One of New Zealand’s finest drives is the Southern Scenic Route, a quiet, meandering road through national parks and tiny villages that encapsulates the best of New Zealand’s natural scenery. Marked by a maroon triangular sign with stylised “S”, the highlight section traverses the little travelled Catlins, a pockmarked coastal path connecting Invercargill and Dunedin. Glittering rugged coastal panoramas, verdant rolling pastures packed with grazing sheep, inspiring short walks, wonderful wildlife and birdlife, unusual geology and picturesque waterfalls litter the isolated route.
Travelling via Slope Point, New Zealand’s southern most mainland point and Curio Bay and its 160 million year old petrified fossil forest, the road cruises through Niagara (with its tiny trickle of a waterfall named by a surveyor with a twisted sense of humour) to a brisk walk and the impressive McLean Falls.
Careful planning (advice to self!) requires arrival at the towering Cathedral Caves near low tide while glorious vistas will tempt you to stop every few minutes for views such as that from Florence Hill Lookout and Tautuku Bay. Even on the sunniest of days, the wind sweeps off the Antarctic Ocean, waves smashing into the cliff lined coast while golden sands make for inviting beaches.
The occasional tiny village, several with tongue-twisting Maori names and none with populations over a few hundred serve the passing traffic and local farmers while sheep luxuriate on emerald green farms dotted with large hay bales (preparing for winter).
Pleasant walks through podocarp forests lead to both the twin Matai and Horseshoe Falls and terraced Purukaunui Falls(lead photo) – the highlight cascades of the area, dappled light offering postcard perfect imagery of this elegant falls.
As the road bends towards the north seeking Dunedin, the road passes Cannibal Bay, Roaring Bay and the unfortunately named Kaka Bay -all names that appropriately conjure harsh weather beaten feelings and ideal locations to seek out the rare yellow-eyed penguin, sea lions, elephant seals or New Zealand fur seals.
Undoubtedly, the best panorama from the area is from Nugget Pointwhere a wind swept cliff-edge path curls past rocky shorelines (watch for seals) towards a lighthouse-topped point. Wonderful coastal scenery abounds while wave-pounded rocks (nuggets) jut proudly from the ocean glistening in the afternoon sunshine.
Well worth the diversion, The Catlins and Southern Scenic Route is a highlight route of twisting narrow roads full of invigorating walks, superb coastal vistas, sweeping beaches, lush isolated forests and a chance to spot fascinating marine life and seabirds.
The Southern Scenic Route website has an excellent 46 page downloadable brochure and ideas for activities and places to visit.