Dunedin to Curio Bay Road Trip via the Catlins

nugget point lighthouse

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!"