Cycling in the Catlins – Catlins, New Zealand

In late February I headed to Invercargill to go and explore the Catlins with some friends. Natural High organised our itinerary and provided support throughout the trip.

Until a few years ago I didn’t know where the Catlins were – I thought they were a group of islands off the bottom of the South Island near Stewart Island but no, the Catlins form the south eastern coast of the South Island.

The area lies between Balclutha and Invercargill, straddling the boundary between the Otago and Southland regions. It includes the South Island’s southernmost point, Slope Point.

A rugged, sparsely populated area, the Catlins features a scenic coastal landscape and dense temperate rainforest, both of which harbour many endangered species of birds, most notably the rare yellow-eyed penguin. The coast attracts numerous marine mammals, among them New Zealand fur seals and Hooker’s sea lions. In general terms the area enjoys a maritime temperate climate. Its exposed location leads to its frequently wild weather and heavy ocean swells, which are an attraction to big-wave surfers, and have also caused numerous shipwrecks.

People have lived in the area since around 1350 AD. Prior to European settlement, the region was sparsely inhabited by nomadic groups of Māori, most of whom lived close to river mouths. In the early days of European settlement the area was frequented by whalers and sealers, and saw milling became a major local industry from the mid-19th century until the 1930s.

Tourism has become of growing importance in the Catlins economy, which otherwise relies heavily on dairy farming and fishing.

The region’s population has fallen to less than half its peak in the early 20th century. Some 1,200 people now live in the Catlins, many of them in the settlement of Owaka. This is linked to population centres to the north and southwest via the area’s only major road, part of the Southern Scenic Route. Owaka contains the area’s main school,The Catlins Area School, catering for students from year 1 to year 13. There are three other small primary schools throughout the Catlins district. Owaka also has a medical centre, the nearest hospital being in Balclutha. The Catlins is governed at local level as part of the Clutha and Southland Districts and is represented at national level as part of the Clutha-Southland electorate.

Day 1 – Invercargill to Pounawea – 🚐 & 32km 🚴‍♀️.

Our first day in the Catlins has been spectacular. Firstly we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine and secondly we only encountered head winds on the odd occasion 👍🏼. The Catlins comprises an area in the southeastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand. I was expecting it be wild and rugged like the West Coast but we were greeted with white sandy beaches and gently rolling hills – more akin to Northland than the West Coast. We had a lovely lunch at Kaka Point before cycling out to Nugget Point to see one of two lighthouses that serve this region. We could see the seals frolicking & swimming far below us. We walked down to Roaring Bay to see if we could see any yellow eyed penguins coming ashore but weren’t so lucky. We then drove to Tunnel Hill and walked through an old rail tunnel which was completed in 1893 – it is NZ’s southern most railway tunnel. Back on the bikes to Pounawea where we are staying in waterside cabins. We enjoyed a lovely meal at the Lumberjack Cafe in Owaka. Owaka is the biggest settlement in the Catlins with a population of 400 – it even has its own Teapot Garden 😉. The entire Catlins population is only 1,200. Once again the scenery in this beautiful country we are so lucky to call home has blown me away 😊.

Nugget Point is one of the most iconic land forms on the Otago Coast. The lighthouse at its tip stands at 76 metres above the water and is surrounded by rocky islets also referred to as nuggets. The lighthouse was built in 1869 and originally powered by an oil burner. It was converted to electricity in 1949 powered by a diesel generator until 1960 before being connected to mains electricity. It was automated in 1989 and is now computer monitored and operated by Maritime New Zealand.

The Teapot Garden collection was started 13 years ago by a local Owaka man called Graham Renwick. There was no grand plan behind the garden it just popped up and now has about 1,400 teapots in it from all over New Zealand and the world.

Day 2 – Pounawea to Chaslands – 🚐 & 32km 🚴‍♀️.

We awoke to calm seas and sunshine – a good start. We drove around to Jacks Bay to do a walk to see Jacks Blowhole. The sea travels 200 metres through a cave into this massive hole – the sea wasn’t wild today so the culmination of this water travelling 200 metres wasn’t as fiery as it can be but it was still impressive. After walking back to Jacks Bay we watched about 6 sea lions frolicking on the beach before getting on our bikes to cycle to Purakaunui Beach which is popular with the surfers. Unfortunately the weather had deteriorated a bit and we got a little bit of rain going in there. Next stop was Purakaunui Falls which were picturesque. It really is a nature lovers paradise down here – there is literally something to see at every turn and all the tracks and signs are so well maintained. After some lunch it was back on the bikes to Papatowai where we came across the annual Papatowai Challenge – a 15.5km run or walk. The terrain was very hilly but there were some impressive competitors out there. The light drizzle had also made it quite muddy which Graeme discovered as he hooned down the hills on his bike. We then drove up to Matai Falls before coming back to Papatowai to enjoy a coffee at The Lost Gypsy. We then cycled up Florence Hill Lookout. The clouds had cleared and the sun was shining again which made for some stunning vistas. Most of the promotional photos for the Catlins are taken from this lookout and you can see why. We could see back along the coast to where we had come and down along Tautuku Bay – wow 😮. We then had a fast descent down on the bikes before stopping for a paddle at the beach – surprisingly it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. We finished the day with a walk to Lake Wilkie which due to its environment is very reflective. Another stop at a historic sawmilling site was also interesting – back in the day there were 182 sawmills in the Catlins. Today there is only one. Tonight we are staying at Whistling Frog 🐸 Resort which is very cool. We enjoyed a yummy dinner at the cafe and it was blue cod all the way – it is hard to get at home, yet it is on pretty much every menu down here 😋. The Catlins is proving to be such a wonderful discovery 🐧🐝🐬🌿🌊☔️☀️👏🏻

Jacks Blowhole is 55 metres deep and 200 metres from the sea. It was formed when the roof of a large subterranean cave was eroded by the sea and fell in. As with the bay and nearby island, Jacks Blowhole is named after the famed Ngai Tahu Cheif, Tuhawaiki, known to early European settlers as Bloody Jack – apparently he was fond of using the expletive ‘bloody’.

The Purakaunui Falls are a cascading three tiered waterfall that stand at 20 metres tall. They are one of very few South Island waterfalls away from the alpine region. The falls are an iconic image for the Catlins and they were featured on a postage stamp in 1976.

Lake Wilkie was formed after the last ice age and has gradually shrunk to it’s current size of 1.7 hectares. Bog lakes like Lake Wilkie are a rare ecosystem in this part of the country. Trapped towards the coast by a small cliff, water accumulated in a depression between ancient sand dunes. Originally, the lake was much larger and is slowly being filled in and reclaimed by the vegetation around it. Today, the lake is very shallow and its water coloured brownish by organic acids released by the peaty soils.. The introduced whistling tree frog is common around the lake’s edges and provides the name of our accommodation for the night – Whistling Frog Resort.

First inhabited by the Maori people in the period 900 – 1700 AD, the Catlins is an area with a rich history. Captain James Cook sighted the area in 1770, but it was not until the period 1810 – 1830 that whalers and sealers arrived in the Catlins. The Catlins takes its name from Edward Catlin, a ship’s captain who made a land claim in the district in 1840. The first settlement of land by Europeans took place in the mid 1850’s. Settlers arrived primarily to mill trees, the first mill being in operation around 1865. Nine timber mills were operating near the Catlins and Owaka Rivers by the 1880’s. In 1877, 107 ships sailed from the Catlins area loaded with timber bound for house building in Dunedin and Christchurch. Farming became more prevalent in the 1870’s and 1880’s and since the end of the sawmilling era, the Catlins district has relied on farming as its mainstay.

Day 3 – Chaslands to Curio Bay – 34km 🚴‍♀️.

We started the day with a bit of sight seeing in the van. First up were the 22m McLean Falls. We then walked the Tautuku boardwalk which winds through wetlands with wonderful views across to Maori Tapu (sacred spiritual) land. We had to wait until 11am to visit Cathedral Caves due to low tide being at 1.10pm – you can only visit the caves two hours either side of low tide. The caves are located in cliffs at the northern end of pristine Waipati Beach – the two sea-formed passages together measure just on 200 metres – and their impressive height is up to 30 metres. It was then back to the Whistling Frog 🐸 to have a picnic lunch and saddle up the bikes. We stopped at NZ’s answer to Niagara Falls 😜 – they were named by a surveyor with an obvious sense of humor who had seen the real McCoy in North America. We then enjoyed a nice coffee at the old Niagara schoolhouse which is now a cafe. It had been rather a chilly day with a high of 11 degrees so the cafe with its hothouse like conditions was quite a treat. I’m not complaining though because we got very little rain. We then stopped in Waikawa to look at the museum which had all manner of interesting things in it. I even discovered a number of Lambs who resided here in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – need to check the family tree. Our final destination was Curio Bay where we are staying beachfront. I’m looking forward to getting out there to explore tomorrow 🏄‍♀️ 🐬 ☀️😎

At 199 metres in total passage length, Cathedral Cave is one of the finest examples of a sea cave in New Zealand and is currently one of the 30 longest known sea caves in the world.

In contrast to limestone caves which form by the chemical action of water slowly dissolving calcite in the rock (a process known as dissolution), sea caves are formed by the mechanical action of the waves eroding or collapsing the rock. Many sea caves form along weaknesses, such as fractures or faults, in hard rocks otherwise resistant to erosion. Because there is a limit to how far the wave energy can travel through a cave before losing its erosive power, there is also a limit to how far a sea cave can tunnel into a cliff. This is why many of the longest sea caves in the world have several entrances or form a tunnel through the headland. In the Catlins the maximum distance into the cliff seems to be 150 metres.

Cathedral Cave is formed in resistant Jurassic sandstone (about 160 million years old) of the Murihiku Terrance, although the cave is much younger (tens to hundreds of thousands of years). The cave originally formed as two separate caves, which later joined at the back to create a cave almost twice as long.

Day 4 – 2 hours 🏄‍♀️ with 🐬, 32km 🚴‍♀️ and a bit of sightseeing in the 🚐.

We witnessed a pretty magical sunrise over Curio Bay this morning. It was only 9 degrees with a forecast high of 12 but we had a blue sky day all the way and what better way to start it than with a surf lesson. We were very fortunate that the guy who sorted our accommodation also runs the Catlins Surf School. He told us that the conditions for this morning were going to be perfect for surfing so we signed up. It was so much fun and I even managed to stand up a few times. What made it even more special was sharing the water with 5 Hector Dolphins who swam around us and surfed the waves next to us. Definitely one of the highlights of my life 😊. It was then onto the bikes through to Slope Point – the southernmost point of the South Island. Our next ride was out to Waipapa Point where there is a lighthouse. This coastline saw many shipwrecks in the early days and included NZ’s worst maritime disaster in 1881 where 131 people lost their lives on the Tararua. We visited the memorial enroute to Waipapa Point. The scenery today was stunning – green rolling hills laden with sheep and stunning coastlines. We could also see across to Stewart Island. We then drove back to Curio Bay where we are staying for a second night. On arriving back at our house, aptly named Dolphin View, we saw a couple of Dolphins playing in the water. The most perfect day 🏄‍♀️🐬🚴‍♀️☀️😎.

Photo cred for the surfing photos – Andrea 👍🏼😊

Curio Bay is one of the major attractions in the Catlins, attracting around 100,000 visitors annually. It is best known as the site of a petrified forest some 180 million years old. It also hosts a yellow-eyed penguin colony, arguably the rarest of penguin species, with approximately 1600 breeding pairs in the extant population. The bay, along with Porpoise Bay, is home to the endemic Hector’s dolphin.

The SS Tararua was a passenger steamer that struck the reef off Waipapa Point on the 29th April 1881, in the worst civilian shipping disaster in New Zealand’s history. Of the 151 passengers and crew on board, only 20 survived the shipwreck.

Sailing from Port Chalmers, Dunedin at 5pm on 28 April 1881, the Tararua was en route to Melbourne via Bluff and Hobart. Steering by land on a dark night, with clear skies overhead but a haze over the land, the captain turned the ship west at 4am believing they had cleared the southernmost point. After breakers were heard at 4.25am, they steered away from the west for 20 minutes before heading west again. At about 5am, the ship struck the Otara Reef, which runs 13 kilometres out from Waipapa Point.

The first lifeboat was holed as it was launched, but the second lifeboat carried a volunteer close enough to swim to shore and raise the alarm. A farmhand rode 56 kilometres to Wyndham to telegraph the news. However, while a message reached Dunedin by 1pm, it was not marked urgent, and it took until 5pm for the Hawea to leave port with supplies. Meanwhile, the wind and waves had risen. Around noon, six passengers who were strong swimmers were taken close to shore; three managed to get through the surf, with the help of the earlier volunteer, but the others drowned. On a return trip, one man attempted to get ashore on the reef, but had to give up; another three drowned trying to swim to the beach. Another boat capsized trying to get a line through the surf. Eight of the nine crew survived, but the boat was damaged, and locals who had gathered on the shore could not repair it. The remaining boat could no longer reach the ship, due to the waves, and stood out to sea in hope of flagging down a passenger ship to help. The Tararua took over 20 hours to sink, with the stern going under around 2pm and the rest disappearing overnight. The last cries of the victims were heard at 2.35am. Only one managed to swim safely from the ship to shore.

About 74 bodies were recovered, of which 55 were buried in a nearby plot that came to be known as Tararua Acre. Three gravestones and a memorial plinth remain there today.

The Waipapa lighthouse was built in response to the Tararua disaster. It was first lit on the 1st January 1884. With its sibling, the retired Kaipara North Head lighthouse, this was one of the last two wooden lighthouses built in New Zealand. The lighthouse was automated and the keepers withdrawn in 1975. It has been solar powered since 1988. A new LED beacon was installed externally on the balcony of the lighthouse in December 2008. Restoration work conducted in 2008 ensured it was weather proof and secure from vandalism.

Day 5 – 23.5km 🚴‍♀️ and sightseeing in the 🚐.

The dolphins put on another fine display for us on our final morning in this beautiful part of the country – such a treat 🐬😊. We then went and checked out the petrified forest – a forest buried millions of years ago by ancient volcanic mud flows and gradually replaced by silica to produce the fossils now exposed by the sea. Fossil forests of this age are very few throughout the world, and this is one of the most extensive and least disturbed of them. The overall area stretches for 20 kilometres from Curio Bay to Slope Point. We then drove back to the Waipapa Point turnoff to resume our cycling. First stop was Fortrose which is situated on Toetoes Bay at the mouth of the Mataura River, and is on the far western edge of the Catlins. It is touted as being the best brown trout fishing spot in NZ. We continued cycling for another hour past all the fishing huts and through dairy farming country. It was then back in the van to check out Bluff which has the longest history of any NZ town and is home to the Bluff oyster. We had great views out to Stewart Island from the lookout. We then headed back to where it all began – Invercargill. We explored Queens Garden which sprawls across 80 hectares of beautifully kept gardens, wildlife habitats, and sports areas. It was a very impressive facility and even boasts an 18 hole golf course. At the back of the museum is a tuatara enclosure. Tuataras are one of the only living relics that survived the Jurassic era. They are endemic to NZ and their name derives from the Māori language, and means “peaks on the back”. It was then time to say goodbye to my cycling buddies and Steve from Natural High. It has been an awesome and very enlightening trip and the discovery of a nature lovers treasure trove. A must visit 👍🏼😊.

Fortrose was named after Fortrose in Black Isle, the Scottish Highlands. The Toetoes estuary contains approximately 400 hectares of expansive tidal flats, 13km of the lower Mataura River and 4km of the Titiroa Stream. The estuary, dune system and Fortrose Headland are an example of headland beaches created by sustained periods of river and sea interaction. The estuary is used for whitebaiting, trout fishing and floundering.

The Mataura River is promoted as the best brown trout fishery in New Zealand. Three main fin fish found in the estuary are trout, salmon and flounder. Gamebird hunting (ducks and Canadian Geese) takes place within the estuary but it is mainly confined to shooting from shore with a few maimai erected on the tidal flats.

Bluff is the southernmost town in mainland New Zealand and although Slope Point and Stewart Island are further south it is colloquially used to refer to the southern extremity of the country (particularly in the phrase ‘from Cape Reinga to Bluff’.

James Spencer is credited as Bluff’s first European settler. In 1824 he purchased land from Tuhawaiki (Bloody Jack), built a house and established a fishing station which employed 21 people. This was the beginning of Bluff, which today has the longest history of any New Zealand town. The current population of Bluff is about 1,800.

The port at Bluff is comparably smaller to their other ports in NZ but still moves about 2.2 million tonnes of cargo each year. The Taiwan Point aluminium smelter and fossil fuel exploration activity in the Great South Basis may ensure the future relevance of the port.

There is a twice daily ferry service to Stewart Island some 60 kilometres across Foveaux Strait. It is the main gateway for ships heading to Antarctica. The harbour is home to the Foveaux Strait oyster fleet. Bluff oysters are renowned for their succulence and flavour, and are considered a delicacy nationwide, with Bluff holding an annual oyster festival.

Invercargill is the southernmost and westernmost city in New Zealand and one of the most southernmost cities in the world. Many streets in the city, especially in the centre are named after rivers in Great Britain, mainly Scotland. These include Dee and Tay as well as Tweed, Forth, Tyne, Esk, Don, Ness, yarrow, Spey and Eye rivers. The population is about 52,000 people.

After visiting one of New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes this information on a board on Bluff Hill resonated with me and hopefully with everyone as we move forward in an ecological and sustainable manner.

After 80 million years of isolation, New Zealand is slowly becoming like everywhere else. Today’s landscape has been shaped by generations of hard working immigrants. Forests have given way to towns, industries and farmland. Human achievement has a price. Natural habitats that were home to some of the world’s most unusual and vulnerable plant and animal communities have gone forever.

In 700 years, New Zealand has lost 32% of its native land birds, and over 500 of its special plants and animals are threatened with extinction.

Southland (including Fiordland) claims the greatest share of those threatened species simply because, for many, southern forests, wetlands, mountains, sand dunes and offshore islands are their last refuge.

New Zealanders are awakening to the value of their unique natural heritage; the contribution its beauty and difference makes to tourism, scientific understanding ….. and above all to human well being.

“Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.” Chief Seattle


This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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