The Catlins – best sunrise spot on the South Island

Nugget Point

After spending some time on the west coast, around Queenstown, and the stunning Fiordlands, we headed down to the southernmost region of the South Island, to the Catlins Forest Park.

Slope Point

Our first stop in the Catlins was Slope Point, which marks the southernmost point of the South Island. A short 10 minute walk brought us to the point, and we expected some sort of cool marker or maybe a lighthouse, something to note the relevance of it. While Bluff, a nearby point that’s often mistaken as the southernmost point has a big sign showing distances from other reference points, Slope Point only has a kind of sad looking sign mentioning its significance. A bit disappointed, we headed onward further into the Catlins.

Slope Point
The less than impressive sign at Slope Point
Slope Point
Some sheep watching us while we walked toward Slope Point

Porpoise Bay

We had heard that if we got lucky, we might be able to see Hector’s dolphins surfing in the waves along the beach in Porpoise Bay and see some rare yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay right next to it. First we checked out the petrified forest at Curio Bay. A few dozen tree trunks had been petrified at the bay by lava activities in the past. Even though we went at low tide, like recommended, we didn’t find the petrified forest too impressive, it was hard to make out the remains of trees and most of the trunks were small and didn’t protrude out of the ground, so it didn’t look like a forest at all. Curio Bay is also famous for its yellow-eyed penguins. These penguins are indigenous to New Zealand and considered the most endangered penguin species in the world, with only 4,000 estimated to be left. They mostly come on land during dusk and dawn, and as we got there in the afternoon, we didn’t spot any at Curio Bay.

We decided to move on to Porpoise Bay and try our luck there. We had just parked our car and were looking over the long beach, when a guy waved at us and indicated we should come down to the beach. We quickly headed down a short slope to the beach and then we saw why the guy was waving: a pair of Yellow-eyed penguins was standing right there on the beach. We couldn’t believe our luck! The pair didn’t seem disturbed at all by the people around it and didn’t move an inch when people walked by.

Yellow-eyed penguin
One of the yellow-eyed penguins at Porpoise Bay
Yellow-eyed Penguins
They weren’t bothered at all by our presence.

We hung out with the penguins for a bit when we noticed that other people a ways further down the beach kept pointing at the waves and taking pictures. We decided to walk down there and get a closer look. Luck turned out to be on our side again, as we spotted a bunch of Hector’s Dolphins in the waves quite close to shore.

Hector's Dolphins
The group of Hector’s Dolphins was surfing in the waves

Hector’s Dolphins are one of the smallest dolphin species and can only be found in New Zealand. The dolphins seemed to be having a blast surfing in the waves. While we kept watching them, a couple of people arrived with wetsuits on and headed straight into the water in the hope to swim with the dolphins. You’re not supposed to approach them, but if the dolphins come close to you its fine to swim with them. At first the people were struggling to find the dolphins and suddenly a huge seal swam straight at them showing its teeth. They had to back up for a bit until the seal got bored and swam off. We went for a walk along the beach and when we came back we saw that the dolphins had finally gone super close to the people in the water. If we would have had wetsuits or on a warmer day (it was very cold), we would definitely also have gone in.

Hector's dolphins
It was so cool to see the dolphins that close to shore – only swimming with them would have been better.

In total we spent a good couple hours at Porpoise Bay as it was hard to pull ourselves away from the dolphins and penguins. After the disappointing visit to Curio Bay, our experience at Porpoise Bay definitely had made up for it.

McLean & Purakaunui Falls

Our second day in the Catlins we decided to check out the waterfalls in the area. There are quite a few to choose from, but the most popular are McLean Falls and Purakaunui Falls. We headed to McLean Falls first. From the parking lot it was a 20 minute walk through the forest to the falls. The falls are 22 meters high and composed of one big drop and numerous smaller ones. The pool of the main fall looked beautiful and would probably be a nice spot to refresh in summer, but the day we went it was cold and rainy.

McLean Falls
McLean Falls were beautiful even in the rain and easy to access

From McLean Falls we drove 20 minutes or so to Purakaunui Falls. There had been quite a few people and a group of school kids at McLean Falls, and when we got to Purakaunui Falls we were greeted with the familiar sight of a big tour bus in the parking lot. The walk to Purakaunui Falls is only ten minutes, so as with many easily accessible attractions, people were showing up in droves. The falls aren’t as high as McLean Falls, but being wider and the water falling down a few big steps, it looked beautiful. Despite it being spring and very rainy, the water level wasn’t very high, but I can imagine it’s even more impressive when it is.

Purakaunui Falls
Purakaunui Falls looked really nice despite its size.

Cathedral Caves

We had read about some impressive sea caves in the Catlins that were only accessible within two hours either side of low tide, so we waited for the tide to go out and went to check them out. As access to Cathedral Caves is via private land, the owner charges $5 per person to visit. We paid the fee and starting walking toward the beach. After about 20 minutes we got to the cave. The tide was just starting to go out, so the entrance to the cave was still partially under water and we had to climb on some higher rocks to get in.

Cathedral Caves
The entrance to the cave was huge and still partially flooded

Inside the cave the water had mostly retreated, so we could easily walk the 200 meters to the other end. Both ends of the cave led out to the ocean and had large mouths. The cave was almost 30 meters high at some points and pretty impressive. We had been to other sea caves on the North Island before – Mercer Bay Caves being our favorite – and found those were a lot bigger and nicer than Cathedral Caves and unlike these, those were free. Nevertheless, Cathedral Caves are worth checking out if you’re in the Catlins and have a spare hour or so since the walk is about 20 minutes each way and you may spend 15 minutes or so in the caves.

Cathedral Cave
Looking out to the ocean on the other end of Cathedral Caves

Nugget Point

We decided to set an early 4:30am alarm the next morning and catch the sunrise at Nugget Point. Nugget Point has a lighthouse sitting high on a rock overlooking some cool looking rocks sticking out of the ocean below it.

Nugget Point
Just before the sun came up over the Nugget Point Lighthouse.

From the parking lot we headed toward the lighthouse on a short walk just before the sun was starting to rise. We had seen pictures from Nugget Point taken from high up overlooking the lighthouse, so we diverted from the path just before the lighthouse and climbed up a small path on the hill. The climb was pretty steep and is probably not recommend when it’s been raining or wet. Luckily when we visited it was dry, so we ended up climbing all the way up the hill and were rewarded with amazing views.

Nugget Point
The views from the very top of the hill were beautiful and well worth the steep and a bit scary climb.

We enjoyed the views and the sunrise before heading back down. Just before Nugget Point there is another turnoff on the road, to Roaring Bay. At dusk and dawn yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted there, but people aren’t allowed to go down to the beach, you can only view them a small lookout above the beach. We spotted a few quite a ways away, but didn’t bring binoculars so we could only just tell that they were penguins.

The Catlins are a beautiful area in the southernmost part of the South Island and are worth a visit, especially in summer when you might get a chance to swim with Hector’s Dolphins just off the beach for free. Even watching them surfing in the waves from the shore makes the trip worthwhile. Watching a sunrise at Nugget Point was another highlight that shouldn’t be missed.

One Reply to “The Catlins – best sunrise spot on the South Island”

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