Next Stop Antarctica: Another Day in the Catlins

Articles on this site contain affiliate links, meaning I may be compensated if you buy a product or service after clicking them. The full privacy & disclosure policy is here.

After 24 hours of non-stop natural beauty in the Catlins, it seemed that we could do no wrong when it came to scenic attractions.

Wandering along deserted beaches, frolicking with sea lions, being nearly blown out to sea at Nugget Point … what more could we ask for?

And so it was with some anticipation that we drove for twenty minutes or so down a dusty gravel road to Jack’s Bay, the likelihood of sliding off the edge into the estuary only increased by the dramatic views around each corner. We were on our way to see a large blowhole, 200m from the sea … and we were excited.
Rocky beach

We shouldn’t have been.


At least the walk to the blowhole was worthwhile – steep in parts, with striking views out to sea and plenty of plants and trees to keep the botanists interested. The blowhole itself, however? Well, it had the “hole” part covered. It was just the “blow” part that needed a bit of work.

Still, at least it gave me an excuse to take arty shots of a barbed wire fence. Small victories…

Barbed wire

A little dustier and much sweatier, we returned to the main road and headed for one of the most-photographed parts of the Catlins. The Purakaunui Falls appear on postcards and calendars throughout the country, and although the top of the falls wasn’t anything to write home about…

Top of Purakaunui Falls

… the bottom definitely was.

Bottom of Purakaunui Falls

Other than the large German man trying to pitch himself into the water in his enthusiasm for the perfect shot, it was a tranquil spot. We must have spent half an hour at the base of the falls, hopping from rock to rock and filling up our memory cards. Seriously, I’ve got 20 different photos of this place – and that’s after deleting the ones that weren’t worth keeping.

Speaking of popular spots in the Catlins, our final stop for the day also fell squarely into that category. The Cathedral Caves are only accessible for a couple of hours either side of low tide, which on this particular day fell in the early evening. We dutifully paid our $5 access fee (the track from the main road crosses private land) and headed down to the beach.

Despite there being several cars parked up top, there were surprisingly few other people around. Perhaps they were all gathering in the caves to surprise us, or maybe they’d been washed out to sea. Either way, there was a remarkable sense of solitude for such a well-known spot.

Deserted beach

Dustin on Waipati Beach

We had somehow managed to time things perfectly, arriving right on low tide, so barely got our feet wet as we wandered through the dark caverns at the end of the beach. The two main caves join up inside the cliff, so we dutifully walked in one and out the other. I’m not entirely convinced of the resemblance to any cathedrals I’ve ever been in, but it was worth the effort either way.

Cathedral Caves

Cathedral Caves 2

The following morning, our last full day in Catlins, saw us heading south. First stop, Curio Bay, home to a well-preserved petrified forest dating back 180 million years and, on the morning we went there, a rather younger yellow-eyed penguin guarding its nest.

Petrified forest

For some reason we had started out early in the morning that day, meaning it was still quite early when we pulled up beside a non-descript sign down yet another long gravel road. A narrow strip of land lay between wire fences, farmers fields stretching away in all directions. We’d finally made it to Slope Point, the southernmost edge of mainland New Zealand, and other than the sheep we had the place to ourselves.

From the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South, it had been a crazy six weeks. We still had three weeks to go, heading all the way up the West Coast to Collingwood before finally finishing up in Christchurch, but this was a big milestone.

Even if all that was there was a small lighthouse, some weather-beaten road signs and, of course, an icy gale. You can’t see Antarctica from there, but you can definitely feel it…

Slope Point

Our final sightseeing stop was somewhere we’d passed several times as we’d driven backwards and forwards around the Catlins. Lake Wilkie just seemed like another random point of interest, but it turned out to be a tranquil, stunning little spot.

Lake Wilkie

Signs along the short track point out the growth of different plants as the lake has slowly receded since the last ice age, and new growth isn’t exactly hard to spot.

Shoots of grass

And then, finally, we were done. We were bound for Manapouri the following day, looking forward to new adventures on Doubtful Sound … and yet we were sad to be leaving this ruggedly beautiful part of the country.

Most visitors to New Zealand end up bypassing the Catlins, for one reason or another. After three days of glorious exploration, the only advice I can give is to not make the same mistake yourself.

6 Responses to “Next Stop Antarctica: Another Day in the Catlins

  • Either you love to take photos of me in silhouette or you hate my face…

    Don’t comment on that.

  • Jen Ryder
    7 years ago

    Beautiful pictures and interesting post as usual. Definitely adding New Zealand to my ‘must get to soon’ list. Thanks for the inspirtation!

  • Some of your photos are breathtaking, I loved the one showing the bottom of the Purakaunui falls.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.