Where the wild things are

YVONNE MARTIN
Last updated 05:00 01/02/2014

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Burnt-red flax flowers line both sides of the road to Kaka Point, where we first glimpse the Catlins coastline we will hug for the next three days.

Wildlife photographer David Hallett and I are heading for the South Island's nether region to see what makes it special. I also have an ulterior motive. At home, I have a rock on which my hair straighteners rest while cooling. No ordinary rock, either. It's from the Jurassic era, about 180 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Gondwanaland was breaking up.

A well-meaning friend gave me the rock, souvenired during an early trip to the petrified forest at Curio Bay in the Catlins, but I feel a guilty pang each time I crank up my hair straighteners. This roadie is the perfect opportunity to return the rock and make peace with the planet.

We've chosen Dunedin as a jump-off point for a drive south, ending in Invercargill. Balclutha, the last town in which to stock up on supplies before heading into the wilds, must make a killing from travellers going our way. Nearby, Kaka Point is a peaceful seaside village where you can still buy a three-bedroom house for $135,000 and a slice of absolute beachfront (670sqm) for $150,000.

But it's at Nugget Point, a deviation along a rutted gravel road, where the Catlins starts to feel special. We pass enviable Kiwi baches, where the lapping sea must lull the occupants to sleep, and head for a landmark lighthouse. Built in 1869, it is stylish and commanding on the cliff top, but more impressive is the smattering of rocky isles, the Nuggets, that appear to have carved off the land and drifted out to sea.

The rocky razorbacks teem with wildlife. Sea lions cruise among the kelp, royal spoonbills sit on nests, shags rest on rocks and yellow-eyed penguins can be watched heading ashore at neighbouring Roaring Bay.

The sleepy settlement of Owaka gives a sense of what New Zealand has lost. Time seems to slow here, cellphone coverage begins to fade and at the Catlins Café, you can still buy a vegetable quiche, with a generous salad, for $6.50, plus Denheath custard squares, which we only just resist. On the main road is Teapotland, a potty property where every available space is covered with the ornaments, watched over by two creepy mannequins (possibly to deter teapot thieves). It's not everybody's cup of tea, but it is novel and many tourists pause for a photo.

Purakaunui Bay, down another windy-road deviation, has stunning 300-metre-high cliffs of weathered sandstone, a campsite and a few other surprises. During a stroll on the sandy beach, a "rock" turns into a young sea lion that, buzzing with flies, appears dead at first. But it lifts its head, looks at us with watery eyes, yawns nonchalantly and scratches with its dexterous flipper.

Close to the campsite, fishermen have discarded a stash of luminous paua shells. We bag and take them home for the garden, but it is surprising how such beautiful objects can smell so vile. Weeks later, my suitcase still reeks.

Of 70 waterfalls said to be worth seeing in the Catlins, the Purakaunui Falls stand out. Cascading in three tiers like a wedding cake, they once featured on a New Zealand stamp and are well worth the 20-minute loop walk.

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Fergus and Mary Sutherland, who own Catlins Mohua Park - our eco-friendly accommodation for the night - love this region more than most.

In 2000, they bought their eight hectares of paradise, built four private cottages and protected the native forest with a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant. They named the property after the rare yellow-headed bird that survives in the neighbouring Catlins Forest, where we are heading tomorrow.

Chatting over a dinner of corned beef, vegetables and rhubarb crumble, prepared by Mary, Fergus is quietly optimistic we'll see an elusive mohua. David has heard and caught glimpses of the bird at other mohua hot spots - Ulva Island off Stewart Island and the Eglinton Valley in Fiordland - but is yet to take a photo with which he is happy. Mohua Park's cottages, set among native bush, overlook rolling green pastures and, in the distance, Rata Ridge, about to burst into red flowers. There's even a glow-worm grotto for those seeking some night life and prepared to wait - a long twilight means it is not dark until 10.15pm.

The morning dawns fine and full of promise as we follow Fergus into the silver beech forest of the Catlins River Walk. We see plucky tomtits - Fergus's favourite - and hear tuis and grey warblers as we stroll the banks of the Catlins River. Fergus knows his bird calls and sends out the "alarm" call for a mohua. Soon, we hear what sounds like an ascending ring tone and we are eager to answer the call. We stand as still as statues, staring into the canopy, as Fergus strikes up a lively conversation with a mohua. Then all goes quiet. We walk further into the bush, with Fergus picking up a mohua or two in the treetops. We bush bash closer to the chatter and see a bright yellow bird flitting between branches, but it is impossibly high and shows no interest in descending for a photo call. A few hours flit by and we reluctantly have to concede defeat - there is a lot more we have yet to see in the Catlins.

For those wanting to go bush for longer, the five to six-hour Catlins River Walk is scenic with a few short steep climbs, and the Sutherlands offer a 24km Catlins River-Wisp Loop Track trip that can be walked in one or two days.

Fergus, a former soil conservator and school teacher, originally from Clinton in South Otago, is fascinated by the Catlins' geology. "It has some of the oldest rocks in New Zealand. All through the Catlins, there are fossils of marine organisms." 

As we sit enjoying fish and chips and a beer in the sun at the Whistling Frog Café and Bar at the McLean Falls, worries peel away. The Catlins had the same effect on Blair Somerville, an Aucklander who left behind the bright lights and shifted to Papatowai. A self-confessed tinkerer and "organic mechanic", he runs the Lost Gypsy Gallery, full of gadgets and gizmos made of tin, wood and wire.

The surf must be up, because Blair, who is also a devoted surfer, is nowhere to be seen. The tide isn't right for us to visit the Cathedral Caves (a group of landowners of Ngai Tahu descent charges for access), so we drive on. However, a stop at the Florence Hill Lookout, with its panoramic view from Long Point to Tautuku Beach, is a must - and it's free.

The Waikawa Museum is packed with the detritus of those who once peopled this coastline, from the bullet-riddled Bible that was in Rifleman John Shankland Junior's top pocket when he was killed in action in France in 1918 to large pins made from moa bones used for fastening cloaks. It is a good place to while away an hour, but living history beckons at the beach nearby.

At Curio Bay, we watch a yellow-eyed penguin relaxing where a lush forest once stood 180 million years ago. Tree stumps, fossilised by silica in ash-filled floodwaters, are all that remain. Jurassic forests such as this one are rare and I remember on an earlier visit meeting a scientist who was surprised visitors were allowed to walk on the rocks. On this trip, most of the petrified forest is cordoned off with yellow rope. An officious-looking ranger watches over a coachload of tourists and nearby, a sign warns to keep 10m from wildlife and not to remove rocks. This is awkward. What if I get busted in the act of returning the rock I've stowed in my backpack? I'm not sure the ranger will believe my story, so I hold off for now. We wander to the general store at the Curio Bay campground and buy a frozen Mediterranean pizza, made with goat's cheese, and a banana and chocolate muffin for dinner.

Looking out from our motel room at Curio Bay Salthouse at dawn, there is awe-inspiring dolphin action. Hector's dolphins are riding the waves at Porpoise Bay. It's heart-warming to see their joy in play and without thinking too much, I slip on togs and join the pod. Waves flash with silver and black as four dolphins swim in formation beneath the crest. They hurtle to shore like torpedoes, weaving across the waves and just when I think I'm about to get hit, they divert with exquisite precision. I'm a squealing, wheeling five-year-old again. It's an exhilarating experience (and free), so I stay in the water, the thrill of the dolphins making me temporarily forget my frozen limbs.

It's raining by now and still too early for most tourists - a perfect time to return the rock. There's nobody about when I walk to the edge of the yellow rope and toss my rock into the petrified forest, out of reach of light-fingered tourists where, hopefully, it will stay for a few million years.

At Slope Point, towards the end of our Catlins journey, a moment of truth dawns. Bluff, it turns out, is a bluff when it comes to land's end. Slope Point is the South Island's southern-most tip, where lush sheep country plunges suddenly into the Southern Ocean. Horizontally bent trees are living proof that this land bears the full brunt of the southerlies roaring up from the Antarctic.

Waipapa Point is a sombre note on which to finish our trip. Its lighthouse, built from kauri and totara (one of the last major timber towers constructed in New Zealand), was built after the steamship Tararua struck a reef just off the beach in 1881. Bound for Melbourne, it was carrying 151 passengers and crew and, of those, 131 perished in New Zealand's worst civilian shipwreck. Sixty-four of them are buried in a special cemetery, known as the Tararua Acre, which is a short walk away, across paddocks.

The Catlins today feels like a safe place to venture for sweeping coastlines, rare fauna, mature native forest, impressive waterfalls and rich geology.

On leaving Mohua Park, Fergus crumbles some soft stone from his garden and hands me a petrified mollusc to take home. He estimates it to be 150 million years old "give or take a year". Also from the Jurassic era, it is a worthy replacement for my old rock and a priceless reminder of our visit to an ancient land.

Yvonne and David's trip was hosted by Venture Southland Tourism.

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