The Southern Scenic Route

PAPATOWAI BEACH:  The magic of the Southern Scenic Route can be found on the side roads.
PAPATOWAI BEACH: The magic of the Southern Scenic Route can be found on the side roads.

An official public ceremony at the Tuatapere Domain on November 24, 2013, will mark 25 years for the Southern Scenic Route (SSR).

This 640 kilometre-long half-loop connects Dunedin to Queenstown through Invercargill and includes all the best sights the accessible lower South Island has on offer.

Quite justifiably, it is now recommended in the BBC's "50 places to see before you die" and in the New Zealand Automobile Association's "101 Weekends for Kiwis".

It could be said the magic of the route is found on the side roads.

From State Highway 94 south of Te Anau, I turned off at Centre Hill to take the 39km unsealed road to Mavora Lakes Park, an impressive landscape of mountains, lakes and tussock grasslands.

Here, Kiwi regulars come to camp, their trailers of boats, mountainbikes and horses all in tow. It made me feel thoroughly at home.

Each body of water in Fiordland has its own mood. Lake Manapouri, wreathed in mists with its intricate coastline and numerous islands, is unmistakably soft.

Hiring a canoe to explore banks dense with bush, I ventured out to the scattering of wooded islands, accepting some excellent advice to drag my slim craft along the old and well notched 200 metre-long Maori trail (where they dragged their waka) between Surprise Bay and Circle Cone. It saved me one big paddle around, and back.

Further south 463m-deep Lake Hauroko is New Zealand's deepest lake and enjoys a beautiful setting among bush-clad slopes that become more precipitous as one travels further up the lake.

On tiny Mary Island a Maori cave burial was discovered in 1967, with a steel grille now preserving the tapu of that site.

From the outlet, the thrills of wilderness jet boating can be had by shooting the rock studded Wairaurahihi River all the way down to the South Coast.

Driving further south down the highway through Orepuki, I stop briefly for a highly adept horse-riding musterer who gallops along her herd of beef cattle to open a clear track for me to pass.

In 1879, the NZ Coal and Oil Company poured most of its £180,000 capital into the building of a gigantic shale works at Orepuki. So pungent were the sulphur fumes, even the coins in the miners' pockets became tarnished.

Nowadays the most important building here is the local pub. The Pavilion Restaurant, located on the beachfront at Colac Bay, is a good example of the type of tourism business that has sprung up in recent years to service the growing traffic along the SSR.

A short detour down a nearby side road takes you to Cosy Nook, a Cornwall look-alike coastal hamlet of half a dozen or so coastal cribs, subject now of many a photo and painting.

A mellow charm pervades Riverton, the oldest established European settlement in the country. Its villas grace both sides of the expansive estuary of the Aparima and Pourakino rivers that the town straddles.

Planked walkways lead to a conglomeration of little wharves with handrails all buckled in the sun and whose piles appear to have shifted haphazardly over the years.

Canton was the name of the Chinese gold mining settlement at Round Hill, just 10 minutes drive out of Riverton, where their spectacular gold-mining relics can still be seen along three-kilometre Long Hilly Track.

As you drive into Invercargill, the flat topography inhibits appreciation for the expansiveness of New Zealand's southernmost city exemplified by its broad main streets and trim public gardens.

The Southland Museum and Art Gallery has gained an international reputation for its exhibits which include a fantastic tuatarium that is definitely worth checking out.

Tumbledown whitebaiter shelters dot the riverbank along the 45km drive from Invercargill to Fortrose at the mouth of the Mataura River.

This was once the site of Tommy Chaseland's whaling station, which in its heyday took an astonishing 11 whales in just 13 days. There are still plenty of marine mammals to be seen here.

Waikawa meets the ocean at Porpoise Bay, long known for its resident Hector's dolphins, which today number about 40 in several pods. It was fun watching them having fun as they surfed in and out of the waves for hours.

Nearby Curio Bay has become famous for its petrified Jurassic forest. The plainly discernable trunks, many more than 20m long, now lie prone upon the tidal platform of bedrock. A huge volcanic ash explosion is thought to have dealt to them. The forest was so old that no birds flew in it as they had yet to evolve.

The Catlins still bears the imprint of frontier New Zealand. Roads thread through large reserves of native bush which spill down to steep cave-pitted cliffs or sheltered, golden beaches.

In other places, farmland looks newly won, with stumps and bleached skeletons of dead trees still littering hillsides oversown in grass. Brown scenic signposts point down side roads to all the best attractions such as Jacks Blowhole , a 55m-deep collapsed sea cavern surrounded by farmland.

Worth the drive also is the narrow winding road down to Purakaunui Bay, where there's a self-registration 40-tent site DOC camping area in the leafy scenic reserve.

Unlike any other gallery in the country, Blair Somerville's The Lost Gypsy Caravan can be found at Papatowai. His thoroughly original, wind-up-type gizmo inventions - more correctly "automata" - are mostly fashioned from old tins, bits of wire, shells, wood and other found junk.

This is an interactive experience, and should not be missed. When he is not tinkering, Blair takes time out surfing at nearby beaches. For me, this man represents a national pinnacle of inventiveness and creativity.

Familiar with the Catlins since childhood, Fergus and Mary Sutherland began welcoming guests for their ecotours and eco-friendly accommodations back in 1990.

A walk with them along lonely, forest-rimmed beaches is akin to taking a guided tour of a renaissance cathedral, where the treasures are the fossils, middens left by Maori communities, yellow-eyed penguins, the ancient podocarp forests full of rimu, totara, matai and rata, and the kingfishers, tuis and bellbirds.

Thirty kilometres south of Balclutha, the southernmost part of Molyneux Bay is marked by the "Nuggets". This group of eight distinctively striped rocky islets just offshore from Nugget Point gleam like gold around sunset, hence their name.

Bull kelp in the rich nutrient-laden sea grow to 15m long here and becomes a veritable underwater forest which can be seen swaying in the clear water currents. Panoramic views can be had from the lighthouse, 76m above sea level, by taking the 10-minute walking track from the car park.

The end of the day (during the October to May season) is also the best time to check out the flocks of sooty shearwaters - titi or muttonbirds - returning from their marine feeding expeditions. The endless black waves of these birds that go on for hours can leave you speechless.

Spectacular seascapes start once again on the southern outskirts of Dunedin as the road follows the alternating beaches and headlands that stretch 25km north from Taieri Mouth.

One rewarding diversion off this section is the half-hour walk from the end of Bush Rd to Tunnel Beach. The subterranean access through the cliff was dug in the 1870s at the behest of landowner William Cargill's son, who wanted to afford his family access to the secluded, sheltered beach that is an excellent hunting ground for rock-bearing fossils.

Today the SSR has come of age, its brown scenic signposts pointing out the way to all the top sights. But few appreciate now that the setting up of the SSR was highly controversial, with local authorities barely co-operative.

Proponents resorted to subversion, getting the huge direction signage professionally made and erecting them under the cover of darkness; digging holes and erecting railway irons in quick-setting concrete on the first night, then coming back to bolt on the sign the second.

Officials were quick to point out in the media that instigators could face a $5000 fine, but the movement had created too much momentum to be stopped.

Eventually the Government buckled under the concerted regional pressure, and on Sunday, November 6, 1988, opening ceremonies for the SSR were held at both ends of the route, one at the Te Anau/Manapouri state highway intersection and another at the Balclutha end.

Two buses then left from either end carrying members of the public, invited guests and media and met at Stirling Point in Bluff before completing their tours east and west.

Every upgrade of the now fully sealed route has brought more tourists.

The Owaka Information Centre estimates 100,000 tourists went through their town last year.

The SSR now brings in tens of millions of dollars into the economies of Southland and Otago. The route is heavily dotted with growing numbers of new businesses, enterprises, galleries and walking tracks.

Thriving service stations, concessioned guiding businesses, eating houses and small to medium-sized accommodation establishments now operate with considerable success.