The Catlins – Waterfalls, Hikes, & Cathedral Caves

The Catlins is a once forgotten area along the Southern Scenic Highway, that offers a tucked away experience off the beaten track. There is so much to do in this area, you have to intentionally take your time. We however packed it all into a single day, we did 5-hikes, saw two waterfalls, were up for a very uneventful sunrise, and even ticked Cathedral Cave off the NZ bucket list.

Nugget Point Sunrise

Our adventures began before daybreak, breaking down the tent the in the dark and heading to Nugget Point, a lighthouse on one of the most rugged cliff breaks in New Zealand.

A short 900m walk opens into the views of the lighthouse keeping a protective watch over the Southern Ocean. It was the first time I have laid eyes on the Southern Ocean and the closest I have been to Antarctica, the top of my bucket list.

Glancing over the edge you can see jagged islets known as the Nuggets, that practically point the way to Antarctica. It was a frigid morning in mid summer, but sunrise shots are always worth it. Or so I thought, but the sun never “rose”, it just sort of got lighter out. I snapped a couple shots and admitted defeat. We headed back to the car park, made some coffee, and took off down the coastal highway only for the sky to open up and the perfect lighting to rain down through breaks in the cloud. As a photographer I was kicking myself for admitting defeat too soon, and missing the shot I came for, but I still managed to capture the light, and added another next time to the list.

Purakaunui Falls Hike

Continuing down our list of hot spots to hike, next on the list was Purakaunui Falls. We were told if we only see one waterfall in the Catlins, as there are MANY, that this was the one to see. An easy 15-minute stroll through the words leads to a high reward view of a three tiered beauty. The weather was pretty terrible on the day we visited, and being so south, jumping in didn’t seem quite worth it. A stop in summer would warrant a dip for sure!

Accidentally happening upon The Lost Gypsy Gallery was a lucky accident for us. Self-declared as an “Adult Playground” there were so many curious creations and interactive art pieces created by Blair Sommerville since 1999. Blair has said he struggles with what to call himself but that a rustic automator, an organic mechanic, and tinkerer all come close. It is hard to describe what this treasure truly is, so I’ll just let Blair do it himself with his video I borrowed from his website found on the link above. Also they make great coffee and have some fun pranks installed, like a sign that says don’t touch this button and then rewards anyone who does touch the button with an unexpected surprise.

Lake Wilkie

Just past the Lost Gypsy lies Lake Wilkie, a lake that formed in the last Ice Age! It’s another easy walk with a great view over the lake. At this point in our day we were killing time between sunrise and low tide for Cathedral Cove, but it was a beautiful spot.

McLean Falls

When we arrived at the gates of Cathedral Cove, to find it closed until low tide, we decided to go for a bit of a real hike across the street to McLean Falls. The hills roll the whole 40 minutes to and from McLean Falls, but overall you get a lot more than you have to give with your energy. The cascading falls were roaring from a bit of recent rain, and we sat an enjoyed the view before heading back to the car park to get to our final destination.

Cathedral Caves

I had heard about the Cathedral Caves for a long time, and though there were a lot of people in the parking lot, on the hike, and in the caves there were still moments of solitude. Most were quiet and respectful of being in side a cave that carried noise well, and people walked slowly and took it all in. We even managed to snap a photo looking like we were the only ones there.

Resting on the east coast, if a low tide ever coincided with a sunrise, I think that would be the icing on the cake for this location, especially as less people tend to get up early just for the right light. Overall it was a cool sight to see, and definitely worth the stop, but it was a bit crowded.

After the hardest hike of the day straight up a hill back to the car park, we continued on the coast for our resting place of Curio Bay. Sadly the rain was falling so hard that we really only slept, ate, and packed up to head to Invercargill and missed Curio Bay all together minus the camp sight. We were ready for a break from the unrelenting rain, so I’m a bit sad we missed Curio Bay as I have heard great things!