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Having explored some of Invercargill's delights, it's time to head for the coast. It's about an hour's drive from Invercargill out to Curio Bay. Most of the drive is through lush, green Southland farming country. If you find your caffeine levels dropping or - depending on the season - the whitebaiters' stands along the way have you craving a whitebait fritter, plan to stop at Niagara Falls Cafe, as they're a specialty of the house. While the falls haven't got anything on their American namesake, the cafe is a one-off. Based in a renovated rural schoolhouse, it showcases local produce, excellent old-fashioned baking and local crafts.
If you're heading through later in the day (and you haven't already had your deep-fried hit in Invercargill), then Blue Cod Blues, a cute converted caravan serving excellent fish 'n' chips just around the corner in Waikawa, will be a very welcome sight. From here, it's a short drive around the Waikawa Harbour to the township of Curio Bay.
While this is a bit of a diversion off the main road to The Catlins, it's an absolute must-visit spot. There are two main reasons for that. One is to be found in Porpoise Bay, the other just over the hill in Curio Bay.
The dolphins tend to be around in summer, but if you're at the bay in winter, there's a good chance you'll see fur seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins.
Speaking of penguins, a good place to spot them coming in from sea in the evening is over at Curio Bay. Even if you're not on penguin patrol, Curio Bay is a fascinating spot. It's home to an extensive fossil forest dating back to Jurassic times. Yep, that's right back to before New Zealand didn't exist and Gondwana was still a thing.
The reason you can still see the fossilised tree trunks is that they were flooded by volcanic debris four times over about 20,000 years. This has left visible bands of tree stumps in the cliff face at the bay. You can even see ferns and leaves in the rocks in places, giving you a real sense of the deep history of this part of the country.
Once you've had your fill of pondering how small you are in the big scheme of things, get back on the road and head back through Waikawa to the Chaslands Highway turnoff. This is where you hit The Catlins proper. From here, the road gets a bit more windy as it climbs and drops through The Catlins Conservation Park. After about 30 minutes, you'll come across the Whistling Frog Cafe, an ecofriendly cafe and bar that offers great food and has plenty of accommodation options.
If the tides aren't playing the game, crack on to nearby Tautuku. Here you've got a great choice of excellent short walks. There's the Tautuku estuary walkway, which is kind of self-explanatory; there's Lake Wilkie; and there's Tautuku Beach, all of which highlight different aspects of this beautiful coastline. If you're not feeling particularly athletic, keep driving and watch out for the Florence Hill Lookout as you wind your way up the hill just north of Tautuku. Pull in there and be prepared to lose your breath just looking at the view of the coastline.
Ten minutes north of Tautuku is the tiny township of Papatowai, home to the world-famous Lost Gypsy Gallery. This place is so great that we made a special trip back to the township, having driven through too late the previous night. (Just be aware that the place is closed between late April and late October, but if you're passing by it's still worth stopping and checking out the letterbox and a few other sculptures visible from the road.)
Leaving the little township, you cross a long one-lane bridge over the Tahakopa River and head north. From here, most intersections have signs pointing towards Purakaunui Falls. It's about a 15-minute diversion off the main road, but there's a reason all roads lead to the falls - they are spectacular. In fact, they're so impressive that you'll probably have seen the three-tiered 20m falls in numerous New Zealand pictorial calendars. The 20-minute walk from the car park to the falls is a relatively easy one through native bush. A bit of insect repellent can come in handy, especially if it has been raining; the sandflies around here can get pretty big.
Owaka is the main supply town for the area so has a number of shops, a couple of cafes and a pub. The one thing you won't want to miss is the wonderful (and slightly bonkers) Teapotland. Local man Graham Renwick started the display of teapots in his front garden about 12 years ago, and from there it has just continued to grow.
A blackboard just inside the gate records the current number of pots in Graham's collection, which is growing all the time. Even for the most hardened coffee drinker, this place is utterly intriguing.
From Owaka it's a 20-minute drive out to the coast and the small township of Kaka Point on the shores of Molyneux Bay. Kaka Point is possibly best known as the home of poet Hone Tuwhare, who lived here from 1992 until his death in 2008. His crib is in the process of being turned into a writer's residence.
On the wall of the local Point Cafe is Hone's honorary doctorate from the University of Otago. The cafe is a great place to have a meal, drink a couple of beers with the locals and watch the sun set over the sea.
If you haven't crammed quite enough into your day, make your way to nearby Nugget Point to watch from well-concealed hides as the rare yellow-eyed penguins come in from a day at sea, then watch the light of the local lighthouse sweep its way across the dangerous rocky coastline.
If you get to Nugget Point earlier in the day, the walk out to the lighthouse rewards with magical views out across a string of eroded rocks called The Nuggets, which are a big part of the reason the lighthouse was built here. The coast along here is home to a fur seal colony and elephant seals are also known to stop in from time to time.
Owaka is home to one of my favourite public toilets anywhere in the country - and certainly the only one I've ever been to that has a visitors book to record the comments of passers-by. Why? Because the walls inside each of the toilet blocks are covered in tiles that have been decorated by local schoolchildren. Each drawing reflects something of its artist and their life, so they range from coastal scenes, to tractors, to sheep, to friends playing. They're an absolutely brilliant reflection of the local community and a great reason to tarry over having a pee!
Invercargill to Kaka Point
- Distance: 180km
- Driving time: 2 hours 35 mins
- Road: Sealed all the way, but plenty of windy bits, a heap of one-lane bridges and, if you’re really lucky, maybe even the odd seal wandering past.
- Highlights: Discovering one of the country’s best rural coffee spots in the form of Niagara Falls Cafe; watching endangered dolphins frolic in Porpoise Bay; hearing the laughter that emanates from the Lost Gypsy Gallery; walking to Purakaunui Falls; being bamboozled by the extent of the teapot collection at Teapotland.
Let’s Get Lost: Great New Zealand Road Trips, by Nicola McCloy, published by Random House New Zealand, $45.