Friday, March 9, 2012

The Catlins: South Island, NZ's Southern Scenic Route

View across from the coffee house as we started along the Southern Scenic Route.
Spectacular views, sea lions, waterfalls, lighthouses, fur seals, surfers, a hippy Rube Goldberg-style artist, penguins, a fossil forest, museums, good food, even Niagara Falls (!) - what more could you want?

I'll tell you what: More time than I had to explore the Catlins and someone else to drive so you don't miss a thing. Well, one out of two isn't bad. I was with some members of the Society of American Travel Writers and we had a driver/guide, a perfect combination.

Count the shades of green if you can.
We stopped for a photo opp. at the Kaka Point overlook with its wild and windblown vistas sporting more shades of green than Webster's has names for.

Then it was on to Nugget Point and its picturesque lighthouse.

Walk if you want.
Tip: Don't bother to walk to the lighthouse; nothing's there that you can't see from the overlook except a few boulders - the nuggets - scattered beyond the mainland.

Again, more spectacular vistas. The penguins, seals and sea lions were out fishing but there were plenty for our professional photographers to focus on.

Owaka Museum is small but packs a lot of info.
Owaka Museum - Wahi Kahuika, the Meeting Place -  in Owaka is a small but very well done museum that brings you insight and anecdotes into the lives of the characters who settled this area, from the indigenous Maori to the rough and tumble rascals and opportunists who followed.

From the young branches of the Rimu, Red Pine, Captain Cook made spruce beer, a remedy for scurvy.
Purakaunui Falls was a pleasant diversion from the high cliffs and sweeping Pacific Ocean although no less photogenic.  You walk through a striking rainforest with ferns and trees out of a Dr. Seuss fantasy. The difference in atmosphere and temperatures is remarkable and sets you up for the three-tiered waterfall.

Purakaunui Falls
Tip: You'll walk five or eight minutes - depending on how many stops for photos or to read the I.D. info on the plants and trees - to the falls along a mostly flat gravel path until reaching the first tier of the falls. After the second glimpse of the cascading falls the downward slope is a bit steeper and  you'll encounter steps (there are handrails for all but the last five) to see the falls falling full on. I thought it was worth it.

Take one VW van, add imagination and you get The Lost Gypsy Gallery.
Blair works on his wall.



































If you can pass by The Lost Gypsy Gallery en route to Papatowai, you haven't an ounce of curiosity. I recommend a stop to see how many wild directions the brain and creativity of Kiwi Blair Somerville have reached.

Centerpiece of the wall.
Everything does something. Wind this one up and the skeleton pedals the bike, the gull flaps its wings and the propeller spins.




















Wind-up automotons, a sculpture garden full of wry, deep and other thoughts - there's no telling what you'll encounter. Inside the almost totally transformed VW bus there isn't a surface left untouched. The New Zealand tour guides usually don't list it but I'd definitely put it on an itinerary. Spend a minute or an afternoon; it'll give you fodder for thought.


Desserts are big enough for two at Niagara cafe.




The one-at-a-time gate.



















The Niagara Falls Cafe is a good place to stop for lunch or dinner. You'll soon taste why it's so busy. Portions are large and desserts are good for splitting. It used to be a schoolhouse and the gate in the white picket fence was designed so that only one student could go through it at a time. Crafty, those teachers. There's a beautiful beach across the road.



Fossilized forest at low tide.
The beaches at Curio Bay Fossilized Forest aren't covered in stiffly standing tree fossils as you might expect, but if you go out on the "beach" at low tide you can see the fossilized wood grain of trees that aeons of wave action have uncovered. It's one of the most extensive and least disturbed examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world.
Scenic but slippery down below.












Tip: It's slippery on that fossil surface and there are some long stairs down to sea level. I chose not to risk it but others less sure-footed did. Luckily, no one fell.

The tiny penguin is to the right of the guy in the black shirt.
Standing at the overlook I had great fun watching tourists and our photographers scramble when a yellow-eyed penguin, the world's rarest penguin, decided to go from nest to sea for an afternoon snack. Careful to remain the proper distance away yet anxious to get "the money shot," they slipped, slid and scrambled as quietly as possible while the hungry bird totally disregarded them.

Surfers are just tiny dots beyond the surf line from the Florence Point overlook.
Tautuku Bay at Florence Point is where the surfers hang out, although the ones I saw didn't stay up on their boards long enough to get a photograph. The overlook will give you the view without climbing down to the beach. If you have the munchies, there's a small snack bar up at Dolphin Bay; the Hokey Pokey ice cream - vanilla with honeyed almonds - is quite good.

The "mighty" Niagara Falls, Kiwi style, on the Waikawa River.
What about Niagara Falls, you ask? It's on on the Waikawa River. Here it is, named after the North American giant by some tongue-in-cheek Kiwi. Good on ya, mate.

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