New Zealand – Invercargill to Dunedin

After the scenic excesses of Fiordland, its was almost a mental relief to head towards Bluff – the southernmost town in NZ. The land flattened out, the roads became straighter, and more farmland appeared. There were a large number of fields with herds of deer, along with the expected cows and sheep, so I assume that venison is a common meat although I hadn’t seen it on menus that often. Of course, with my backpacker diet of noodles, bread, and cheap burgers, I will concede that I wasn’t familiar with the menus in nice restaurants…
Bluff was… hmmm… a bit of a nothing town. It has a large port (serving Stewart Island, and Antarctica amongst other places), but beyond that it has little to recommend itself. I took a few pictures from the lookout point (including the aluminium smelting plant which uses the majority of the electricity generated by the hydroelectric plant at Manapouri), then headed back up to Invercargill, the nearest city. Again, not a place to inspire a thousand words (let alone a hundred), though its museum was very good. A night at a pretty peculiar but cosy hostel (hot tub, rabbits in the garden, decorated with a clear love of Nimbim), then I headed into the Catlins.

The Catlins is an area of gently rolling hills, farmland, and rugged coastline interspersed with wide sandy beaches. I planned on a gentle drive through, with stops at a few beaches and waterfalls, aiming to get to Dunedin by evening. Two of my planned stops were closed by landslides (McLean Falls and Cathedral Caves), however the other places I visited definitely made up for them. Slope Point is the southernmost tip of mainland New Zealand, heralded by the apparently obligatory signpost – this one only pointing north to the equator and south to the South Pole (5140km and 4803km respectively, for the curious). Curio Bay had a fascinating rocky beach covered with petrified wood – it was very strange to see what appears to be tree trunks sticking out of stone, some even with the apparent original colouring. Further on, the Purukaunui Falls made for a nice hour walk through the forest.

The highlight of the day, however, was Cannibal Bay. This beach, a 20km drive down a narrow dirt track, was a bit of a chance. The Lonely Planet mentioned it in passing as somewhere you could see sea lions, and wanting to take a few photos (and realising that I was ahead of schedule) I took a chance on it. Despite a really slow driver ahead of me (I stopped off for five minutes and still caught up with him well before the beach), I arrived in a positive frame of mind. I have found that windy hillside dirt tracks are great for perking you up! At the beach, two minutes walk from the tiny car park (space for two) I found a sea lion having a snooze. Signs by the road warned you to keep at least 10m from sea lions, so I gave him a wide berth – though he seemed far too lazy to bother being aggressive. There were a few other sea lions down the beach, all looking cosy in the sandpits they’d dug for themselves. I had been at the bay for about an hour and was about to head off, but fancied a quick scramble over the rocks to see if I could find anything else. I must have been concentrating on my footing a bit too much, and not really looking in front of me, as I suddenly came across a penguin standing about 15ft away! He seemed quite happy to pose for photos, so I managed to take around 100 of him. I later discovered that he was a Yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest breeds in the world with only 4000 of them around – quite a find!

After a while, I backtracked, avoided the sea lions on the beach, and headed back to the car. There, I found that the sign warning to keep 10m away from sea lions also said that you should keep 50-100m from penguins – oops! Never mind, the day had been amazing, and it seemed all to soon before I was rolling into Dunedin, nearing the final stage of my time in NZ.

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