The Catlins: Penguins and starry skies

We have officially lived in New Zealand for 6 months now, and feel as if we have just about exhausted every last corner of potential exploration. But therein is the joy of New Zealand: you’ve done your volcanic tramps (hikes), waded through your underground glow-worm caves, and boated around your fiords- but you’re never really finished. Once you reach the end of the long and wonderful bucket list of Things To Do In New Zealand you start to realise that it was only the beginning, and this country is still full of unsung beauties to discover. Within roughly 15 minutes of searching “New Zealand” on Instagram, a quick scroll and stumbling upon photos of wild and windy beaches adorned with roaring sea lions, it was decided: we were heading to The Catlins. This is a region on the south-east coast of the South Island in NZ’s very own Scotland-land where my countrymen settled, between Dunedin and Invercargill. It’s a remote and peaceful place where the accents are strong, the sheep outnumber people by roughly 10,000:1, the few inhabitants you come across share their land unquestioningly with the local wildlife, and the night sky is simply breathtaking.


Our first day was spent happily delving back into our off-the-beaten-track guide book and exploring the sights of the south coast. This took us to 2 beautiful waterfalls with short and sweet walks to access them, the combination of the dampness, the ferns, and the palm trees making the atmosphere very Kiwi bush-y, and therefore very Jurassic Park-y.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA photographer’s heaven at Purakanui Falls

IMG_8774Waterfall selfie (welfie?) at McLean Falls

On the adventures continued in our little hired Toyota Yaris (a car made for small people- I could see over the steering wheel without raising my seat!) and we reached a unique site/sight called the Petrified Forest. Despite sounding like a chapter in a Harry Potter book, this is actually a 180 million-year-old fossilized forest, which turned to stone in a very real-life Narnia way when silica-ridden ash flooded the forest from a volcano. All that remains are stone tree stumps (how anything that is 180 million years can remain is beyond my brain capacity) which when viewed from a bit of a distance allow the mind to see how this site was once full of conifer trees, in an unfathomable time before grass and flowering plants existed.

IMG_8789 2Curiouser and curiouser: the aptly named Curio Bay and the Petrified Forest

IMG_8787 2A strange place, perfect for wistfully gazing out to sea

On the advice of Jack, the friendly landowner of our hostel, the alarm went off at 6.30am the following day, and by 6.50am we were in the car and heading to Roaring Bay (so-called because of the high winds felt here) in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the little colony of rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins that call this bay home. It was still dark when we arrive 45 minutes later, and we set up the tripod in the viewing hut granted to humans. Descending onto the beach en masse in the summer months, or even à deux on this chilly Sunday morning would disturb the penguins, so luckily the bay is almost inaccessible and thus the penguins live their lives in serenity.

In the dim light of 7.45am, they started to rise from their nests, ready for the daily grind of swimming and fishing. They stood on the beach for a while, casually catching up with one another, two romantics even holding flippers which was, as you can imagine, totally adorable.

IMG_8810.JPGPoor Eric feeling like a third wheel next to these love (flightless) birds- get a nest!

We watched until they all took the plunge and began a busy day of fishing around 20 minutes later. Such was the joy, amazement, and wonder of seeing these rare and human-like birds live their lives, we returned to the same spot at sunset that afternoon, in spite of the 1.5 hour round trip, to witness a similar scene unfold!

IMG_8809.JPGCatching up after work

This was definitely the day of wildlife spotting, as between trips to the penguins we went on an 8km beach walk in search of the New Zealand sea lions- one of the rarest species of seal in the world. Having been told (through the hostel owner’s tears of laughter) about sea lions chasing guests, stealing their umbrellas and blocking the track, I was a little nervous to walk past our formidable friend, but he was clearly unbothered by our presence and happily continued his nap while we edged slowly nearer for a close-up.

IMG_8816.JPGThe Alpha male of the colony (we gave him this unofficial title) chilling on Surat Bay

A hop, skip, jump, and a quick check that the fence wasn’t electrified, we crossed a field to reach Cannibal Bay just round the headland from Surat and were immediately greeted by a father and son sea lion family (I assume they were male as apparently gender inequality is rife in the sea lion world; females rarely leave their home-bay and are thus very rarely spotted in this area) also having a post-lunch siesta. Taking advantage of their docile sleepiness, Resident David Attenborough/Adrien Chazaux tentatively approached the pair to get some good shots. The ever careful photographer let his guard down for a split second- standing up just a little too quickly than Papa sea lion cared for- and was growled and snarled at, while father and son began a slow and non-committal chase towards him. However, they obviously saw in his kind eyes that he would do them no harm, very quickly gave up the aggression and let him continue papping them.

IMG_8808.JPGPapa and young’un relaxing in the waves

IMG_8790 2.JPGPaparazzi out in force

Seeing animals in the wild is one of my favourite things in the world, and the main reason I wanted to visit this area. We were so happy to be able to see all these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat and to witness the care taken of them by the community and the Department of Conservation. Keep up the great work, NZ DoC!

However- disaster struck on our way back from penguin visit number 2. In the saturated muddy carpark, our litte car slipped forwards and into the sodden grass, leaving us totally unable to reverse the front wheels out of the ditch. Faced with the prospect of being stuck in the fast-falling darkness in the middle of nowhere, we flagged down a fellow hire car of tourists who looked frankly terrified at being asked to help but unable (through human decency) to refuse. I hopped back into the driver’s seat and got ready for these three unconvinced ladies to help pull the car back, when, luckily for I think everyone involved, Adrien waved down a pick up truck. This confirms my theory that no matter where you get stuck in this country, a friendly Kiwi in gumboots and a pick-up truck, and with extensive knowledge of getting people out of ditches, will appear to save the day.

Seeing penguins and sea lions were of course the best part of the weekend, but other highlights included reaching the southern most point of the South Island where the South Pole is just closer than the equator:

IMG_8814.JPGLooking very chilly bears. I think it’s time to go home to a cider by the fire and game of Scrabble with Dirty Dancing on in the background (accurate description of our [amazing] Saturday night which followed)!

And, after penguin visit number 1, paying an early morning trip to the beautiful Nugget Point.

IMG_8773.JPGThe Nuggets trying to escape into the ocean

Nugget Point is a well-known postcard image of New Zealand, and deservedly so. It is very reminiscent of Cape Reinga, the most northern tip of NZ (written about at some length in a previous blog post about being at the edge of the world and other such magical feelings) but has little of the tourist attractiony, full carpark-ness of Reinga (at least not in the depths of winter). I really loved Cape Reinga, and the force of a powerful sea and an almighty ocean crashing together is undeniable, but Nugget Point on a cold, misty, winter morning was an affecting experience in its own, more subtle way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or felt such silence as I did on the path towards the lighthouse, a calming experience which focuses your mind on exactly where you are and what you are seeing: the Pacific Ocean, stretching out for 6,000 miles.


Next stop on Ailsa and Adrien’s grand tour of the South Pacific: Fiji! 2 weeks to go until sun, hammocks, snorkelling, tropical fruit, sand, warmth, warmth, warmth….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: