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The Catlins: New Zealand’s wild, rocky, southern shore

Published
March 1, 2024
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THE Catlins is the English name given to a remote yet beautiful coastal area that wraps around the southernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand. The area is known in Māori as Te Ākau Tai Toka, ‘the rocky southern shore’, though there are some good beaches as well!

The Catlins, this rocky southern shore, runs from the village of Fortrose, just east of Invercargill, to the town of Balclutha, and includes the southernmost tip of the South Island at Slope Point.

In this post, the first of three, I journey eastward from Fortrose to Curio Bay/Tumu Toka and the nearby Porpoise Bay. I will then continue my journey eastward in the next two posts, finishing up at Balclutha.

The Catlins and environs, with names over water and black and red highlight boxes added to the background map (©2019 Google). The main coastal road between Balclutha and Fortrose, two inland roads and some side roads have also been traced out in red. Sharpened using FastStone Image Viewer. North at top.

It’s an area notorious for wild weather, only guaranteed to be warm for two months of the year, from mid-December to mid-February, the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Local landforms include names like Bleak Hill and Starvation Bluff, while, along with Maori names, many of the townships and villages have names like Fortrose, Balclutha, and Caberfeidh: names that tell you that many of the settlers who came to the district in the nineteenth century were Scots. So, they also tended to be in other parts of New Zealand’s ‘Wild South’: a region that probably reminded them of Home.

In this first part, I describe the journey from Fortrose to Curio Bay, also known as Te Tumu Toka, which means the southern headland.

Although there is paid accommodation, it’s a very remote area and you may also wish to do the journey as a freedom camper. Freedom camping sites are sites where you can camp for free with a toilet nearby.

Information about freedom camping sites can be hard to come by. So, I have made the effort to identify all five freedom camping sites in the Catlins (let me know if there are any more!)

MORAY TERRACE RESERVE, FORTROSE. According to Fingertip Travels, the freedom camping site at Moray Terrace Reserve, Fortrose, is very good. This is identified on Google Maps.

WEIRS BEACH. Fingertip Travels also recommends the freedom camping site at Weirs Beach, though some of the locals aren’t happy with it as there is only one toilet and they feel that it is being overused. This is also identified on Google Maps. This is just as well, as the sign pointing to where it is has been pulled down at least once.

HINAHINA RESERVE (OWAKA BOATING CLUB). But if you want to stay closer to the heart of the Catlins, another option is Hinahina Reserve, about five kilometres out from Owaka on the south side of the Catlins River, just before the Catlins Lake. This freedom camping spot is also the base of the Owaka Yacht Club and the Owaka Boating Club; so, according to Kiwis Fly the Coop, don’t block the ramp! Neither the Hinahina Reserve nor the freedom camping site are shown as such on Google Maps: the spot is identified as the ‘Catlins Boating Club’.

OWAKA FREEDOM CAMPING SITE. According to Kiwis Fly the Coop, you can also freedom camp behind the Catlins Inn at Owaka. This site is more formally known as the Owaka Freedom Camping Site, and is identified as a freedom camping site on Google Maps.

WAIKAWA RECREATION RESERVE. The fifth freedom camping site, which I found on the Rankers Camping NZ App, is the Waikawa Recreation Reserve. This is not identified as a freedom camping site on Google Maps, but it is, and it has a large sealed parking area suitable for large campervans.

All five freedom camping spots have been identified with black outline boxes on the map above. As far as I know, the post you are reading is the only place where all five of these sites are identified at once!

The café at Fortrose

On the beach at Fortrose

The Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail

A lot of the paid holiday accommodation is small and fairly informal. Here’s a place near Fortrose called the Pukeko Inn.

Waipapā Point

The next major stop is Waipapā Point, also on the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail. It has a historic lighthouse.

The Lighthouse at Waipapā Point

There were lots of displays about the local nature and lighthouse life.

The path leading down to the beach at Waipapā Point

Slope Point

The southernmost point of the South Island really is the end of the line, with gnarly old fence posts and remnants of fences that are slowly falling into the sea. There’s a smaller lighthouse or shore-beacon here, too.

The author beside a sign near the beacon

The beacon, with the sign in the background

Remnants of a fence

Another view of the fence remnants

Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay

I’ve visited the Catlins several times, including one trip I made with my sister, Maree, where we saw yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, on the petrified forest at Curio Bay (more on that in a moment).

A collage of Curio Bay scenes from my book The Sensational South Island, linked at the end of this post

The yellow-eyed penguin only exists in New Zealand waters. It breeds in coastal forests and so it is vulnerable to all sorts of threats these days, from deforestation to dogs to the sheer stress of ‘walking in a wet suit’ from the shore to the forests where it breeds. It’s the fourth-largest penguin in the world. And perhaps it is also one of the most raucous as well, for its Māori name, hoiho, means ‘noise maker’!

Five years ago, at the beginning of 2019, there was only one breeding pair of hoiho at Curio Bay. The scientists were trying, at that time, to get to the bottom of why numbers decreased from 8 or 9 pairs a few years before.

There are some places to stay at Porpoise Bay, a sandy bay about a kilometre from Curio Bay.

Porpoise Bay

Panorama looking eastward from the balcony of a two storey guesthouse at Porpoise Bay

Sunset looking westward from the same guest-house at Porpoise Bay. The yucca-like trees at left are Tī (pronounced ‘tea’), also known as Cabbage Trees, while the bushes to the right are New Zealand flax or Harakeke. Both are common sights in Britain these days, though native to New Zealand.

Porpoise Bay gets its name because it is supposed to contain lots of Hector’s dolphins. The Hector’s dolphin is a small dolphin, about the size of a big dog. Like the hoiho, Hector’s dolphin is only found in New Zealand waters.

Curio Bay is the most famous bay in the Catlins, because it is the site of a petrified Jurassic forest, the source of the ‘curios’ it’s named after, plus a population of the rare hoiho.

The Curio Bay Campground is far from free, with sites costing around $45 to $55 a night, but on the other hand, it is even closer to Curio Bay.

You can see seals, whales, and of course penguins and dolphins in this area. But it pays to pick the right time of year, as they have feeding and migration seasons in which they may all be well out to sea.

The petrified forest

In the petrified Jurassic forest, you can still see the grain of the wood, in vertical stumps and fallen logs.

Plaque at Curio Bay. Note the tree ferns, which survive in the nearby living forest, along with several other Jurassic tree varieties

A part of the petrified forest, complete with visible logs and stumps

Another plaque, describing the petrified forest and how it came to be

A petrified log with visible grain

A petrified tree stump poking up through sedimentary rock

Charred-looking fossil timber

The forest still lives!

The petrified forest is only a few hundred metres from the edge of a living forest, extending over much of the Catlins, which has many similar species to the old petrified forest. As incredible as it sounds, the modern-day Catlins forest could even be the direct descendant of the forest that stood on the same spot in the Jurassic era.

A plaque contrasting the fossil and living forests

The living forest at Curio Bay

Dad in the living forest among tree ferns, various other evergreens including conifers known as podocarps, and a deciduous native tree fuchsia. Podocarps, known in some parts of the world as ‘plum pines’, mount their seeds on top of fruit-like structures attractive to browsing birds and, before them, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs, rather than in woody cones. Podocarps were common in Jurassic forests and remain common in contemporary New Zealand forests: species such as mataī, tōtara, and rimu. But as bearers of fruits and berries, they were eventually out-competed by flowering shrubs and trees in virtually all other parts of the world, becoming rare and unusual. But in New Zealand, tree ferns and podocarps still rule many forests including the forests of the Catlins. So the ecology of the living forest really is closer to the Jurassic, and to the nearby petrified forest, than most other places on earth.

Another view of a giant tree fern in the living forest. These days, tree ferns are mostly found in the tropics and the ones in the living forest at Curio Bay are close to their southern limit.

Well, things don’t get much weirder than that.

Here’s a four-minute introduction to the Catlins that I’ve already made. It introduces you to quite a few places that I’ve mentioned, or am going to be talking about, in these three posts.

The sequence of places shown in the video is different from the eastward journey of these posts. In the video, I begin at Kākā Point, which is halfway along the Catlins coast. In its YouTube notes, I write that:

This four-minute video shows off the Catlins region of the South Island of New Zealand. It includes the southernmost part of the South Island of New Zealand at Slope Point. I start off at Kākā Point, which has a township and good cafés, and then I explore the lighthouse at Nugget Point or Tokatā from 00:12, named after rocks in the sea which are called the Nuggets.
From 00:21, I walk the sands of the unfortunately-named Cannibal Bay (or less unfortunately, Ōrakiutuhia), which is also patrolled by chickens! From 00:37, the beautiful Pounawea Bay, close to the town of Owaka. And then from 00:48, coastal reflecting waters at Papatōwai and beech forest at nearby Lake Wilkie. Fossil forests are known in this area, which is why I say “where trees turn into rocks.”
From 01:11, I am at Surat Bay and then at Pūrākaunui Bay (with the cliffs), looking at sea lions and seals. At 1:41, I am at Florence Hill Lookout. The last remnant of native forest there is the last remnant on the local coast. But there is plenty more inland, and also at Curio Bay, also known as Tumu Toka.
At 02:05 I am at McLean Falls and Pūrākaunui Falls, amazing waterfalls in the inland bush. At 02:35 I am at Curio Bay/Tumu Toka, famous for its fossilised trees and chronically endangered yellow-eyed penguins or hoiho. At 2:53 I am at Slope Point, the southernmost point on New Zealand’s South Island, though not New Zealand as a whole. The next scene, of a sunrise just above Slope Point, is really gorgeous.
And finally, at 03:43, at a rocky stretch of coast near Slope Point, one that along with all the other rocky shores in this area helps to explain the Māori name for the Catlins: Te Ākau Tai Toka, quite simply, ‘the rocky southern shore’. Though, there are some good beaches as well!

(I’ll have more to say about the Catlins in my next post. You may also want to check out my book about the whole island that has the Catlins at its tip, The Sensational South Island, available from this website a-maverick.com.)

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