South Island Wanderings – The Catlins

Visiting Christchurch after recent events was undoubtedly moving but the following day it was time to start our tour of the South Island in earnest. Pam and Denis at Lilac Rose B&B gave us a hearty and tasty breakfast to see us on our way. Picking up the Rav4 from Apex car rentals we made our way down south on the SH1 heading for the Catlins. On the way we decided, on a whim really, to strike out east of the main road to go and have a look at the mouth of the river Rakaia. A very rough track led us to what was clearly a fishing area but looking out to sea we were both surprised and delighted to see a dolphin in the water – either a Hectors or a Dusky, we couldn’t quite see which. A rather nice start to our trip.

We could have made it to the Catlins in one go but decided that coping with jet lag and driving was not the best idea so we hauled off the main highway at Waimate, a few hours from Christchurch. It’s one of those nondescript towns, about 10 klms off the main road. You wouldn’t think much goes on here except that every year they hold a road race around the streets. In fact it’s New Zealand’s longest running street race and attracts thousands of visitors and a range of different cars. Not quite Monaco but I’m sure its a lot of fun.

We had a B&B on the edge of town run by the delightful Carolyn and Rob; not Kiwis but escapees from Australia, as it happens. They could not have been more helpful, booking a table at a local restaurant a good 20 minute walkup the road from them. When we came out after an excellent meal Carolyn was there to pick us up in her Ute because she didn’t like the thought of us walking down the dark rural road without the torch she had meant to lend us.

We spent the rest of the evening chatting to Carolyn and Rob about matters various and agreeing, as Christchurch shows, that it’s people and the support and love they give one another that really matters in this life.

We considered Waimate to be an approximate half way point between Christchurch and the Catlins but we did rather underestimate the amount of time it would take us to get to our destination and so arrived tired and hungry. Thankfully we had done all our food shopping in Christchurch and Waimate because we knew there was no chance of stocking up in the Catlins. Although not difficult to get to it’s still one of the less developed areas of Southland and you need to stock up on food supplies, money and petrol before entering this outback country.

In the past we have stayed around Owaka, the ‘capital’ of the Catlins. It’s got an iSite, a shop of sorts, an atm machine, a few b&bs and a restaurant/cafe. But it’s a metropolis compared with where we chose to stay this time. 60 klms further south we hove into Waikawa which has neither shop, b&b nor atm. It does have a museum with a motley collection of local artefacts and a church which doesn’t look used. But it is wonderfully quiet.

Our home for 4 days was Pete’s Place, a lovely three bed place with a great deck/balcony area and right next to the tidal lagoon where we could watch the antics of Grey Duck, Oystercatcher, Spur-winged Plover and the delightfully elegant Pied Stilt.

We could see the sunrise between 7 and 8 am and the sunset around 8 pm. The tide comes in and the lagoon is a flat calm lake and the tide goes out and it’s an expanse of mud. And somehow this gives a calm, peaceful rhythm to Waikawa which we have absolutely loved.

The Catlins caters for a steady stream of mostly independent tourists like us. Individuals in cars and motorhomes, camping or renting houses or staying in the odd b&b. There are no large hotels here so everything is low key and not frantically busy. The coastline is incredibly beautiful; hard to reach little coves, wide, sandy bays, the wind blasted Slope Point, the southernmost point on mainland New Zealand. Inland there are rolling hills, sheep farms, extensive woods and rivers.

Just up the road from where we are staying is Curio Bay where there is a Yellow-eyed Penguin colony. We didn’t manage to see any of these but we did spot some Blue Penguin out in the bay, Hooker Sea Lion at Waipapa Point and a dolphin at Fortrose. Plus we have seen about 40 species of bird so far which can’t be bad.

Waipapa point has a lighthouse which is a reminder that the waters around this coastline are quite treacherous. The sandy bays look inviting but in between there are rocky reefs which will tear a boat to shreds. In 1881, this is precisely what happened when the Tararua foundered off Waipapa Point. All but 20 of the 151 people on board died, making this New Zealand’s second worst marine accident. As a result the lighthouse was built to prevent further tragedy.

The weather has been a little difficult. Sunny and warm one day then rain the next. Apparently, there has been a cyclone off the coast of Australia and this is having an effect on the weather here in the South Island. However, this is the start of Autumn in New Zealand so we are expecting the weather to be ‘interesting’. It’s certainly warmer than we had anticipated, very humid here on the south-east coast.

On our last day the rain was pouring down so we decided to drive to Invacargill about an hour away. In truth, Invacargill wouldn’t win many awards for most beautiful city. It’s a little run down but we managed some retail therapy at a shop specialising in Merino wool clothing. And on the way back we visited a conservation area which gave us distant views of a large colony of Royal Spoonbill and close up views of the delightful Fantail so that rescued the day somehow.

The Catlins has always been a favourite area for us and didn’t disappoint this time around despite the weather. But now we move on to Alexandra. See you there.

5 thoughts on “South Island Wanderings – The Catlins

  1. Wonderful images as always! I really love the roadside picture and the rugged coast – makes me wanna go to NZ again.
    In 2015, Phil and I were down in the Catlins too and spent some time watching for the yellow-eyed penguings. Lucky us, we got to see one within a short time. You can watch footage in my video here at 02:35 (
    Enjoy your travels and all the best,


    1. Thanks Christina. We were on a walk along an old railway track yesterday which took us through two tunnels. We just couldn’t resist singing Te Arahoa and E Te Ariki. The acoustics were wonderful!


  2. Wonderful travelogue, as ever, Rob! Hope you both continue to enjoy your journey & keep us up to date with it. Here, I’ve seen my earliest ever swallow & sand martins.


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