The wildlife is prolific in this area of New Zealand; we relished watching creatures loving life all around us. No fur seals or sea lions this time, but bird life was plentiful.

Below the lighthouse, Sooty Shearwaters swarmed like flies hovering just above the ocean’s surface, while colourful Spotted Shags hung around enjoying the sunshine on the beach. The iridescent blue on the backs of these birds was magnificent. We were able to walk closely to them, as if we weren’t there at all. They were completely non-plussed by our presence. Barry’s photos are splendid – but don’t leap down there yet!

Before automation, the lighthouse keepers and their families would live here. There was quite a community at one point, albeit a rather isolated one. This and Nugget Point are among the few in New Zealand with public access. Returning to the carpark, we found an excellent DOC information shelter.

We visited on a fine day, thankfully, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the area surrounded by a stormy Southern Ocean as it was on that fateful night.

Tararua Acre Gravesite

Tararua Acre, not far from Waiapapa Point, is the cemetery of many of the passenger steamer SS Tararua victims.

After they took the first few bodies to Fortrose for identification, it became clear they couldn’t move or retrieve all the bodies. Some 64 of the 131 who died were buried at Tararua Acre. It’s on private land and a short walk across a field to get to it. Very worthwhile, poignant and sadly moving to imagine their distress.

Such unimaginable horror of having to watch helplessly from the shore. Or being in the boat with your children, knowing you were all about to die in the cold waters of the great southern ocean, and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Land so close yet unreachable. 12 women and 14 children were amongst the dead.

It’s not terribly clear, but I found this poem at the graveyard, written shortly after the tragedy. “The children to their mothers cling, fond fathers run in wild despair, while moaning waves their requiem ring, their cries of pity rend the air.”

It’s well worth a read:

Heartbreaking. Especially when it was found to be a preventable disaster.

The Court of Inquiry into the tragedy concluded that the ‘negligent failure’ of Able Seaman Weston to ‘keep a proper look-out’ was the immediate cause of the grounding, but that the ‘wreck and loss of life’ was largely due to the master, Francis Garrard, failing to ‘accurately ascertain the ship’s position’ in the hour before it struck the reef.


Slope Point

Our next destination was Slope Point the most southerly point of the South Island. It’s actually 7km further south than Bluff, which people understandably assume is the most southerly point. That’s the end of State Highway 1, where the famous yellow signpost similar to the one at Cape Reinga stands.

A solar powered mini-lighthouse stands here too (see in the image above), warning passing ships of the headland and rocks below.

There’s no public access to Slope Point during the lambing season from September to November. We didn’t pass sheep on our return walk but did have an uncomfortably close encounter with cows! It freaked me out somewhat. Barry forged ahead, amused by my fear, while I followed gingerly behind at a close distance. I realise it’s uncommon, but I recalled reading four people are killed each year in the UK by cows.

Some of the cows stopped and stared, as if to say “This is my field, walk around me if you dare!

Freedom Camping Close To Curio Bay

The low tide at Curio Bay was early the next morning, so we found a freedom campground at Weirs Beach not far away. It looked like some folks had been camped there a while. It was the school holidays after all, so tents and caravans were all set up. For many folks, caravans are best in these circumstances, as you can drive away for the day and return later to find your holiday home cosily awaiting you.

We far prefer our compact campervan. It said it’s free to camp here for 28 days a month! That would be good in February we thought …

Astounded By Curio Bay

We’d heard Curio bay was a MUST DO in the Catlins and wanted to see it in its low tide glory. That meant setting the alarm and getting up early. We arrived around 8.30 am on Saturday 10th April. We hadn’t realised there’s a massive campground at Curio Bay itself; otherwise, we probably would’ve paid to stay there. We also had no idea quite how compelling it would be.

I suspect it’s a good idea to get here to see the sunrise if the low tide is early. On Saturday 10th April, low tide was at 7.30 am which isn’t too ridiculous. We managed to get there by 8.30 am which for us is laudable as that meant being up and dressed plus a drive there.

We wondered why on earth it was so busy when we arrived, with big coachloads of people ahead. We’ve not been used to seeing that anywhere! Had the borders suddenly opened? We discovered we’d timed our visit with a famous run, and the coaches were taking runners to the different starting points.

If you weren’t aware, and we certainly hadn’t been, Curio Bay is the site of a 180 million-year-old Jurassic fossil forest – one of only three such accessible fossil forests in the world.

The forest was destroyed multiple times by massive sheet floods of volcanic debris; growing back only to be covered again. These events are clearly recorded by distinct bands of fossils in the now exposed cliff face. The erosion of the sea has exposed tree stumps, logs and other fascinating fossils.”


It truly is astounding. We spent quite a while wandering around, exploring the nooks and crannies of petrified trees, colourful rocks, and seaweed. Wait till you see Barry’s shots!

What’s That Noise?

As we approached the cliff face, we heard a repetitive noise below the viewpoint and saw a man crouched in the rock-face. I thought he was video-calling with someone or playing music. We carried on around the headland, quietly walking past him. When we came back, he was walking along, and we got chatting. He’d been sat on the cliff-face as he’d accidentally come face-to-face with some yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore. He was trying to keep away from them.

He showed me photos from his phone, and I took photos of his photos. The noises we’d heard were the calling of the penguins to each other in their flax covered nesting sites above! We’d missed seeing these magnificent creatures by minutes.

The signs at the top of the beach warn humans to be four bus-lengths away from these sensitive souls. Clearly he wasn’t; though more by accident than intention.

Stunning Seaweed

The seaweed on this bizarre bu brilliant beach was out of this world! Barry’s made some awesome arty shots in his slideshow at the end.

Curioscape For Breakfast

Having spent an hour wandering the bay, by 9.30 am, the tide was coming in swiftly. We walked quietly back through the flax covered penguin nesting site walkway. I was eager to glimpse either of these cute creatures safely; the little blue or yellow-eyed penguin. Little did I know then that over the following week or so, I would. I’d even be instrumental in rescuing an injured one.

The café was crowded with lycra-clad fit-looking-folks. We tried to blend in, but failed miserably, so just ordered a big breakfast!

Curioscape is in the same building, and is an interactive exhibition of fun and facts about the area. A wonderfully put together video shows the landscape as it is and how it used to be. The clips of the yellow-eye penguins were amazing. We eventually discovered how to use the touch screen which a child would’ve worked out easily but took us ages!

Afterwards, we drove around the Curio Bay campground and found the end of the ‘Coastal Ultra’ run. There were three courses – 71km (starting at Cathedral Caves!!), 27km or 15.5km. The day was cold and wet, which was probably far preferable to hot and sunny I suspect.

Reluctantly Leaving The Catlins

We could’ve done heaps more walks and waterfalls in the Catlins, but as there wasn’t enough water for the latter, and time was marching on, we reluctantly left. We can’t do it all, but we definitely relished what we did.

We headed back to Balclutha, where I noticed the unmissable bridge this time. I actually did fail to notice it the first time we drove over it much to Barry, Rod and Tracy’s amusement. Hence I took a photo to prove it!

That night we parked up in one of the roadside bays above Brighton Beach, south of Dunedin. All along this road we’re allowed to freedom camp which is fabulous. We enjoyed a glorious view of the Pacific Ocean – our first sighting of this for a long while.

Barry’s Slideshow

I hope you’ve made it this far as Barry’s images are once again superb. Click on the first image …

One thought on “Entranced By The Catlins Heritage Trail

  1. Pingback: Adorable Dunedin Buildings People Albatrosses and Penguins ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

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