Justine Tyerman

International Travel

Traversing the coastline of the Catlins

Traversing the coastline of the Catlins

Justine Tyerman has an encounter with some feisty sea lions in the Catlins.

The sign said to stay well clear of the sea lions at Cannibal Bay in the Catlins, but the sea lions clearly could not read. We were standing at a safe distance from a cluster of these magnificent creatures, watching them cavorting in the surf. They were engaged in some sort of territorial dispute and were creating a heck of a ruckus. So fascinated were we with their behaviour, we were completely taken by surprise when two more large sea lions suddenly appeared from the sand dunes behind us and came lolloping towards us at great speed.

After scaring the living daylights out of us, the pair joined the noisy fray among the other sea lions which had escalated into a full-on battle between two huge bulls with shaggy manes.

Cannibal Bay, on the wild south-east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, is a favourite habitat of these critically endangered mammals, known in Maori as rapoka. A remote, windswept bay with a huge rock standing sentinel at the northern end and a long curve of sand stretching south, the place-name conjures up all sorts of macabre visions. Long ago, a surveyor found human bones on the beach but there was never any evidence of foul play so one wonders why he leapt to the conclusion that the deceased had been eaten.

Earlier in the day, just along the coast at Kaka Point, hubby Chris and I had embarked upon our much-anticipated Catlins adventure, all new territory for us.

An information board overlooking the silvery sea and white sands of Molyneux Bay told us we were standing where the Clutha River used to flow to sea until a massive flood in 1878 moved the river mouth to the north.

Maori settled here about 900AD living on moa and seal meat, and Captain James Cook sailed by in 1770 but did not make landfall. He named the bay Molyneux after the ship’s master who died on the journey.

Whalers and sealers from England and Europe came to hunt in the abundant coastal waters of the southern coast in the early 19th century and European settlers arrived in the mid-1850s to mill timber. The name Catlins was bestowed upon the region in honour of a whaling captain, Edward Catlin, who bought a block of land beside the river from Kāi Tahu chief Hone Tūhawaiki in 1840.

Ten minutes down the coast, the headland at Nugget Point looks as though it has thrust itself into the Pacific Ocean with such force that fragments have broken off. Captain Cook decided the rocky outcrops scattered at the tip of the long, deeply-weathered finger looked like gold nuggets — hence the name.

A lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country, was built on the promontory at the far end of the point in 1869-70 at the height of the coastal shipping era. The 600-metre walk to the impressive white beacon runs along a narrow ridge allowing breath-taking views of the coastline to the north and south. Vertiginous cliffs rise almost vertically in both directions.

Built from locally-quarried stone, the Tokata Lighthouse stands an impressive 9.5 metres high and is 76 metres above the sea.

Watching the surge of the waves pummelling the rocks far below, even on a calm day, was a lesson in the awesome power of the sea to shape and fashion the face of Aotearoa. I’d love to return at the height of a storm and witness the winds that force all the trees there to grow horizontal to the land.

A hotspot for marine diversity, over 40 species of seabird inhabit or visit the headland, and fur seals and sea lions are a common sight. Orca, southern right whales, humpbacks and dolphins are occasionally spotted off the point... but not that day. We did, however, see fur seal pups frolicking far below in sheltered rock pools.

Roaring Bay, just south of Nugget Point, is a breeding ground of the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho, the world’s rarest penguin. Standing 65cm tall and weighing about 5kg, they are the fourth largest penguin.

Hoiho means noise shouter, a name given to them because of their shrill call. We spent a good half hour scouring the seashore from a hide above the beach but there was no sign of the creatures coming ashore. Reading about their life cycle on information boards in the hide, visitors are unlikely to see the penguins in March and April because they are moulting and confined to land until their new feather coats grow. They are not waterproof during the moult so they cannot forage at sea, relying on their fat stores to survive.

According to the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, despite efforts to protect this critically endangered species, there are only 225 breeding pairs left on mainland New Zealand, the lowest level since 1990-91. This is indeed sad news.

As the light began to fade, we found an excellent overnight camp site called Newhaven Holiday Park at Surat Bay named after the sailing vessel Surat that was wrecked there in 1874.

We got there just in time to set up our comfy, cosy double bed in the back of the JUCY campervan and stroll down to the beach with a bubbly and beer to watch a stunning sunset.

Our campsite was on beautiful Pounawea Estuary, fed by the Owaka and Catlins rivers, a place rich in birdlife and virgin podocarp forest.

It was so mild, we cooked outdoors in our little ‘kitchen’... very convenient, like an upmarket tent on wheels. Far from ‘freezing to death’, as our Wanaka friends had warned us when we left their centrally-heated house early that day — the campervan was so warm, we had to open the windows wide during the night. 

Young ones camping in tents around us thought it was pretty cool (or crazy?) to see a couple of ‘oldies’ sleeping in the back of a bright purple and green station wagon. It brought back memories of the carefree roadies of our youth.

To be continued…

See part one and two of Justine’s road trip.