The Catlins – New Zealand’s Forgotten Coast

Nugget Point

The coastal drive along the south-east corner of New Zealand is often overlooked by travelers, but we found it spectacular for day hikes and camping. I think having a car is essential though because the big bus companies don’t go this route.

catlins view

Typical view along the Southern Scenic Route

Driving south from Dunedin, Nugget Point was our first stop. Home of New Zealand’s oldest light house (built in 1869), Nugget Point’s turquoise water was beautiful. I think I remeber reading somewhere that Nugget Point was named “Nugget” because the rocks along the point look like big nuggets of gold in the right sun light.

catlins nugget

Nugget Point - lots of ships wrecked here in the mid-1800's

catlins nugget light

Nugget Point light house - the oldest in New Zealand

catlins nugget em hair

Another windy day - I won "Best Hair" this time!

Purakaunui Bay

We camped at Purakaunui Beach the first night. It was the labour day long weekend and a great surf break, so there were a lot of people out there. A couple of families came in old school converted buses; one even had an old hand powered dryer attached to the grill.

camp site beach

Evening reflections on Purakaunui Beach

catlins car camping em

I'm an official entrant on Master Chef - Car Camping Edition

There was a woman fishing for Whitebait at the river mouth (aka ‘Whitebaiting’). She had caught a few, and was excited to enjoy the delicacy for dinner. Ali had told us that most people just eat Whitebait whole, and that it is an aquired taste.

“The New Zealand whitebait is small, sweet and tender with a delicate taste that is easily over-powered if mixed with stronger ingredients when cooked. The most popular way of cooking whitebait in New Zealand is the whitebait fritter, which is essentially an omelette containing whitebait. Purists use only the egg white in order to minimize interfering with the taste of the bait. Foreigners frequently react with revulsion when shown uncooked whitebait, which resembles slimy, translucent worms… read more


Bucket of Whitebait... they look like worms to me too

On the way back to the highway the next morning we stopped in at the Purakaunui Falls.


Purakaunui Falls

Cathedral Caves

After a few more small walks to waterfalls we stopped at Cathedral Caves. Accessible only at low tide, these caves were amazing. We only explored the first one. We had to crawl across the slimy narrow rock edge to avoid a hip deep tide pool, and then jump in when it was ‘only’ knee deep freezing (just been circling the Antarctic) water. As the tall ceiling came down to normal room height and took a sharp corner, we were submersed in darkness for a few moments. Then the light from the other end infiltrated the tunnel and the ceiling began to rise up to astounding heights again.

catlins cathedral

Miranda near the entrance to the Cathedral Cave

catlins cathedral em

Me prancing into the light at the end of the tunnel

cathederal cave view

The view from the far side of the cave

catlins cathedral mir

The hot sand on our near frozen feet felt fantastic

Jack’s Blowhole

Next stop – Jack’s Blow Hole. Our timing was a bit off because we had to hit the Cathedral Caves at low tide, and Jack’s Hole is best at high tide. Another track on private land, we were lucky this one was open even though the lambs were out.

jakes blow hole path

Path through pasture and bush to Jack's Blowhole

As we were walking along the path to the blowhole we came across a little lamb trapped on the wrong side of the fence. I find it alarming because the little guys are always so stressed out and just keep running at the wire fences in the hopes that they’ll magically find themselves on the right side. They’re also scared of humans so it’s hard to help them get back. Miranda and I have developed expert lamb wrangling skills, so it only took us 5 or 10 minutes to get the lamb pushed back through the wire fence.

The actual blowhole is pretty cool because it’s not right on the coast line where you normally see blowholes. It is situated about 200m inland. At 55m deep, 145m long, and 68m wide, it is quite a sight.

catlins jakes blow hole

Water would be rushing in and out of Jack's blowhole... but we took this photo at low-ish tide

Curio Bay

curio rings

POP QUIZ: Is this wood or rock?

I think Curio Bay must have been my favourite stop in the Catlins. When I heard “petrified forest’ I thought, “cool,  we’ll probably see a few obscure fossils and a lot of interpretive signs.” I don’t think I could have been more wrong! One of my life goals is to find my very own fossil, but just seeing this petrified forest comes dangerously close to fulfilling that goal.

180 million years ago (MYA) this part of New Zealand was part of the super continent Gondwana. In the middle Jurassic period, about 170 MYA, volcanic eruptions and heavy rains resulted in severe flooding on hundreds of square kilometers. The exciting part was that the water was full of ash. The flood killed the forest and downed the trees, and silification occurred very quickly – essentially, all that ash got embedded into the sodden wood before the wood had time to decay.

“In the millions of years, since the sediments were buried deeply and impregnated over time with silica minerals, eventually turning the wood to rock. In some places fern fronds and leaves have been preserved as fossils within the mudstone rocks… read more.

Petrified wood is very rare because usually decay occurs before this process can take place. Here in Curio Bay, whole logs and stumps are still visible amongst tidal pools. Over the last 10,000 years coastal erosion has exposed these fossils from the limestone and sediment. Fossils are also visible in the cliff faces along the beach line, which indicates that this phenomena happened many times and created many layers of petrified forest and fossils.


curio stumps

A few fossilized trees

curio stump 3

A larger tree stump - up close you can count the growth rings

curio stumps2

The bigger picture - all those lumps are tree stumps

curio balance

Balancing on a 170 million year old tree... sweet as!

curio stump

Another stump... this one was a small one (7-10cm diameter)

How Far South Can You Go?

Slope Point is the most southern point of the South Island. Somewhere on Stewart Island claims the most southern part of the country, but we couldn’t make it down there, so this is as close as we’ll get to Antarctica this trip!

slope point sign

Slope Point - next stop South Pole




Filed under Travel

3 responses to “The Catlins – New Zealand’s Forgotten Coast

  1. Lonnie

    wow looks like awesome fun, im yet to plan my trip so thanks for the ideas 🙂

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