The southern part of the South Island is not the most famous region of New Zealand, but it should definitely be part of your itinerary. Beautiful beaches, rugged coast and waterfalls are on the program, as well as a very rich and friendly wildlife. From Dunedin to Invercargill, come meet dolphins, albatross, sea lions, penguins and many more. Who knows, you might even be lucky enough to spot a kiwi?
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Depending if you’re going South or North, Dunedin will be either the beginning or the end of this road trip. But the second biggest city of the South Island is not just a place to fill your tank or do your groceries shopping: it’s also a really nice town with a surprisingly rich street art everywhere around the city center. A trail has been designed to lead you to 30 beautiful murals. It will take you about one hour and a half and you’ll get to see some really cool paintings (see my pictures below). Find more details here and simply get a free map from the iSite.
Two more attractions can be found in Dunedin: the beautiful railway station (picture on the right) and more unexpected, the officially steepest street in the world! Called Baldwin Street, it’s located in the north-eastern suburbs of Dunedin. With a maximal inclination of 35% it’s really impressive to walk (or drive if you dare) to the top. There you’ll see a sign paying tribute to the performance of Iain Clark who supposedly roller skated up (!!!) Baldwin Street and “into History” in 1988…
You could easily combine a visit of Dunedin and a drive around the Otago Peninsula in one day. Head East of the city and follow Portobello Road first. It’s a great drive directly next to the ocean but be careful though: one missed turn and you would end up in the water!
At the end of the Otago Peninsula you’ll find the Royal Albatross Center. They provide many different guided tours (starting from 25$) to learn more about the Northern Royal Albatross colony living there, but for me observing (for free) these majestic birds flying above the car park was enough.
On your way back to Dunedin, take now Highcliff Road to climb up the hills of the peninsula. The view from both sides is really gorgeous.
Last but not least, drive down to Sandfly Bay from Highcliff Road. Luckily the name isn’t really accurate and you shouldn’t find too many sandflies here… but maybe penguins instead! It’s one of the best places of the South Island to observe the yellow-eyed penguin (the biggest of the species living there) at the end of the afternoon when they come back to rest for the night. Don’t forget to stay way ahead of them (at least 100m) as they are afraid of human presence. Volunteers from the DOC will be on the beach to remind you to step back but also to let them use their binoculars.
The Catlins is the vast region starting after Balclutha and ending before Invercargill. With its many attractions it will take two days to explore it properly.
Coming from the North, the first stop will be at the very picturesque Nuggets Point. Imagine a lighthouse set on the top of a rocky spur overlooking rocks scattered around the ocean, below huge cliffs and often seals sunbathing on the shore: sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
Second stop: the peaceful Surat Bay. This beach seems to be forgotten by many tourists as it was very quiet when I went there but it’s an absolutely must-do of the Catlins and one of my greatest memories of New Zealand: getting very close to enormous sea lions.
From the tiny car park it takes about 15 minutes’ walk to get to the beach. Sea lions can be seen any time of the year, sleeping on the sand, coming back from the ocean or posing for a picture like the one above! When I went there, there were even two little pups playing with their mother. It was an incredible feeling to stand that close to these giant animals (males can weigh more than 500kg). The only restriction is to stay at least 10 meters away, but human presence doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
The most famous spot of the Catlins is called Curio Bay. In this one place, you can see a unique fossilised forest (at low tide only), sea lions on the beach, yellow-eyed penguins or the very rare Hector’s dolphins. If you’re swimming or kayaking in the bay these curious animals will probably come closer to say hello, but remember that they are wild dolphins so don’t try to chase them for a selfie.
Close to Curio Bay, drive to Slope Point, southernmost point of the South Island. Apart from Stewart Island (see below), the immense ocean in front of you is empty of any land until Antarctica and you’re closer to the South Pole than to the Equator.
More things that can be seen in the Catlins include waterfalls (my favourite was McLean fall, see also Purakaunui and Matai falls), an ancient railway tunnel from the late 19th/early 20th century and the lighthouse of Waipapa Point, a part of the coast which is so windswept that trees grow up horizontally! Finally, another popular spot is Cathedral Cave (private property, entry costs 5$) but only visible at low tide so I unfortunately didn’t go there myself.
Invercargill marks the end (or the beginning) of the Catlins. Contrary to Dunedin at the other side, this city doesn’t have that much touristic interest. Neither does Bluff: apart from a selfie next to the yellow sign at the official end of highway 1, the only reason to go to Bluff is to take the ferry to Stewart Island. I can’t tell you much about it as it wasn’t on my itinerary but it’s apparently the only place in New Zealand where you might see kiwis during the day.
This is how this road trip on the South-East of the South Island ends. From unique wildlife to beautiful coastline, it has a lot to offer and was a very good surprise for me. Don’t hesitate to share your favourite memories of Dunedin and the Catlins in the comments!
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