As Andy and I explored the Catlins, we made our way from Waipapa Point Lighthouse to Slope Point. While it doesn’t look like much more than farmland from the roadside, Slope Point is the southernmost point on the South Island. A track leads to the ends of the earth, with nothing but open ocean in the distance.
It’s an incredibly scenic spot, even without its claim to fame. Knowing where you are definitely adds to the feel of the place, though, staring into the distance and knowing there’s nothing between you and Antarctica besides a smattering of Subantarctic Islands. New Zealand is truly remote, and you can feel it in spots like this.
We kept an eye out for sea life, but didn’t spot any whales or dolphins from up here.
In the distance in the previous photo, you can just make out the peaks of Rakiura/Stewart Island, NZ’s third largest island. Just 30 km across the Foveaux Strait by ferry from the town of Bluff, it’s an epic destination for outdoor pursuits. Free from introduced mustelids, Southern Tokoeka Kiwi are especially active there (along with many other birds), even during the day. Andy has been before, but I never have, so it’s on our list of places to visit. The goal would be to do the three-day Rakiura Track to get the full experience!
Back at the car, we were on to the next destination, Curio Bay. Not only does this area boast an extensive petrified forest, you can also sometimes spot hoiho/yellow-eyed penguins, and the nearby Porpoise Bay is known for Hector’s dolphins. Yeah, I’d flagged this spot as a must-visit as soon as I researched the area.
Here’s the Jurassic fossilized forest from above.
The trees are easier to make out from close up.
According to DOC, “This is one of the most extensive and least disturbed examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world and stretches about 20 kms from Curio Bay south west to Slope Point.” Volcanic debris simultaneously destroyed and preserved the forest 180 million years ago, on what was then Gondwanaland. It was buried deeply, and then eroded and exposed as part of NZ’s coastline over the last 10,000 years.
After exploring the ancient forest, we stopped to look in on various penguin viewpoints along the path, but it wasn’t the best time of day for seeing them in full sun. We had to make do with the two we did see.
We wandered down to Porpoise Bay next, since it’s just a short walk from Curio Bay.
Although I didn’t capture it on my camera (some things are just better enjoyed in the moment, and they were moving fast), we were treated to an amazing show of Hector’s dolphins leaping and surfing in the crashing waves. There were some swimmers who got within feet of them, and the dolphins were clearly curious to check out the humans. We stood on shore and watched them play and simply enjoy life. As the smallest dolphin species and only cetacean endemic to NZ, Hector’s dolphins are an amazing sight, and I remember them fondly from my trip to Akaroa a few years back, when they played along the bow of my tour boat.
There’s an image for reference!
After a true highlight of our trip, we were off to ensure we’d make it to our next destination in time. We were headed to Cathedral Caves, and admission is only allowed within certain tide-based hours. Luckily, we made it in plenty of time, and started off on the downhill trek through the forest. Before long, we were on the beach and headed to the caves.
It wasn’t as busy as you would’ve expected for the Christmas holidays, though maybe it was because we arrived later in the day. The caves definitely didn’t disappoint. They were enormous and truly breathtaking. They’re called Cathedral for a reason!
It’s hard to capture the scale of them with photographs, even using my wide angle lens.
Can’t you just picture some mythical creature emerging from the dark cave mouth? It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Kraken living here at high tide.
After wandering in and out of both beautiful caves, we made the uphill trek back to our car and stopped for a bite to eat at the nearby Whistling Frog before continuing on. As the road wound uphill, we were treated to gorgeous views of pristine beaches stretching out into the distance.
Our last stop was Matai Falls before heading back toward our home base. It was a short walk through beautiful rainforest to the waterfall.
And we’re not even done for the day! Stay tuned for the incredible Nugget Point and some exciting wildlife photos in the final Catlins installment. 🙂