For all its wild beauty and seclu­sion, the Catlins is as wel­com­ing as can be

RUGGED, DRA­MATIC, PRIS­TINE... THE CATLINS ARE MES­MER­IZ­ING. THEY’RE ALSO COM­PAR­A­TIVELY UN­DER-EX­PLORED. PACK THOSE BAGS

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TOGRAPHS GUY F REDERICK

THE NAR­ROW WIND­ING road to the north­ern­most point of the Catlins over­looks bays of golden sand, even­tu­ally end­ing at the pic­ture-book land­mark of Nugget Point. It is a clas­sic set­ting for a light­house: Tokata Light­house sits on a promon­tory ris­ing out of deep wa­ters, a smat­ter­ing of large nuggety rocks scat­tered into the ocean be­yond.

This south­east­ern cor­ner of New Zealand is named for a sea cap­tain/whaler and wannabe land dealer. In 1840 Ed­win Catlin and Ngãi Tahu chief Hone Tãhawaiki, known as Bloody Jack, traded rich podocarp forests and fish­eries for mus­kets and thirty pounds. The deal was even­tu­ally over­turned and much of the land re­mains pris­tine to­day.

It is a short walk to reach the light­house and its view­ing plat­form through wind­sculp­tured veg­e­ta­tion cling­ing des­per­ately to the cliffs. The view south across the rocks reaches to­ward in­fin­ity — just the South­ern Ocean rolling in, with line af­ter line of un­bro­ken swells, never-end­ing, never still. Waves curve around the head­land, cre­at­ing the un­canny sen­sa­tion that the land is ris­ing and fall­ing rhyth­mi­cally with their pas­sage. It is mes­mer­iz­ing.

This end­point is a per­fect start for a week­end in one of the coun­try’s loneli­est yet most pow­er­ful phys­i­cal en­vi­rons. Both the en­ergy of the ocean and its clear sparkling wa­ters are en­tic­ing. But with the mid­win­ter cel­e­bra­tion of Matariki fast ap­proach­ing, the wa­ters are icy cold. A bare­foot me­an­der along one of the Catlins’ many sandy beaches, with a swash of sol­stice-chilled wa­ters around the feet erases all feel­ing in the toes as well as wash­ing away freshly laid steps.

The wa­ter is no warmer at Nugget Point’s ad­ja­cent Roar­ing Bay where the shrill call of the rare yel­low-eyed pen­guin echoes be­tween ocean and bush. A group of three give voice to the name hoiho (“noise shouter” in te reo) as each throws back its neck and yells loudly to the heav­ens. Maybe their toes are cold too, and this is a peren­nial call of com­plaint? To­day, the wa­ter is dark, calm, milky al­most, but of­ten it is the op­po­site with mon­strous, un­tame­able waves roar­ing in from the south to ex­plode on the shore and drown out the hoiho’s vo­cals.

Later, from the win­dows of the Kaka Point ho­tel, and as the light of the short day fades, the 150-year-old light­house be­gins its nightly vigil, flick­er­ing light across the wa­ters warn­ing of those treach­er­ous rocks in its twin­kles and flashes.

The ho­tel was a favourite spot of the late poet lau­re­ate Hone Tuwhare, the loved boil­er­maker-turned-poet who made this re­gion his own af­ter buy­ing a cot­tage at Kaka Point in the early 1990s. He es­pe­cially favoured the lo­cal seafood and mut­ton­birds.

Din­ing on the fresh­est blue cod, be­neath the cer­tifi­cate of Hone’s hon­orary doc­tor­ate on the wall, his ex­tra­or­di­nary life and work comes to mind. His first poetry col­lec­tion No

Or­di­nary Sun could eas­ily be the slo­gan for his cho­sen re­gion and the lo­cals cer­tainly did not re­gard him as or­di­nary but trea­sured. The small sea­side set­tle­ment was a rich source of in­spi­ra­tion, with na­ture con­stantly present in the poet’s life – whether it be weather from the south knock­ing at his back door or sea lions laz­ing on the beach across from his crib.

The Catlins is firmly na­ture’s do­main, with three rul­ing “Ws”: water­falls, wildlife and walks. Find them down back roads, of­ten gravel and flanked by ro­tund an­cient tō­tara. Lit­tle won­der, with 200 days a year of rain in this part of the world, water­falls are among the Catlins’ lead­ing fea­tures. Many of its most fa­mous are ac­ces­si­ble by easy walk­ing tracks, which me­an­der through lush bush. Its most pho­tographed is Pu­rakaunui Falls, reached af­ter a 10-minute walk through podocarp and beech for­est. The falls are spell­bind­ing and just 20 kilo­me­tres from the cen­tral Catlins ser­vice township of Owaka.

En­joy the com­pany of a party of danc­ing fan­tails on a walk to a beach in­hab­ited by sea lions in­tim­i­dat­ing enough to thwart an at­tempt to pass them by. Drive an in­land road, lined with moss-covered fence posts, to the peace­fully me­an­der­ing Catlins River and ad­ja­cent forests. Here, flashes of yel­low and the rapid chat­ter­ing of the yel­low­head, or mo­hua, light up the for­est-green can­vas. The area is one of the bird’s last strongholds.

On vir­tu­ally every road we are spoilt rot­ten with walk­ing op­tions, cen­turies-old podocarp spec­i­mens com­mand­ing rev­er­ence along the routes and the sound of waves grow­ing louder as we emerge onto yet an­other lonely beach.

Ditch­ing the map is a win­ning for­mula in this re­gion, where the rain and sun con­tin­u­ously jos­tle for po­si­tion. It’s clear that should hu­mans de­cide to va­cate, the bush would quickly re­claim the land, the wildlife would race back, and the noise of bird life would be­come even more of a racket than it is al­ready.

CLOCK­WISE: Long and iso­lated, Su­rat Bay is named af­ter the Su­rat, ship­wrecked on New Year’s Day 1874; the beach is a favoured sum­mer rest­ing zone for sea lions (pakeke); Tau­tuku Es­tu­ary is reached via a short board­walk path over jointed rush (oioi), with the chance of spot­ting the shy but noisy fern bird (mata) in its favoured habi­tat; the rare and oft-vo­cal hoiho.

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