New Zealand South Island Road Trip: Part 4 Southland

This week is part four of our South Island trip – the beautiful Southland!

The Catlins

Where we stayed: Our first campsite down south was the Hillview Campsite. Initially I thought this was a great find – it was only $10pp, had free limited wi-fi, was well kept and spacious however shortly after checking in we heard someone (possibly the owner) screaming some horrendous racist slurs at someone. This froze us in our tracks and left us a bad taste for this site. Lets just say I was glad to get outta there the next morning.

The next two nights we stayed in the Waikawa Recreation Reserve which was a free campground by the waterfront and only 10 mins from Curio Bay. There was large, clean flushing toilets however, it is a relatively small site that fills up early in the evening so don’t leave it too late getting here.

What we did: Before we left every single person we met (tourists and locals) all told us we could not miss the Catlins, that it was the best part of New Zealand etc. Frankly, I found it pretty underwhelming and when we bumped into some of our Irish friends down there they said the same thing. I think this is because it reminded all of us of Ireland and so while it was beautiful it didn’t blow us away in the same way Milford Sound or Mount Cook did.

In the Catlins there aren’t many long walks or hikes to do, instead you’ll end up driving and making stops at short walks and lookouts. We started on the east coast after Dunedin and drove to Nugget Point. There is a nice 20 min loop that leads along a well formed pathway to a viewing platform beside the Tokata Lighthouse. Here you have a beautiful view out across the ocean where you can see the famous nugget point rock formations.

Just down the road from here is Roaring Bay where you can stop in and try catch a glimpse of the local yellow-eyed penguins. From here we went onto Owaka and did the McLean Falls track. This is a nice 40 min return walk through the forest to view the 22m waterfall.

Next we drove to Surat Bay to see the wild sea lions. This was a real gem. You can walk up along the beach which is just beautiful. Along the walk you’ll just stumble across sea lions sleeping on the sand next to you!

The next day we headed to Jack’s Blowhole which is 55m deep and developed over 200m from the sea. The blowhole was originally part of the large subterranean cave and was formed when the roof of the cave collapsed. This is an easy 1 hour return walk along a well formed track and staircases. The blowhole is impressive, however I would have loved to see it on a wet stormy day when the water was more violent in order to get the full experience.

This was our day of looking at waterfalls and first up was the Purakaunui Falls. These are some of the most photographed waterfalls in the region. I would warn against googling too many photos as our friends did and were disappointed when they got there, however, I hadn’t seen any pictures and thought it was really nice. Its an easy 20 min return track, however, it can get very busy with tourists.

Next we headed to Matai Falls and the Horseshoe Falls. Again this is a easy short walk that takes about 30 mins round trip. I didn’t think either of these were that impressive but it is a nice stop off to stretch your legs.

As our campsite was only a 10 min drive to Curio Bay we headed to Curioscape to see the worlds largest fossilised forest. This is a 170 million year old Petrified Forest where you can walk down along the waterfront to where the fossilised trees remain, or check out one of the lookouts.

From the Curioscape you can also take a short 15 minute walk through the Living forest, walk down to Porpoise Bay for a swim and a chance to see the local hector dolphins or come back in the evening to see the yellow-eyed penguins return home from sea. All the amenities here are completely free which is a big bonus, there is also a great cafe/ restaurant which has free wi-fi too.

The next day we stopped off at Cathedral Caves. This only opens for 2-3 hours a day and the times varying depending on when the tide is out. We had missed it the first day so we made sure to be there first thing the next morning. Entry is $5 per person and the walk takes about an hour return.

You’ll walk down through the forest before making your way across the beach and into the caves. There are five different caves that you can walk through and they are amazing. It’s such a unique place; beach, forest and enormous caves! I thought this might be really busy but because the caves are so spaced out and large it never felt crowded.

We spent about a half hour walking through all the caves before making our way back to the car. From here we stopped off at Waipohatu where we did a short 30 min loop track through the forest (there is also an option to do a longer 3 hour loop here) before making our way down to Slope Point which is the most southern point of the South Island.

From here we made our way towards Invercargill.

Invercargill

Where we stayed: We ended up staying about a 20 min drive outside Invercargill in a small town called Winton as there was a large freedom campsite there. This was a great site right in the center of the town with clean flushing toilets across the road. There was a New World beside us as well as a nice pub across the road – which we may have ended up having far too many drinks in.

What we did: I really want to find something good to say about Invercargill but honestly I don’t have any. There is quite literally nothing to do here. We ended up bumping into some of our friends and the only thing we managed to find to do was go for some lunch and a beer. Every shop seemed to be either run down, closed down or empty. We were there on a sunny Saturday and the city was a complete ghost town – it was actually creepy how few people were around. The only thing we did worth mentioning was the Aviary in the park which is free and home to some beautiful native birds.

This is a fine stop off to break up the drive between the Catlins and the Fiordlands but if you’re stuck for time I recommend skipping it.

Fiordlands

Where we stayed: There is no shortage of DOC campsites throughout the national park however none of them are free any longer. There is a $13 charge per person. In the DOC sites you only have a drop toilet so for a few extra dollars I think it’s worth booking into a campsite. Because we had to pay anyway we decided to pay a little extra and go to Gunns Campsite which was $20 per person. For this you had a kitchen, bathrooms and showers – which you’ll definitely need if you intend doing any of the hikes in the area. Just as we arrived in the Fiordlands the rain started and it didn’t stop at all for three days. There ended up being 0.8m of rain falls in 48 hours which resulted in massive flooding everywhere – in fact we woke up at 7am to see the banks of the river beside us had burst and the water was almost level with the floor of our car! Luckily we could move to a higher part of the camp and were able to just sit in the kitchen area to keep warm and dry for a couple of days.

What we did: We really wanted to do the Key Summit track which is a 3 hour return walk unfortunately due to the flooding a lot of the tracks, including this one, were closed off as they were deemed unsafe.

We did complete the hike to Lake Marian. This is a 3 hour return hike up through forestry to the lake which is suspended in the center of a hanging valley. There is also a 20 min return walk to a viewing platform at the start where you can see the falls. This was tough track made harder due to the volume of rain the area had gotten. You’ll have to climb up rocks, go through a lot of muddy areas and some streams that are a little above ankle deep. Luckily we had waterproof hiking boots but we met others in trainers who were very wet and miserable.

A must do in the area is the Mirror Lake Walk. This is a short 10min loop down to the viewing platform by the lakefront. We had a beautiful clear day and the reflection off the lakes was incredible.

Another nice short walk is the Chasm Walk. This is on your way to Milford Sound and is a 20 min return loop to a footbridge over the Cleddau river. The power of the water here has sculpted the rocks into some amazing shapes.

Milford Sound

Where we stayed: I was really looking forward to Milford because Richie always raved about it. Because of this we decided to splash out and stay in the Milford Sound Lodge for two nights. Warning this is EXPENSIVE. There is only one campsite in the area and it’ll set you back $60 a night. It is an incredible site and the facilities were so new and well maintained that it was like staying in a hotel. Surprisingly, there were very few sandflies in the site too which was a nice break.

What we did: On the recommendation of a friend we booked in to do the Go Orange Kayak and Cruise which costs $199 each. Go Orange were running a deal in March such that any Kayak and Cruise booking also got a free 25 min jet boat ride in Queenstown worth $79.

There was only 3 of us doing the 3 hour kayak with one of the guides which made it even better. You’re each given a thermal top, leggings, jumper, beanie and lifejacket. We spent the couple of hours paddling out to Bowen Falls and throughout the sound where our incredible guide gave us the history of the area, facts about the local wildlife and even some of the local Maori legends. The guide was so funny and friendly that it made the three hours fly by.

After you get back the guide will drop you to the terminal so you can hop on the two hour cruise. This will bring you right out to the ocean giving you breathtaking views of the sound. If you have the chance, do the kayak and cruise, you don’t need any kayaking experience or a very high level of fitness but it gives you a completely different perspective of Milford Sound that you can’t get with the cruise alone. If you only have time for the cruise they cost about $55 each for two hours and are a good way of making the most of your time here.

There are a couple of shorts walks in the area that you can do. Head up to the Milford Lookout which is a short 10 min climb up a series of stairs where you can get some great views of the harbour.

The Milford Foreshore walk is a 20 min walk from the campsite and brings you right up along the waterfront. There are some great views here but have your repellent ready because it’s sandfly heaven.

Milford Sound is a must see place for anyone visiting New Zealand no matter how long or short you have here. I think it’s up there with Mount Cook as one of my favourite places I’ve been to!

Be sure to check out the final Part Five: West Coast here next week!

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