The rugged coastal route linking Dunedin and Invercargill is one of the less-travelled highways on the South Island, traversing some of the country’s wildest scenery along the Catlins Coast. It is part of the Southern Scenic Route (w southernscenicroute.co.nz), which continues on to Te Anau in Fiordland.
The region is home to swathes of native forest, most protected as the Catlins State Forest Park, consisting of rimu, rata, kamahi and silver beech. Roaring southeasterlies and the remorseless sea have shaped the coastline into plunging cliffs, windswept headlands, white-sand beaches, rocky bays and gaping caves, many of which are accessible. Wildlife abounds, including several rare species of marine bird and mammal, and the whole region rings with birdsong most of the year.
The best way to enjoy the Catlins Coast is to invest at least a couple of days and take it easy. From Nugget Point in South Otago (just southeast of Balclutha) to Waipapa Point in Southland (60km northeast of Invercargill), the wild scenery stretches unbroken, dense rainforest succumbing to open scrub as you cut through deep valleys and past rocky bays, inlets and estuaries. The coast is home to penguins (both blue and yellow-eyed), dolphins, several species of seabird and, at certain times of year, migrating whales. Elephant seals, fur seals, and increasingly, the rare New Zealand sea lion are found on the sandy beaches and grassy areas, and birds – tui, resonant bellbirds, fantails and grey warblers – are abundant in the mossy depths of the forest. Even colourful rarities such as kakariki and mohua can be seen if you’re patient.
The Catlins, one of the last refuges of the flightless moa, was a thriving hunting ground for Maori but by 1700 they had moved on, to be supplanted by European whalers and sealers in the 1830s. Two decades later, having decimated marine mammal stocks, they too departed. Meanwhile, in 1840, Captain Edward Cattlin arrived to investigate the navigability of the river that bears his (misspelt) name, purchasing a tract of land from the chief of the Ngai Tahu. Boatloads of loggers soon followed, lured by the great podocarp forests. Cleared valleys were settled and bush millers supplied Dunedin with much of the wood needed for housing – in 1872 more timber was exported from the Catlins than anywhere else in New Zealand. From 1879 the rail line from Balclutha began to extend into the region, bringing sawmills, schools and farms with it. Milling continued into the 1930s, but gradually dwindled and today’s tiny settlements are shrunken remnants of the once-prosperous logging industry.