The Catlins: A Love Letter

The Catlins was an intended stop for us mostly as a way to break up the drive between Dunedin and Fiordland National Park, which are on opposite coasts of the South Island. I didn’t think anywhere could live up to being sandwiched between the Otago Peninsula and Milford Sound, but since it made sense as a stopping point we found a campsite and drove that direction from Dunedin.

I was so unbelievably wrong. Other places may be beautiful, but the Catlins call to my soul. You can keep your warm white sand beaches where they serve cocktails with an umbrella. I’ll take my beaches Catlins style: rough, wild, and cold…where Laphroaig straight from the flask warms your belly and suits the rugged landscape perfectly. In the Catlins, you can stand on a cliff facing the thundering waves and feel the roaring wind blowing straight from Antarctica. It makes you feel wild and somehow primitive.

In short, I have fallen madly in love with the Catlins. Here’s why…

Our drive there began with a traffic jam that looked different from what we’re used to in LA. IMG_3546IMG_3549Once we made it past the sheep, it was miles of rolling hills covered in virgin temperate rainforest so thick and densely tangled that no light penetrated it. Before you realize you’re even near the coast, the river that the road has been following suddenly widens and the land opens to the massive ocean.IMG_3561IMG_3565Note the cows grazing over the beach in the bottom right corner of the above image. We’re going to discuss them again. IMG_3585We arrived at our campsite in Curio Bay to discover we were the only people there. We parked and walked to the office to pay, but there was no one there. A sign indicated that they would be back and that we should use the “honesty box” to pay if necessary. We wandered along the cliffs to get a feel for the place, and despite how beautiful it was, I couldn’t shake a feeling of uneasiness that was slowly building to panic. I can’t fully articulate what the problem was, but I was nervous and scared about being there.

I’m used to living in a city of millions of people, and somehow that has come to equate safety in my mind, which I realize is utterly absurd. I’m sure it’s some kind of evolutionary herd mentality. Where the other people are is where it must be safe. This remote place was setting off alarm bells for being deserted. My mental map was suddenly registering just how far on the other side of the world we were from everything I knew. The “You Are Here” dot was at what felt like the edge of the Earth. It really didn’t make sense, but I was freaked out and trying to remain calm. Baby Xander, on the other hand, was super excited about the waves crashing on the rocks.

IMG_3593IMG_3596Just as my panic was really starting to set in, Kris spotted a rare yellow-eyed penguin coming in early for the night, and it reset the tone for me completely. It reminded me that this was an adventure and we were well equipped for it. You don’t see wild penguins when you stick to the beaten path. I don’t know how he spotted him. That’s him in the bottom right of the picture coming to shore, but I was zoomed all the way in to take this, so Kris must have ridiculously sharp eyes.IMG_3603IMG_3618We cautiously walked down the beach so we didn’t alarm him, but we made it in time to see him making his way in to his nest for the night. How do I know it was a he? The same way I know his name was Archie. IMG_3644Archie was a good looking dude. I was buzzing with excitement after seeing him, and it reframed my perspective on where we were. It was awesome! IMG_3663This bench faces Antarctica and is the perfect thinking spot. IMG_3671The white rectangle in the middle far right of picture below is the roof of our motorhome parked at our campsite. IMG_3679IMG_3697There was a possibility that we were going to get some Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) action that night, so I went out to make sure I knew what my camera set up was going to be before it got too dark. I had been reading up on how to photograph the aurora for months, but had no experience doing it, so I wanted to make sure I was ready. We didn’t end up getting an aurora, but we did get a lovely sunset. I fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

The next morning, we drove back along the road a bit to check out some of the trails. We started with the Tautuku Beach Path, which is a short walk through the woods to Tautuku Bay. We caught a glimpse of the bay during our drive the day before…remember the photo with the cows on the cliff over the beach?IMG_3720There was something lying on the beach that looked suspiciously like a body from a distance. As we got closer, we were relieved to find it was a dead cow and not a dead human. We were now faced with the Mystery of the Dead Two-Legged Cow. How had this creature met her unfortunate end? Kris’s theory is that she got a little too close to the edge of the cliff and plummeted to her doom. He does not have a suitable explanation for what happened to her two missing limbs. My (much more sensible) conclusion is that she was set upon by a band of orcs who managed to pull two of her legs off before she fell from the cliff and washed ashore. Anyone else care to weigh in?IMG_3727Look how wild the forest all around the beach is.

IMG_3731Next, we did the Tautuku Nature Walk, which it turned out was just up the beach from the first walk, so if you planned ahead, you could connect both of them into one longer walk. IMG_3746IMG_3765Ours were the only footprints on the beach.IMG_3774Getting under obstacles with the baby carrier is no joke!

Our final trek of the day was to the Tautuku Estuary, a path through the podocarp forest that leads to a boardwalk over the estuary. The forest echoes with the haunting duet of the elusive fernbird. IMG_3788IMG_3792

IMG_3799IMG_3800It would be impossible to describe the pleasant feeling of calm that this place gives you. The cool, dark woods suddenly open up to this section of peaceful marshland where the water slowly makes its way out to the sea.IMG_3802IMG_3808IMG_3813IMG_3818IMG_3820IMG_3826This is where I will picture from now on when I’m scared or stressed and need to visualize a calm, happy place.

As we drove back to our spot in Curio Bay for the night, we had a discussion about whether to stay longer or leave the next morning as planned. This place that had initially scared me had now ensnared me with her wild beauty, and I didn’t want to leave.

We got back with enough light left to walk down the cliffs and check out the petrified forest. The trees date to the Jurassic Period, which means they stood on this spot when dinosaurs were roaming around. IMG_3835IMG_3844IMG_3848That house you can just see up on the cliff is brand new and for sale if anyone wants a sweet vacation home overlooking the petrified forest where you could watch the penguins and the aurora from your living room window.IMG_3853We had just started walking back when Kris spotted another penguin. Again, this is with my camera zoomed all the way in, so I have no idea how he spotted it. I’m pretty sure he has a super power he hasn’t shared with me. IMG_3854IMG_3855We were treated to a fiery sunset. I’m obsessed with the forest in the bottom right of the picture below. The trees look like they have huddled together against the wind. There was a path that circled through them, so we decided we would walk it in the morning before we left. It was tempting to stay longer, but we knew there were wonders still to see.IMG_3857IMG_3864IMG_3868IMG_3829IMG_3830IMG_3871IMG_3875IMG_3877We stopped for breakfast at the Niagara Falls Cafe as we left the Catlins, which helped to distract me. It was the first time on this trip I felt true sadness to be moving on. IMG_0434.JPGThe food was delicious, and the restaurant was part of a farm, so we got to see the lambs frolicking out the window.  As I watched them, I was glad I had ordered the tasty french toast and not the lamb special. I felt kinship with a mama sheep who was just trying to graze on some grass, but a lamb was attached to her nursing the whole time.IMG_0417.JPGDale, the young man who served us breakfast, was friendly and chatted with us since we were his only customers for a while. He had no idea how profound his casual thoughts were to us.

When we asked if they had wi-fi, he laughed and explained that if the locals ever need to send an email, they drive to the top of a nearby hill to get a signal. If they need to send an email…as in it’s something nonessential that occasionally happens. Different planet.

Then we asked for his recommendations for places to visit in New Zealand since our itinerary was loose and flexible. Dale told us that the real New Zealand is between the cities, so skip the cities (except to get groceries) and focus on what happens between them. Now that I had gotten used to being away from people, I was on board with that plan.

It was less his thoughts on New Zealand and more his opinion of LA that had me thinking as we got back on the road. He said he had visited LA once and that the amusement parks and stuff were cool, but that he just didn’t know how anyone lived like that, all packed in on top of each other.

How indeed…?

For the list of our New Zealand Adventure posts, look here.

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13 thoughts on “The Catlins: A Love Letter

  1. I love the picture of Kris walking away with Xander on his shoulder. It reminds me of the picture of the two of you walking towards the finish line in the Highlands…Watching the back of Kris, walking away, supporting the ones he loves.
    Really beautiful images, Jenny!


    1. I’d love to hear your suggestions of less well known places so that we can catch them next time. It’s so hard when you visit somewhere for the first time and don’t know anyone there to get that local knowledge!


  2. And past Riverton…. on the way around the Southern Coast of NZ stop at Cosy Nook.
    Curio Bay and Cosy Nook are my two favourite places in the whole world. Wild, rugged, powerful and honest.


  3. Stunning photography and an awesome piece of writing – enjoyed reading a complete ‘outsiders’ view on an area I too love, having gown up in the Catlins but never get back to often enough!


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