Despite being only a couple of hours’ drive from Invercargill, The Catlins is often left off the itinerary for southerners in search of a break. Tim Miller spent a weekend among thedistinctive rolling valleys and coastal native bush.
IT’S been a big two weeks of school holiday rides for Vachi and she’s about ready to have a well-earned rest, and then I show up.
Before arriving at Catlins Horse Riding, I’d never been on a horse before pat.
So it’s with this vast experience of horse handling I approach the alpha female of the pack. Cara, who runs the show, has chosen Vachi specifically because of her experience and my lack thereof.
As we start to make our way across the 660ha organic sheep and beef farm, Vachi follows the rest of the party continuing on her own merry way, ignoring any of my timid commands.
But this isn’t her first rodeo been across these grassy paddocks more times than I can count lead the way and enjoy the views looking out over the rolling landscape.
Approaching the steep 150m-plus climb rising above the easy going hills, my anxiety noticeably rises. While the younger horses and more confident riders take the most direct route straight up the middle of the hill, Vachi, with her many years of experience, methodically makes her way back and forth across the face of the hill. We’re definitely not winning any races, but neither of us care; her pace means I can admire the view of Pounawea and Catlins Lake behind me – and what a view.
Once we reach the summit, the full vista opens in front of you. From the top, you can see all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Owaka Valley.
Making our way down the hill, Vachi seems happy to be heading home breaks into a wee trot, but by this stage I trust her enough to just go with it.
After “successfully” dismounting, I give her one last pat before we head our separate ways, and this time she gladly receives the attention. What a difference an hour can make.
Your own personal paradise
Before you even drive through the gate and up the bush and tree-lined driveway at Mohua Park Eco, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. If you stop and wind down your window as you drive along the gravel access road, you’ll hear the bird life and the Catlins River before you see the park itself.
Owned and run by Gill and Lyndon McKenzie, Mohua Park has four charming modern cabins set within 5ha of native bush.
You could spend the whole weekend at your self-contained cabin, relaxing while listening to the birdsong and looking out over the rolling countryside. You don’t even have to leave to enjoy a bush walk along the 4km of walking tracks set within the park itself.
If you do want to do something a little more adventurous, they offer a range of wildlife and nature tours, giving you a chance to see a side of the Catlins you wouldn’t get to experience otherwise.
On the Catlins coastal tour ATV, Lyndon takes you across private farmland and along cliff tops overlooking the amazing southern coast. Down off the cliffs, he takes you to secluded beaches through thick bush.
With an encyclopedic knowledge and a huge passion for the area and its personalities, Lyndon has no shortage of tricks and tips to make sure your holiday is a memorable one.
Hit the road
Once you’ve turned on to the Southern Scenic Route, heading east, there’s really only one place you’re going. That’s the beauty of the Catlins: when you’re there, it’s because you want to be. It’s not on the way to anywhere else.
With so many great attractions spread across the district, one of the best ways to experience it all is to take a road trip from north to south. It can be done all in one day or spread across a couple days so you can spend a bit more time taking in all the sights.
Edge of the world
At first glance, Slope Point doesn’t stand out from the other hundreds of kilometres of rugged coastline along the southern point of the South Island.
But just a short 10-minute walk through private farmland takes you to the closest point on the South Island to the South Pole. Marking this significant piece of geography (and pub quiz trivia) is a yellow signpost with the distance to the South Pole (4803km) and to the equator (5140km).
On a clear day, when the southerly wind hardly blows and the grey skies give way to blue, you can see for hundreds of kilometres into the vast Southern Ocean.
Rakiura (Stewart Island) can be seen leaping out of Foveaux Strait, with the southern coast stretching out west towards Fiordland.
Everyone loves a waterfall, and there is no better place for them on the east coast of the South Island.
The Catlins is blessed with dozens of them, big and small. Towering above them all is the spectacular McLean Falls, which is a moderately easy 40-minute walk through native rainforest in the Catlins Conservation Park.
On the day I visit, the ferns glisten from the frost left over from the sub-zero night before and, while it’s cold, the walk to the 22m high double-storey waterfall keeps me warm. If you aren’t able to make the trek to McLean Falls, then the more famous spectacular Falls has an easier and shorter access walk.
Stepping back in time
Even when it’s covered in thick fog, Curio Bay (Tumu Toka) is worth a stop. On a clear day, you might be lucky enough to be treated to spectacular scenery and amazing native wildlife, including hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins) and upokohue (Hector’s dolphins), but if you do happen to visit on a day when the weather isn’t playing ball, then the 180-million-year-old petrified forest is a must.
While at first you might not be totally sure what you’re looking at, once your eyes adjust you’ll start to be able to make out the details of a tree, which first grew skywards more than 100 million years ago.
Walk across the road to the living forest, a descendant of the petrified forest and thought to be the only place in the world where a direct descendant lies so close to its petrified grandparents.
Worth the trip – whatever the weather
It’s not really a trip to the Catlins without a visit to Nugget Point (Tokata). While the lighthouse overlooking the famous rock formations is a sight to behold, the experience of standing in the southerly wind, which bombards this small tip of land stretching into the Southern Ocean, is worth the trip.