South of the South Island of New Zealand is home to a wealth of natural gems: Nugget Point, McLean Falls, Cathedral Caves and Curio Bay with its petrified forest, yellow-eyed penguins and friendly Hector dolphins. It’s no wonder its incredibly popular with overseas tourists – we didnt see a big number of local tourists however, even though it was during the school holidays.
Hopefully this short guide will encourage more New Zealanders to make the trip down and explore this unique corner of our scenic treasure chest.
Depending on where you live it might require a bit of planning to get there and organise your itinerary. If you live in Dunedin then it should be quite easy – a short drive south and you’re at the start of the SSR (Southland Scenic Route). We live in Christchurch, which is about a four hour drive north. It’s definitely doable to drive but since I’d picked up some $4 flights it actually worked out cheaper (and quicker) to pick up a rental car at Dunedin airport. At around $30/day and fuel prices been so low it actually turned out to be a relatively cheap holiday. If you’re on a budget you might look into buses or shuttles but I honestly think self-drive is best to get the most from your visit to the area.
One of the nice things about self-drive is the sheer freedom to stop at any little point of interest along the way (please check for traffic behind you before slamming on the breaks to stop at everything that catches your eye!). On the way to our first major attraction we came across the historic Sod Cottage, a nod to the past where rugged pioneers built houses with their bare hands and braved the ruthless elements to make a life for themselves. On a sunny summer’s day, with its rambling gardens and rustic feel it almost feels inviting. Right by the roadside with ample parking, it’s a perfect 5 minute stop (there’s a picnic table if you want to wallow in the history a little longer).
Nugget Point (Kaka Beach)
This just about didn’t happen. The signage (coming from the north) is minimal. Fortunately our spotting skills alerted us that we’d just passed the turnoff. Yucked a chewy and we were on our way – it is a bit of a detour from your main trail down to the Catlins but the road to Nugget Point rejoins the main SSR further south, overall I think it’s only an extra 10km but definitely worth it.
Kaka Beach is a delightful beachside settlement, busy with holidaymakers during summer and miles of pristine white sandy beaches. The water is cold (as you expect that far south) but for sheer relaxation value it’s well worth a stay. Follow the sign posts to Nugget Point and you’ll see plenty of roadside stops that lead you down to the beach. The gravel road is a bit rough (and narrow) in places so watch your speed especially on blind corners.
First stop is Roaring Bay with its penguin hideout. Obviously whether you will actually see a penguin depends on the time of year, and time of day – early morning or evening is generally best.
The Nugget Point carpark has toilets, a great view and plenty of parking – which is good because it can get pretty crowded. It’s a 900m cliffside walk offering spectacular views of Kaka beach and the turquoise water below. The path leads you to a lookout just below the old lighthouse (that was manned until the 80s) and the view stretches out across a fascinating array of pillars and arches shaped by the pounding sea over the centuries – it’s easy to see how they would be treacherous waters for ships.
We drove on and soon rejoined the SH2 and it wasn’t long before we came across the first of the waterfalls – once again poorly signposted.
A short drive from the main road leads you to a carpark with toilets. Then it’s a short bushwalk to the falls following the river that becomes the falls. There are numerous photo opportunities but of course the main one is the platform at the base of the falls.
Of course if you’re like me and it’s a nice day, you’ll want to get under the falls. Trust me, it’s refreshing but there’s nothing like the feeling of being in the scenery rather than just looking at it. I did it in summer when the flow is a lot lower than the wet season – of course it’s probably more impressive when the flow is higher.
Then it was time to move on to the next waterfall.
This is definitely the star of the show and attracts a lot of visitors, mostly just there to look but a few (particularly locals who are hardened to cold water) who are there to swim.
It’s about a 5km drive from the main road, just after the turn off to the Cathedral Caves. A nice 20-minute walk in from the carpark (not suitable for baby buggies as it can get boggy and there are a lot of steps near the end) it ends up at the spectacular, stepped falls with a cumulative height of 22m.
The path ends at the primary viewing area which is below the upper falls however if you’re agile enough you can climb up the rocks to the upper pool to get a closer look (or go for a swim like me!).
We’d timed it right so that when we finished there the Cathedral Caves were now open (they only open for a few hours each day around low tide) so we headed over there to join the other tourists who had started to gather.
After a brief spiel from the local caretaker, you pay your $5 each and head off down the trail. Just one thing – the caretaker was insistent about wearing shoes due to the slippery rocks. I did take some shoes but never actually needed them.
While it’s a trek down to the beach, it is definitely worth it. A wide expanse of a beach with an impressive cliff face punctured by the two holes of the U-shaped Cathedral Caves. Access requires a little negotiating (unless you’re content to just wade/swim down the middle) but it’s no problem – I even saw an old lady who had difficulty walking make it through fine.
It is dark inside – you can get by without a torch but using the light on your phone could be helpful. It’s basically a smooth sand walk but there is the odd rock. The caves have an impressive ceiling height so you won’t feel claustrophobic but I can imagine it would be scary getting trapped with an incoming tide.
Our accommodation for the night was the Lazy Dolphin lodge in Curio Bay. Situated right on the beach, it has private rooms (with shared facilities) for about $90/night. The aging building is fine for a night and offers great views from the upstairs balcony.
The Hector dolphins (the world’s smallest) that frequent the bay are playful and will happily swim around any who brave the cold water. Getting so close to these beautiful creatures you can appreciate their power as they speed through the water with ease.
Some other beautiful creatures we got to witness were the penguins that make their way up the beach after dark. There are several viewing areas, with the most popular being down the far end of Curio Bay near the campground.
While you’re in Curio Bay check out the petrified forest, although it’s nowhere near as scary (groan) as I thought it would be (penguins are known to come ashore here too).
Follow the SSR and you will pass by the Mataura river, home to like a million whitebaiting huts (some no bigger than an outside loo) – it gives you an idea how seriously they take catching those little things.
Before you hit Invercargill there’s a turnoff to Bluff – the southernmost town in NZ (if you exclude Stewart Island). Visiting Bluff is like going back to a simpler time in NZ’s past – old, turn of the century villas and quaint curio stores – one staffed by an elderly Hawaiin man escaping the rat race (mission accomplished).
Take the main road all the way to the end to see the famous sign that confirms you’ve reached the end of the world and stop for a coffee at the cafe. There’s also a lookout at the top of Bluff’s namesake with almost 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
We stopped at the Ship’s Graveyard on the way out of Bluff – a resting ground for boats that once had illustrious careers and now had to endure an ignominious end. To see all the boats it’s best to visit at low tide.
We basically drove straight through Invercargill (no offence!) and on to our next night’s accommodation in Riverton, an idyllic seaside town that is stunning on a nice day (but quite likely horrid on a bad one). There are plenty of great picnic spots, beaches for miles and cafes to sample – I suspect this is a popular holiday destination for families over the summer break.
We carried on the next day following the SSR along the coast and then on its way inland, arriving at Lake Manapouri, the jumping off point to Doubtful Sound and the Manapouri powerstation, neither of which we did. Turns out it’s also a great spot for a picnic and swim lakeside. Done.