New Zealand- Chapter Six- The Edge of the World in the Catlins

When I finally booked my flight to New Zealand at the end of January, I asked travel blogger superstar and unabashed New Zealand fan Amanda of A Dangerous Business if she could provide some photos for the announcement post (So, Yeah, I’m Going to New Zealand), since I had none of my own (yet) to use. One of the pictures she sent me was of the Nugget Point Lighthouse, in the South Island’s lightly populated Southeast corner. Transfixed by this photo, and the small sections on this area, The Catlins, that were in the guidebooks I had purchased, I began to develop a plan for a whirlwind, one-day tour of the area.

The more I read, and the more photos & posts I found online, the more I looked forward to this day. By the time I departed the United States, I had the day circled as one of the ones I was looking forward to the most. I had set aside most of two days for the drive, but my desire to see another glorious sunrise, like the ones I had witnessed at the Moeraki Boulders and just outside Christchurch earlier in the trip, and a forecast of stormy weather for the second day, led me to rise well before sunrise in the hopes of seeing as much as possible before the weather turned.

I’d picked the previously mentioned Nugget Point Lighthouse as the spot from which I intended to watch the sunrise, but shortly into the drive from Balclutha, where I’d stayed the night before, it began to sprinkle. The rain continued as I entered the parking lot for the hike to the lighthouse.

The hike was an easy one, and as had happened before, the weather began to break ever so slightly, enough for me to snap some quick photos of the sunrise over the Pacific.

The Nuggets

The lighthouse, which was built in 1870, gets it’s name from the rocky outcrops, known as the Nuggets,  that extend south from the peninsula into the sea.

The day was clearing, and after stopping to capture the above quintessential New Zealand image of sheep grazing in the field, I headed back to the main highway and turned south.


My next stop was at the Tunnel Hill Historic Reserve, the sight of the southern most railroad tunnel in New Zealand. Built in 1891 though a hill known as McDonald’s Saddle, the tunnel was completed in two years using brick that were locally manufactured. I will admit that this kind of sight in another country probably gets brushed over, but that doesn’t mean it should be. This tunnel, which was a engineering feat for the time, also speaks to the importance that timber used to have in this portion of the country that such a tunnel would even need to be built. The line stopped operating in the mid 1950s, when the area’s forests began to dwindle and the logging business moved elsewhere.


After close to another hour of driving, I left the main highway and traveled on some unsealed roads to the trailhead for Purakuanui Falls. I had read quite a bit about these falls, reputed by most to be the most beautiful of the dozen or so waterfalls in the Catlins.

Purakuanui Falls was spectacular, and, since I had the whole place to myself, it gave me the opportunity to set up my tripod and get some of the more artistic shots I had spent time learning how to shoot before I left on the trip. The top shot above is an HDR image of the falls, and the bottom shot is one I took after fiddling with my ISO, shutter speed and f-stop. 




I continued further down the road to Matai & Horseshoe Falls. Having had success getting the type of image I wanted at Purakuanui Falls, I was excited to get more waterfalls to photograph. I especially like the shot of the blurred water, and would continue to use this effect on waterfalls for the rest of the trip. 
The day had been like most days in New Zealand when it came to the weather. I’d seen sprinkles, brilliant sunshine, cloudy skies, steady rain, and even fog. The upside to that weather (besides the fact that it didn’t rain all day) was the rainbows that I became visible just after I passed the small hamlet of Maclennan. 
I followed the rainbows for a while, finally emerging at Florence Hill Lookout, where I was able to see both ends of the rainbow as it rose from the sea. I met some German girls at the lookout, and they looked as giddy as I felt. We exchanged photographer duties for each other, and I continued west on the Catlins Highway. I was disappointed to find one of the Catlins signature sights, Cathedral Caves, a place where the sea had carved massive inlets that people can walk around in at low tide, closed for two weeks due to low tide falling outside of usually hiking hours. 
My next stop was another one of the Catlins many waterfalls, McLean Falls. Honestly, I wasn’t as impressed with this one, mostly because the foliage around it mad it impossible for me to get a clean shot. That was probably a blessing, as situations where I am forced to shoot things outside my normal comfort zone can only help me in framing better, more artistic shots. I did stop along the way to get another one of my blurred water shots using a slower shutter speed and tripod to do so. All three of my short hikes were through some amazing rainforest, green and verdant, and covered in ferns and mosses. 

 I decided to carry on to Waipapa Point Lighthouse on this day, while I had some sunshine, instead of taking the chance on the next day’s weather. The drive out to Waipapa Point, near the southernmost tip of the South Island, was almost surreal. The skies seemed to expand, and although there were small farmsteads along the road I took out there, I passed no other cars after leaving the main road. The whole experience felt like I was driving off the edge of the world. 
As I walked from the parking lot to the lighthouse, I noticed what I thought was a large stone sitting a few feet of the main path. Needless to say, I was surprised when the shiny stone began to move. I turned out it was a very large New Zealand Sea Lion. It yawned, payed me no mind and snuggled back into it’s spot.

The lighthouse was built in 1884 in response to one of New Zealand’s worst shipwrecks, the 1881 sinking of the passenger steamer Tararua, which led to the loss of 131 lives. It is one of the last wooden lighthouses built in New Zealand, and has been unmanned since 1976, and running on solar power since 1988, providing guidance for ships sailing in these most volatile of waters.

I was certainly able to get a glimpse of those volatile conditions. As I was walking around the grounds taking pictures the wind, which had been nothing more than the slightest of breezes for most of the day when I was inland hiking to the waterfalls, turned fierce. I found myself almost being blown off my feet by the gusts.

The surf was pounding on the shore and I could see the dark skies beyond. Part of the three in this area was looking out over that ocean and knowing that the next significant landmass in that direction was Antarctica.
The dark skies also hastened my departure to the last sight I’d wanted to see that day, an obscure outcrop of land known as Slope Point, it’s only significance being it is the southernmost point of the South Island. 

Being a geography geek, I’m a sucker for these ‘extreme’ points. I did make it out to Slope Point, despite not beating the storm I had seen rolling in at Waipapa Point. I wrote about my Slope Point (mis)adventure in this post, one of the few I actually wrote while on the trip. (Go read it, I won’t rehash too much of it here, since it’s a long story and this post is already long enough.)

Soaking wet, stinking, yet extremely pleased with myself (see- you really should read the story), I continued on to Curio Bay, a spot many of my Kiwi & Kiwiphile friends had raved about, and the place I had intended to camp and hopefully watch the cute little yellow-eyed penguins come ashore for the night. Upon reaching the campground however, on the exposed point at the mouth of the bay, I knew this would not work. The wind had picked up even beyond what it had been at Slope and Waipapa Points, and I knew I would be seeing any penguins coming ashore that night, and I knew I was unlikely to be able to sleep much with the wind rocking the campervan like it was. 

Disappointed, I tried to content myself with snapping some pictures of the crashing surf and amazingly wind-blown tress, but I found it hard to even keep the camera still enough in the face of the gale to take pictures. When it started to rain again, I accepted the conditions for what they were, and I got in the campervan and headed toward Invercargill. 
Despite the disappointment in not being able to camp at Curio Bay, I spent the hour drive reflecting on what an incredible day it had been, and how amazing, and just so like New Zealand it was, that such an awesome place like the Catlins could fly so far under the radar of most tourists. Looking back now, I’m less surprised, not because I love the Catlins any less, just because I found so many remarkable place in the country that warranted no more that a few paragraphs in the guidebooks and literature on the country.

My Day Six Photo Gallery  Flickr Facebook

NEXT: Chapter Seven- Southern Scenic Route
Other Links:
Places to visit on the Catlins Highway (NZ DOC)
Matai Falls, Purakuanui Falls, and Maclean Falls
Waipapa Point Lighthouse
Slope Point
Curio Bay
Nugget Point Lighthouse
Tunnel Hill Historic Reserve

The New Zealand 2012 Series-
New Zealand 2012 by the Numbers
Chapter One: Christchurch in One Word: Broken
Photo Essay- Sunrise outside Christchurch
Chapter Two- The Banks Peninsula & Hector’s Dolphins
Chapter Three- Washed Out at Tekapo
Photo Essay- Moeraki Boulders Sunrise
Chapter Four- The Secret of Dunedin
Photo Essay- Speight’s Brewery Tour, Dunedin
Chapter Five- The Otago Peninsula
Photo Essay- Otago Peninsula Wildlife
Chapter Six- The Edge of the World in the Catlins
Chapter Seven- Southern Scenic Route
Chapter Eight- Cruising Doubtful Sound (Pt.1)
Photo Essay- Lake Manapouri Cruise

8 Responses to “New Zealand- Chapter Six- The Edge of the World in the Catlins”

  1. eriksmithdotcom says:

    Thanks! The second waterfall is going to probably be quite high in my top 10 photos when I make that list. 

  2. eriksmithdotcom says:

    I tend to move at a pretty ridiculous pace. It's not for everyone, but I try and make the most of everyday. It leaves me pretty exhausted at the end, but with lots of great memories. 

  3. eriksmithdotcom says:

    Thanks Kris. It's a great, beautiful, undiscovered part of New Zealand.

  4. eriksmithdotcom says:

    A great place! Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Your lighthouse photos are awesome!! So glad you liked the Catlins, even if you ran into bad weather at Curio Bay.

  6. Kris Koeller says:

    Great poSt! Looks like a great trip!

  7. Looks like you managed to see more in one day than I did in two. Such a shame that the weather didn't behave for the sunrise but the lighthouse photos are gorgeous.

  8. Beautiful photos of the lighthouses!  And I really like that second photo of the first waterfall.  I'm a sucker for waterfalls, and I just love the tiers on that one.


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