Our Amazing Day in the Catlins Was All About the Journey

Our New Zealand routine generally followed a pattern – after spending a few days exploring one terrific locale, we moved on to the next amazing place. And thanks to tireless research by Marlene – our friend, travel companion, and fellow blogger (click here to visit), we always found a few cool stopping spots as we traversed from point A to point B – sights that otherwise would have been missed.

I eagerly looked forward to the travel days, which typically kicked off with an increasingly efficient process of packing up the Highlander, followed by a ‘flat white’ coffee stop for Steve before hitting the road with anticipation.

On this particular travel day, our goal was to drive from Invercargill to Dunedin along the Southern Scenic Route – a distance of around 275 kilometers, or roughly 170 miles.

The journey took us 12 hours, and it turned out to be my favorite travel day of all. Not because of any single show-stopping attraction, but rather the anticipation and cumulative process of discovery for each of the nine stops along the way.

It was a little like unloading your Christmas stocking on the big day. No extra special presents necessarily, but what a treat to leisurely unwrap, experience, and appreciate each gift before moving on to the next.

9:55 a.m. – Waipapa Point Lighthouse

In Invercargill, we awoke to cool temperatures, low clouds and limited visibility. Not ideal for stopping at the many scenic overlooks on our route, but at least it wasn’t raining . . . yet.

Our first destination was Waipapa Point Lighthouse about an hour down the road. Wet and windy conditions translated into a quick visit.

Like many others, this lighthouse was built in response to a terrible disaster. One hundred thirty-one people died when the passenger steamer Tararua wrecked on the rocky reefs near Waipapa Point in 1881.

The lighthouse was first lit in 1884 and remains in use today, although the operation was automated in 1975. All 23 of New Zealand’s lighthouses are now monitored remotely from a central location in Wellington.

A good start to our morning.

10:45 a.m. – Slope Point

Moving on, the next stop was Slope Point – southernmost point on the South Island of New Zealand.

Q: Why is it called Slope Point?

A: Because of the crooked, nearly horizontal trees that dot the landscape, caused by relentless, brutal winds.

We felt the same way those trees look as we battled fierce winds on our walk through the paddock (pasture) to get to Slope Point. Even with the persistent cloud cover, we enjoyed the views and experience.

11:50 a.m. Curio Bay

Next up was Curio Bay – home to a rare 180 million year old Jurassic fossil forest, and we were lucky enough to arrive during low tide, when the exposed tree stumps, logs, and other fossils are not only most visible but also accessible for exploring on foot.

We enjoyed wandering through the fossil forest to check out the interesting shapes and textures. Here are a couple other views from the same general area.

1:30 p.m. Whistling Frog Cafe

Restaurants are in short supply along the Southern Scenic Route, but we happened upon the Whistling Frog at just the right time to refuel for the rest of the day. And happily, the food was outstanding. If you are ever passing through and in need of a delicious meal, you can’t go wrong at the Whistling Frog.

2:20 p.m. McLean Falls

At this point in the drive, we were several miles inland, just inside the boundary of the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park. Highlights included lush vegetation, boisterous birdsong, and a series of impressive waterfalls.

We visited four – McLean Falls on the Tautuku River was the first, and well worth the short hike to get there.

3:45 p.m. Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls

Our next stop was just a short distance down the highway. Another walk in the rain forest took us to two waterfalls located on the Matai Stream. Horseshoe Falls was actually more impressive in person than in the anemic photo below.

4:40 p.m. Purakaunui Falls

Our fourth and final waterfall for the day was Purakaunui Falls on the river with the same name, and it was especially lovely – from any angle.

5:30 p.m. – Nugget Point

The highway then headed back to the coast, and we stopped at stunning Nugget Point.

First lit in 1870, the Nugget Point Lighthouse is still in operation today after being automated in 1989. It was an easy walk from the car park, with beautiful views and a few glimpses of fur seals in the water far below.

A viewing platform at the end of the path provided a good vantage point for seeing the ‘nuggets’ – wave-eroded rocks in the shape of gold nuggets. And lots of fur seals on those rocks.

6:45 p.m. – Roaring Bay

The featured attraction at Roaring Bay is yellow-eyed penguins.

We arrived shortly before dusk and hoped to see yellow-eyed penguins, but honestly, I was skeptical after reading reviews from other travelers. A 50-50 chance at best, and so far away even if you do. But worth a shot.

A short walk downhill from the car park, Roaring Bay is gorgeous with or without penguins.

The structure in the photo above is a viewing platform, or hide, where visitors can watch the penguins without being seen. It was about halfway between the top of the hill and the beach. We claimed our spots and settled in.

After only a couple of minutes, we hit the jackpot as a yellow-eyed penguin was spotted swimming toward the beach after a long day fishing! The little guy (or gal) was far away and difficult to see with the naked eye, but we got good views through Marlene’s binoculars. How else would we have known that these birds have pink feet?

Here’s a close-up photo from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology library:

And here are the slightly less impressive photos from my phone camera:

Yellow-eyed penguins are endemic to New Zealand, which means they are a native species not found anywhere else in the world. They are also endangered, with only a couple hundred breeding pairs remaining. Efforts to support their continued survival are ongoing, although the trend is headed in the wrong direction.

We were both thrilled and honored to watch “our” penguin for about half an hour before it disappeared into the tall grass. Definitely my highlight of the entire day!

9:00 p.m. – Arrival in Dunedin

It was a special day with only one regret. Not enough time! Despite the packed sight-seeing schedule, we missed an equal number of other stops that looked and sounded promising.

My advice to other travelers – heed the recommendation in the travel guides to spend 2-3 days exploring the area. 😎

Next Post: More Penguins and New Zealand’s Scottish Heritage
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  1. Oh I forgot all about the rain! Probably because it wasn’t torrential. So nice!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh I love this so much! I read Marlene’s post earlier and this augments it perfectly with the timeline! What a special day of incredible beauty. Thanks for sharing it. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading both of our blogs, Mary! I decided to finish my post before I read Marlene’s, and it was fun to see just how aligned they were. Writing about our trip is a good way to revisit those special places, especially since we don’t know how long before we will be able to travel again. Hope you are doing well!


  3. Reallly you saw penguins … have to admit: I’m a bit ( lot) jealous here haha

    Liked by 1 person

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