The walkway to the Catlins' Nugget Point lighthouse.
The walkway to the Catlins' Nugget Point lighthouse. Jill Worrall

Discovering a forgotten nugget of NZ

IT was not exactly a perfect summer's day. The hail was being hurled so hard by the southerly wind it hurt. We huddled under flapping flax that perched on a cliff-side path overlooking the sea and waited for the storm to pass.

Eventually the clouds rolled north and shafts of sun struck the Pacific and glistened on the small drifts of hail storms at our feet. We emerged from our temporary shelter to resume the walk to the Nugget Point lighthouse, south of Dunedin.

The lighthouse, which was still manned up until 1989, was built in 1869-70. Back then there was a thriving port, Port Molyneux, at the mouth of the Clutha River.

The coastline was a dangerous one, including at nearby Nugget Point where a saw-toothed jumble of rocks lay ready to ensnare sailing ships caught in heavy seas and gales.

As the wind continued to hurl icy cold drops of rain at us even as the hail storm swept away across the ocean it was only too easy to imagine a ship being dashed against the rocks below us.

The walk to the lighthouse crosses the razorback neck of land that falls away steeply on both sides. Below us, on the southern side, was a small crescent of pebbly beach strewn with driftwood.

Twenty years ago a Department of Conservation ranger had somehow persuaded me to climb down this cliff for a privileged close-up view of several enormous elephants seals that hauled up on the beach. Looking over the precipice now I could remember several terrifying moments on the way down and then hauling myself up the cliff again afterwards.

Two decades ago it was mostly only Otago and Southland locals who knew about the Nuggets (and the Catlins in general) - and even then they only seemed to visit by the handful.

On this, my latest trip, I was rather taken aback to find a sealed car park full of cars and campervans, toilets and information panels.

From this vantage point we could see seal pups frolicking in a pool that had formed in a cleft between the rocks that were being battered by foaming, white-capped waves. The wind whistled around the stumpy white lighthouse above us and tugged at our rain jackets. On the leeward side a few shags and shearwaters wheeled in the stormy air beside their perches on the cliffs.

Nugget Point is the northern gateway to the Catlins, where hills are still clad in native forest and empty beaches of pale golden sand end in rocky headlands and wave-battered cliffs.

Shared by both Otago and Southland provinces, the Catlins was, when I lived down south, a forgotten corner of New Zealand. Today the secret is out, although judging by the summer visitors I encountered it is mostly overseas tourists who have been venturing off State Highway One to discover it.

Inland and to the south of the Nuggets is Owaka, the Catlins' only township. When I was dispatched here from Balclutha up the road as a totally untrained reporter I was told "half the population bends at the knees (in the local Presbyterian church) and half bends their elbows (at the pub)".

I don't know if this was ever true but this had been an area where moves to preserve what remained of the native forest after decades of milling were regarded with widespread suspicion.

Today you can get a latte in the Catlins and you're likely to hear more German than English on the tracks through the rimu, totara and southern rata.

As I led our visitors through the forest to view the Purakaunui Falls and stopped to watch two tomtits darting through the trees, I remembered interviewing a farmer about why he was determined to cut down the remaining stand of podocarp forest on his land.

"My dad took me out with the chainsaw to clear the land and I want my lad to be able to do the same," he told me as he viewed a muddy wasteland of hillside he'd just finished clearfelling.

Three or four fantails were flitting among the stumps.

"The greenies say there won't be any birds... just look over there... still plenty here..."

Today he's probably got a backpackers lodge and is running ecotours.

The Purakaunui Falls cascade picturesquely 20 metres down over three tiers of rock. They often cause a few moments of déjà vu among Kiwis on their first visit as these falls are some of the most photographed in the country.

The gravel road from the falls winds south from to meet the sea again just south of Papatowai.

Just a few kilometres before the junction there's an opening through the feathery ranks of rimu. Beyond this the Tahakopa River ends its journey to the sea in an estuary flanked with forest.

On the northern bank the remains of camps used by Maori on hunting trips for seals and even moa, have been found.

There are also traces of the road used by stage coaches - before a proper road was built Tahakopa Beach was the main land access route to this area.

Many motorists drive past the entrance to the beach on the southern bank of the river at Papatowai, which probably suits the locals just fine. But the coastline here is the Catlins at its most beautiful.

The remote, lonely sands of Tahakopa Bay stretch to the north. The cliffs at the end of the bay were hazy with spray from the still heavy seas stirred up by the passing southerly.

We walked south along the beach picking up slivers of paua while a family of black oyster catchers hurried over the sand to feed among the rock pools left behind by the ebbing tide.

Note: Travel thought the Catlins is along the Southern Scenic Route, which begins in Queenstown and ends 610km later in Dunedin, passing through Te Anau and western Southland on its way. The Catlins section is most easily accessed from either Invercargill in the south or Balclutha in the north.

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