There’s something a little unusual about putting yourself in tourist hubs, knowing that we don’t have any tourists – at least ones visiting from beyond the border. For readers from afar who aren’t in the know, the only people who can enter our country in these strange times are residents and citizens. The bar is quite high.
We’ve been exploring some magnificent coastline in the south eastern corner of our country. Places where wildlife sometimes outnumbers the people. When we pass strangers on bush tracks and coastal trails there’s one constant. With a few exceptions and Covid refugees stuck here on extended work visas, the people we pass have made New Zealand their home. As a family of mixed origins – we’re forever reminded that Pete’s family are far away and locked down in the UK, we’ve heard different accents and noticed that many of those we pass were not born here. Like us, the new, New Zealanders are embracing the remote edges of our islands.
The Catlins area on the south-eastern coastline has been the focus of the first part of our trip. Visiting our third island, given the Scottish moniker of Stewart (but far more appropriately named Raikura), will form part two. The Catlins are best reached on a drive from Dunedin. They were an area ignored by the gold rush of the late 1800’s. But the Catlins attracted newcomers with its dense forest, cleared and stripped bare in many places for its rich native timbers. Strangely, the clearance of vegetation on the Otago Peninsula led to a new habitat for the Royal Albatross, the third largest seabird in the world. Moving further south we found fur seals and sealions so friendly that they bask on beaches, seemingly ignorant of the presence of passing humans. At one time they were plentiful and then they were gone, wiped out by a thriving fur trade. These days they are treasured and are coming back in numbers.
Kaka Point was our gateway the Catlins, a rocky beach with sandy shores where sealions waddle at breakneck speed across the sand. Nearby Nugget Point is a headland reminiscent of the Cornish Coastline. Rugged plunging cliffs mark each side of a peninsula. It leads out to a stark white lighthouse at its head, surrounded nugget like pinnacles protruding up from the sea. We saw the rare Hoiho, a tall yellow eyed penguin, a seal colony, and basking sea lions, all in one small walk to the Point.
Moving on the Curio Bay and we found a gem. Pete reckons that someone tipped a world of goodness into one place. A curving bay with gentle waves where resident Hectors dolphins play in the surf from dawn till day break. Get in amongst the waves and they might just swim with you. On the other side of the headland is a petrified forest, some 170 million years old. It would’ve been around before the dinosaurs. Not only is it unique for its history but the forest is another habitat for nature. We witnessed another Hoiho march over the shore platform at last light, making its way to the nest.
The Catlins is a quiet place for domestic tourism. It’s a little further off the beaten track and you go there with a real intent to find nature. Fortunately, the new New Zealanders are coming after the lockdowns, getting to see these treasures in abundance. Perhaps one day soon the secret will be out.