The Southern Scenic Route, which curves around the southern coast of the South Island from Dunedin through the Catlins to Invercargill, then on up SH95 to Te Anau, provides a range of dramatic scenery. From rocky islets, sparkling waterfalls, high headlands, thunderous surf, quaint fishing villages, and dense native forests to snowcapped mountains and mirrored lakes the landscape provides eye candy for all tastes. We spend three days travelling this scenic route and complete several short walks along the way. We visit spectacular Purakaunui Falls, dine on Bluff oysters, touch Jurassic tuatara, and rescue cast sheep on our farm stay at Mt Prospect station. Bob also learns to free dive and prepare paua ready for the BBQ, stalks deer with a local hunter at night, and discovers that thanks to a bit of kiwi ingenuity, anyone can enjoy a day’s hiking on a Great Walk, no matter how fit they are!
After embracing kiwi culture and attending a spirited rugby game between the Canterbury and Otago the previous evening, Bob and I leave town on the Southern Scenic Route bound for Curio Bay.
We travel alongside magnificent beaches en route to Taieri Mouth where fishing boats line the river, before climbing high into the hills and descending to Lake Waihola. Following a quiet cup of thermos tea on its peaceful shores, we continue on through Milton and Balclutha and then turn off for the Catlins, following the well signposted Southern Scenic Route.
Our first stop, shortly after the seaside village of Kaka Point, is at Nugget Point where we walk a narrow and windswept trail to the lighthouse. It’s perched upon a high, narrow spur of land that juts into the ocean, with a steep drop to the rocks below where elephant seals, sea lions and fur seals and a colony of gannets make their home. The nuggets, a series of rounded rock islets, protrude from the ocean like a random scattering of raisins.
“Impressive,” says Bob, leaning into the keen wind as we admire the view before continuing on to Owaka via Cannibal Bay, the traditional homeland of adult bull sea lions who return here after breeding. Finding the beach deserted, we drive to an old-fashioned kiwi tearoom on the main street of Owaka and tuck into egg mayonnaise sandwiches.
We drive on to the renowned Purakaunui Falls where a ten-minute walk leads us through mixed podocarp and beech forest to a beautiful waterfall tumbling over three or more ledges.
At nearby Purakaunui Bay, with its high dramatic cliffs that featured in the movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a group of Friesian cows follow us onto the beach.
Bob gasps as they begin to munch on stringy kelp. “It’s edible and makes great seaweed chips,” I reassure him, laughing as his face lights up at the thought of a new culinary delight.
We continue on to Papatowai, a sleepy seaside town with a small store and a curiosity shop/museum housed in an old bus, and on up to the Florence Hill Lookout which offers an amazing view of Tautuku Beach, smothered with jungle-like native forest right down to the shore. We hop out for a barefoot paddle then drive to Lake Wilkie, nestled amongst broad-leaved flowering trees and ancient podocarps.
It’s a 30-minute return hike to the lake but we choose the five minute walk to a viewing platform where we’re surrounded by flittering fantails.
Back in the car we drive past the entrance for the Cathedral Caves (a 20-minute hike across private farmland and only accessible at low tide), and on through rolling hills framed by the dense rainforest of the Catlins Forest Park.
In Niagara we stop at the Niagara Falls Café and Gallery housed in an old renovated school and enjoy huge slabs of homemade banana cake washed down with gallons of tea. We peruse the gifts and local arts in the gallery then take a short walk to the Niagara Falls, named by a surveyor with a rich sense of humour. We gaze at the trickle of water splashing over the rocks. “Nothing like a good imagination!” Bob observes with a smile.
In nearby Waikawa we take some time to explore the museum’s whaling, sawmilling and gold mining displays. At 4 pm we decide to check into Curio Bay Boutique Accommodation at Porpoise Bay. Our friendly hosts, Nick and Dani Stratford, invite us to share their evening meal, but first it must be gathered from the bay. Bob pulls on his swimming trunks and joins Nick to freedive for paua, while I walk along the beach to Curio Bay where a 180-million-year-old fossilised forest lies embedded in the rocks. As the light begins to fade I retreat to a viewing platform and watch as a pair of yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) waddle up the rocky shore, stop to preen, then continue their ungainly gait to their nests.
Back at the lodge Nick is teaching Bob how to prepare paua, carefully cutting each from its shell and wrapping it in a cloth. Then it’s tenderised with several good thumps from an axe by Bob (who takes his axe-wielding duties seriously) and soon they’re sizzling on the BBQ. Nick gives them one minute a side and we devour them hot off the grill.
"Mouth-watering," declares Bob, smacking his lips, "let’s get some more for breakfast!"
True to his word Bob is out back pounding the paua as dawn breaks, and we enjoy a fresh seafood breakfast before bidding Nick and Dani farewell.
We make a stop so Bob can visit the fossilised forest, then drive to Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the South Island. It’s a windy, isolated place where macrocarpa trees form thick shelterbelts and grow almost horizontally in a bid to escape the salt-laden wind.
From here it’s a short drive to the lighthouse at Waipapa Point where, much to our surprise, we share the car park with a group of basking sea lions. Carefully we pick our way across to the lighthouse and scour the coast for NZ fur seals and - a rarer visitor - the four-ton elephant seal. A memorial plaque reminds us, on a more sobering note, that 131 people lost their lives here in 1881 when the SS Tararua hit the reef.
We drive on to Fortrose at the mouth of the Mataura River and then leave the Catlins behind, travelling through farmland to Invercargill and on to Bluff. Here we enjoy a delicious lunch of fresh Bluff oysters, then follow a spiral walkway to a lookout point providing excellent views of Bluff harbour and the city beyond. Our next port of call is the Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill, for its ‘live’ tuatara display. Lindsay Hazley, the world’s leading tuatara expert, set up the display 25 years ago and here he breeds the endangered Brother’s Island tuatara, and the rare “common” tuatara. Around 40 tuatara are on display and Lindsay relates the history and habits of these unique living dinosaurs, then shows us a baby common tuatara and a pregnant mother whose reptilian skin is cold to the touch.
It’s all so riveting that it’s hard to leave, but eventually we tear ourselves away and drive to the quaint fishing village of Riverton, where we check into the La Riviera Guest House. After chatting to a few locals over a hot cuppa Bob has been invited to go deer stalking with local hunter Rob Ashworth, while I pop across to the Something Special Gallery & Gift Shop run by Jill Nicholls, to see her collection. There’s a fine range of works on display by a select group of NZ artists, weavers, woodturners, sculptors and other craftspeople. Each piece is handpicked by Jill and the gallery really is, as its name suggests, something rather special!
Later, after a delicious meal at the Beach House Café and a hot chocolate, I retire to the Scarlet room, and wallow in its deep Victorian bath before slipping into a deep sleep.
In the morning I awake early and take a brisk walk up the main street to admire Riverton’s wealth of heritage buildings. When I return, Bob’s nursing a strong cup of coffee but he perks up when he sees me. “We got back at 3 am... 45 kilos...shot in the heart.” he gabbles excitedly as we load our gear into the boot. He’s still raving about the hunt as we drive past Colac Bay.
“It was unbelievable, he gutted the deer then wore it like a backpack to cart it out!” he says.
“Oh well they’re hardy these southern men,” I reply, pointing out Cosy Nook, a tiny fishing village with a handful of cribs (holiday homes). Bob waves to some fishermen on a boat heading out into a high sea from the sheltered, rocky bay. We continue on to McCracken’s Rest with its picture-postcard views of Te Wae Wae Bay and Solander Island, then we leave the coast and drive inland through Tuatapere to Clifden. Here we stop to admire its historic suspension bridge and then drive on, under the watchful gaze of the Takitimu Mountain Range, to Lake Manapouri, which is surrounded by the snowcapped Hunter Mountains, Turret Range, and Cathedral and Jackson Peaks.
Bob clicks off a few rounds with his camera and then we continue on to Te Anau for a late lunch of gourmet venison pies from ‘Miles Better Pies’, eaten seated upon a picnic table on the lakeshore. “There’s the Kepler Mountains,” I point out as Bob greedily wolfs down a second pie, “and that’s Mt Luxmoore, the highest point on the Kepler Track.”
“Looks pretty tough,” says Bob, chewing thoughtfully and carefully avoiding eye contact, clearly having decided that his aim of experiencing a Great Walk in NZ may not become a reality. “Don’t worry,” I say, gathering our gear together, “let’s get some more information.”
We drive to the Dept. of Conservation office where we watch a video about the track and pick up a brochure. Both recommend a good level of fitness and Bob looks decidedly uncomfortable.
Sensing the need for a change of scenery I suggest we check into our farmstay at Mt Prospect early. “You’re going to love it,” I tell Bob, trying to distract him as we head out to the isolated station.
When we pull up outside Prospect Lodge we’re greeted by our friendly hosts, Joan and Ross Cockburn, who usher us inside, show us to our rooms, then invite us to join them for afternoon tea. After freshening up I return to the lounge where Bob is regaling Ross with all the highlights of our circumnavigation of New Zealand. Ruby the cat sits on his lap.
After tea we pile into a four wheel drive for a tour of the family farm. “They’re shearing this week,” says Ross, “so there could be a few cast about.” I smile because I know Bob will have no idea what he means and as Ross begins to tell us more about his family’s nine thousand-acre merino sheep and cattle farm, he suddenly interrupts.
“Look,” he cries, pointing at a sheep pedalling its hooves in the air, “it’s having a seizure!”
“Good spotting,” says Ross. “But it’s okay, it happens just before they’re shorn as they’re a bit top heavy.”
We jump out and wander over to the helpless sheep, which quickly rights itself after an almighty shove from Ross and Bob.
“Right,” says Ross, nodding at Mt Prospect after it’s sorted, “let’s head on up the hill.” We drive up a steep track to the summit where we’re offered a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, snowcapped mountains, the full spread of Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri in the distance.
“Wow,” says Bob his arms outstretched, “it’s like being in a plane.” We stand for a time admiring the lakes and mountain ranges in the setting sun, then Ross names each mountain, ending with Mt Luxmoore. “More magic views from across there,” he says.
“I know,” says Bob forlornly, “I hoped to hike the Kepler, but I’m too unfit.”
“No worries,” says Ross taking in Bob’s rather ample frame, “you can fly in to Luxmoore Hut – from there it’s just a short hike to the top – then walk downhill to Brod Bay and water taxi out.”
“Really?” asks Bob, turning to me, his face lighting up.
“Absolutely,” says Ross firmly, “we’ll sort it out later, but now it’s time for dinner.”