Monday, 4 March 2013

The Catlins: sea lions, sea views and swimming with dolphins

Deep, relentless forces
buckle this layered land

Hiding bays and beaches between
long, low folds of mountains

With rugged rocky headlands
butting into the sea

The Catlins is a part of New Zealand often missed off tourist's itineraries. It's tucked away in the south east corner of the South Island, away from the backpacker buses and doesn't have the dramatic mountains of fjordland, or the bungy-jumping antics of Queenstown. What it does have is a softer landscape of rolling pastoral farmland and windswept forests, a coastline of rocky headlands and beautiful, deserted beaches, and some of the best wildlife New Zealand has to offer.

And it has a lot of weather - often of the windy variety. Whilst I still can't quite get my head around the fact that it gets colder as you head south, it was finally time to pack the vest tops away and to get out the layers. Yet the wild weather enhanced the landscape with dramatic vistas of waves crashing onto beaches and headlands.

Fortunately we had a cosy bolt hole from the winds at the Catlins Beach House - a lovely, small, backpackers place set right on the beach at Porpoise Bay. The photo below was taken from the back garden- not a bad view to wake up to! We only had a couple of days in the Catlins which was not enough to do it justice, and there was a lot we left unexplored. The first highlight of this area was arriving at Waipapa Point - where a lighthouse is the legacy of a tragic shipwreck which claimed 131 lives in 1881 - to find two sea lions play-fighting on the beach. Whilst keeping the advised distance (sea lions can move very fast when they want to...), I got some great photos and we were amazed to see them so close.

Next stop was Slope Point - the South Island's most southerly point - and the obligatory photo in front of the South Pole / Equator sign (the South Pole was nearer!). McLean Falls was next - a lovely waterfall reached by a short walk through the forest. Feeling the need for some refreshment we stopped for a coffee at the Lost Gypsy Gallery, a quirky house-bus filled with gadgets and gizmos, which had us chuckling all the way to Nugget Point. Here, you walk along a ridge off rock leading out to a lighthouse with breathtaking views out to sea over the 'nuggets' (sea stacks). On the way back we deviated to spy a yellow-eyed penguin waddling out to take a swim in Roaring Bay.

The next day, we decided to give Sunny (our rental car) a well deserved rest, and explore the Curio Bay area. Heading out onto the beach, we walked up Porpoise Bay towards the headland, looking out for the pod of Hector's dolphins which come into the bay to feed. We soon spotted the tell-take fins out to sea, and watched the dolphins surf the waves. Heading round to Curio Bay, we had a wander round the petrified forest - a fascinating fossilised remains of a Jurassic forest, that was preserved by volcanic ash 160 million years ago. We also spotted a lonely yellow-eyed penguin sitting grumpily with his back to the audience!

Heading back along the beach for lunch, we instead decided to brave the chilly temperatures and cold water to take a quick dip in the sea. Normally a person who is disinclined to wade straight into cold water, once I got to knee-depth, a wave quickly swept me off my feet and dunked me in the washing-machine surf. Once soaked, the only way was in I managed to get behind the breaking waves and floated in the calmer waters. Which was when the dolphins came over to take a look. I have had many fantastic experiences in New Zealand, and this definitely ranked in the top few. I hardly dared move, watching in amazement as these beautiful, graceful creatures frolicked and dived, just metres away. A true privilege to be guests in their environment.

I could have stayed there all day, but the water was gradually numbing parts of my body so ran up the beach and back to the Beach House for a hot shower! After a late lunch, we wandered round a local art exhibition and the fascinating museum of local history at Waikawa. Of course, no day is complete without a coffee stop, and today's cafe of choice was the Niagara Falls Cafe - an excellent cafe and restaurant in an old school house.

MizHB had tentatively booked a surfing lesson for the evening, but the wind had picked up and when she rang to check it was still on, it was unfortunately cancelled. We headed out for a walk along the beach and soon saw exactly why it had been cancelled - the crashing breakers were for experienced surfers only! Returning windswept to the Beach House, we settled in for an evening in front of the wood burning stove, listening to the wind raging outside - the forces of nature continuing to shape the rugged, Catlins landscape.

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