A not-so-old heritage trail and preparing for the big hike – The Catlins

Continuing our drive along the Southern Scenic Route, we made our way through the Catlins which make up a large part of the south coast and are often heralded as one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand. The scenery is certainly very pretty with large swathes of undulating farmland and stretches of rugged coastline although we didn’t feel that it was in the same league as other places we had visited, such as the Fiordlands or the Coromandel Peninsula. In addition to the drive itself there is a heritage tour which takes you on and off the main highway at intervals to see some sites of historical interest. Admittedly, it is rather dubious how historic and/or interesting some of these places are but that’s part of the fun. Our first stop was the ironically named Niagara Falls by a surveyor who, having seen the original, fancied a bit of a laugh.01When we pulled up to park there was a family covering themselves in suncream ready to walk to the falls only to find that they were literally right next to the road. The two young daughters were thoroughly unimpressed with the whole situation. Next up was the ‘heritage’ concrete trough.02Yes, it is a concrete trough, largely obscured by plants, on the side of the road. This was followed by the town of Waikawa where you are supposed to look around the museum but there was a really intense looking woman working in there who had that look as though she would either talk to us for 6 days or follow us around making sure we didn’t touch anything. So, we moved on. Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay are the big ticket items on the route, the former is a beautiful beach where you have a chance of spotting dolphins (which we didn’t). The latter hosts the petrified forest, which can best be seen at low tide and is made up of 180 million year old fossils of fallen trees. This in itself is pretty damn cool but the name is rather more dramatic than the reality. We had conjured up images of gnarled and twisted tress hardened to rock and gripping on to the coastline, the reality is a number of lumps of fossilised wood in the shallows.03The walk to the beach is also a penguin nesting area and if you are there in the evening (we weren’t) you may spot yellow-eyed penguins off the side of the track (we didn’t). We carried on to Slope Point, the most southerly point of the South Island, which you reach via a 30-minute walking track across farmland.05The view of the coastline is quite striking and the spot feels extremely isolated, save for the gentle but steady stream of tourists going to and from the sign.04We had timed our walk perfectly to get back to the car just before the rain started and we set about finding a camp for the night. We went with our usual MO of loading up CamperMate and looking for the craziest place that we could find, as per usual the clear winner stood out. We made our way there with nervous looks out the window at what looked to be a fairly large storm brewing, thinking that we needed to get the tent up asap.

We had ended up at the Lignite Pit Café and Gardens, which we would recommend you visit as you pass through, even if you don’t plan on staying there. It was seriously threatening rain when we arrived and the very generous owner let us pitch up in “the greenhouse”, which was more like a permanent marquee with a concrete floor and where the plants had taken over. This meant not only were we and the tent dry, we could also cook and sit around in the shelter.06We were soon joined by 3 other groups who had made the wise decision to camp indoors and we made quite the motley crew listening to fantastic local radio station, Breeze FM, through the greenhouse sound system.07We should point out that there were outdoor camping options too and with bathrooms, Wi-Fi, and a small kitchen / laundry all for NZD5 each, it was the best value campsite we have come across on our entire trip. The owners were unfailingly accommodating at every turn, what with the greenhouse, a non-existent check out time and the inclusion of access to the gardens in our camping fee (normally NZD2 each), we honestly don’t know how they were making any money.

As we were making breakfast the next day we were joined in the greenhouse several times by a waddle of ducks who noisily scoured the area in search of food. Yes, we know it isn’t really called a waddle but it’s much more fun this way. One of our German greenhousemates tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to herd them out.8After a leisurely breakfast we ventured outside, where the weather had cleared sufficiently to allow us to take a tour of the gardens. These have been created around the site of an old Lignite mine which the owners have reclaimed and transformed in to a lake brimming with ducks and black swans and surrounded by the wonderful gardens dotted here and there with aviaries.910From here it was a hop, skip and a jump to Invercargill, where we had a couple of hours to kill. Having stopped by the supremely unhelpful I-site, we took ourselves on a driving tour of town. The town itself didn’t hold much interest for us and a venture out to Bluff and Stirling Point was, unfortunately, similarly uninspiring. The main attraction is an AA sign which points in many directions, a photo op but an AA sign nonetheless.11It was time to make our way to Tuatapere, for which we promised to provide the correct pronunciation in our last post: too-a-tap-ri. If you somehow managed to come up with this on your own, congratulations, you are now ready to move to New Zealand. As we had a fairly early start the next morning and 3 days of walking ahead, we decided to treat ourselves to a motel room rather than sleeping in the tent. This also made the task of packing considerably easier as we were able to spread out a bit.12Not having done an overnight hike before, we were improvising a little bit on what we thought we would need and everything looks and feels a whole lot heavier when you know that you are going to be carrying it for 3 days. We needed to find a fine balance between packing enough clothes, so that Caro wouldn’t get cold and therefore grumpy, and carrying enough food, so that Caro wouldn’t get hungry and therefore grumpy, but also not overloading the bags, so that Caro wouldn’t get tired and therefore grumpy. All in all, it was a pretty precarious situation for James. Having now completed the walk we know that we actually got it pretty much spot on and our day packs (both Osprey, both excellent) were perfectly suited to the 3-day hike and our sleeping bags were the only things ill-suited to the activity, as they were so bulky.  The full details of our 3 brilliant days on the track will follow very shortly.

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