Chasing Waterfalls in the Catlins

November 17, 2016

I hadn’t even heard of the Catlins for the first year or so we were in New Zealand. A friend of mine who was here on a working holiday told me over coffee that she and her boyfriend were going to the Catlins, and I assumed these Catlins were some majestical islands off Vanuatu. Or something.

“Where are the Catlins?” I asked, naive.

“Oh, you know, just south of Dunedin” she said, smirking into her flat white at the dumb American who’d lived in New Zealand far longer than she had. She told me of this rugged, rural stretch of beautiful land… beaches and forests and waterfalls. Basically a New Zealand secret.


So, 3 years after that conversation, Scott and I finally made it to the Catlins.

The Catlins are named after the Catlins River which bisects the area and takes it’s name from 1840’s whaling captain Edward Catlin, who purchased a large chunk of the area from the Maori back in the day. Incidentally, the Maori received the land back after Catlin’s death, but his name stuck.

There’s one main route through the Catlins called the Southern Scenic Route. Aptly named, by the way. The whole drive with no stops probably takes less than 2 hours. That said, there are so many nooks and crannies to explore here: waterfalls, historic railway tunnels, wildlife areas, rivers and lakes, beaches, caves, oh… and New Zealand’s only insect theme park including a flea circus. (We skipped it, but I’ll always wonder if that was a mistake.)

Anyways, on day one we set off to see our first waterfall, Purakaunui Falls: allegedly New Zealand’s most photographed waterfall. I’ll be checking all the 2017 calendars for this baby!


Our first day was also full of bird-nerding, an activity we take quite seriously. Unfortunately my point-and-shoot digital camera isnt exactly up to wildlife photography, but since I’ve got a captive audience, I’ll still introduce you to 3 of my favorite NZ birds.

First up, the pukeko. Also known as “swamp chicken” and “get out of the road you dumb bird”, the pukeko is one of my favorites for it’s goofy walking style and unique appearance. Also, this is the first one I’ve ever seen in a tree.


Next up we have the tui; a New Zealand classic. Tuis are characterized by the white feathers at the front of their neck (like little white bird bowties!)… and their musical calls. They also swoop around a lot and are impossible to photograph:


Stunning pic I know. Feel free to submit me to National Geographic.

Now, the best of the lot from this day. The spoonbill! You heard me! This stunning, large, white swamp bird is recognizable for it’s big feather headdress, and long SPOON shaped bill. It’s goofy you guys. It’s so, so goofy.


We watched about 30 of these birds shovel around for snacks, and later saw them about 50 miles south nesting in large trees. And with a NZ population that is endangered, at approximately 1,000 birds total, our 30 bird count was 3% of the population! Serious bird-nerd stats there.

Next on the agenda was hiking out to the Catlin’s “most famous” attraction (there were at least 4 of these), the Nugget Point lighthouse.


I think the name is pretty self-explanatory. On the way in we saw some NZ fur seals (vicious, and too far away to photograph). Lots more wildlife viewing opportunities here.


Nugget Point is in the northern most part of the Calins, at a place called Kaka Point. We started our journey here, and traveled south throughout the following few days.


I’d like to name the photo above: “Summer in New Zealand”.


Hard-core nerding.

We stayed in the darling Molynoux House at Kaka Point. A lovely BnB with an even lovelier view.

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Day 2 was all about the waterfalls. I had TLC’s Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls on repeat in my brain all day. Though we were doing just that.

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Sometimes I forget how GREEN New Zealand is. Then on days like today, I find the time to write a blog post because it is absolutely POURING with rain outside and I cant even go on a run for fear of washing away, and I remember why New Zealand is so green.

Anyways, in addition to all the waterfalls, we noted massively long stretches of deserted sandy beach. Quite a few people asked before we left if we were bringing surf boards (to which we chuckled, uh… no) but after seeing the beaches, I get it. The Catlins are a popular surf destination in New Zealand. And despite the appearance, wetsuits definitely required!

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Working our way down the Southern Scenic Route, we stopped off briefly at Lake Wilkie… a less popular dot on the map that I had read would offer us lots of rare bird sightings. Not so much, it turned out. Scott saw one tui, and that was that. But a beautiful lake to stop and reflect… get it…

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The Southern Scenic Route winds its way along the very south-eastern tip of New Zealand… through this rural, wild space. It feels like New Zealand pre-people (besides the road, occasional cars, etc.) The Catlins is a place to go when you’re sick of city life, tired of people and internet connection, wary of tourists and crowds. You can do a lot, or very little, and feel like you’ve been somewhere special.

Our waterfall chasing continued.

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Let me tell you about hiking through the rainforest in waterfall country.

It’s wet. All the time.

We squished through bogs, slipped on roots, climbed over bits of trail that had disappeared completely. DOC had used cut-down tree ferns as log “pathways” in many places as the trunks have bristly “fur” bark which lends some traction in the otherwise slimy conditions of the rainforest jungle.

But, all that water… all those waterfalls. Totally worth it!

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We wrapped up our Catlins trip with a few more entertaining animal sightings. On day 3 we walked along an otherwise deserted beach, save for a family of sea lions!


The two youngsters on the left were sparring constantly (we watched for at least 10 minutes)… nipping and wrestling and barking at each other. And every so often the big old grumpy guy was just not having it. This was one of those moments.

And at dusk the night before we stood out on a petrified forest – now beach – waiting for hours for the yellow eyed penguins to appear…. waiting to see them waddle out of the ocean and up to their bush covered nests for the night.

As it turns out, no waddle sightings as they were already there:


Scott: “I think it’s fake”…. “Is that a statue?”

Penguin: “Im not fake.”

Scott: “Hey look! It moved!”


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I love how many adventures New Zealand has in store for us. There are still so many roads we have yet to travel, so much to explore.

I know my posts are more sporadic these days. Daily life here has become routine with work and bike rides, friends, celebrations, and everything in between. But when we get away somewhere new, the magic of New Zealand is renewed for me. All we had to do was hop on a 40-minute flight and then drive for an hour and we were in the Catlins. Somewhere totally different, totally unexplored. I cant wait for more.


Also, just a note to say that the recent earthquakes in Kaikoura and around the Cook Straight have left New Zealand shaken again, and facing massive rebuild obstacles. Again. The 7.5 magnitude quake completely demolished Highway 1 north and south of Kaikoura. We felt over 2 minutes of shaking here in Christchurch, but we suffered no damage.

Kaikoura was a beloved spot of ours for weekend travel and solitude, and I’ve enjoyed reminiscing about our many adventures there including whale watching, road cycling, and of course visiting the baby seal colony, the fate of which is unknown but likely grim. At a time when Scott and I were managing difficult news and needed to get away, Kaikoura was perfection. A few memories from that weekend:

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You can help by donating to the New Zealand Red Cross.

Kia Kaha: Stay Strong, Kaikoura.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Del November 21, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Simply Fantastic photography!

  • Come on, you must want to tell me something!