INVERCARGILL, NEW ZEALAND — We started our second Plan B without many expectations, and it felt liberating.
The region known as the Catlins, along New Zealand’s southernmost coastline, isn’t a big tourist attraction — or so we thought. Driving east of Invercargill, we picked up the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, where sheep have one of the best views ever enjoyed by livestock.
Our first stop was the lighthouse at Waipapa Point, built in 1883 after the steamer Tararua sank on an offshore reef and 131 of its passengers died.
The wooden beacon is unusual, with a dome cap topped by a red arrow, and who doesn’t like a lighthouse?
The real attraction are the sea lions who hang out in the tussock grass around the lighthouse and on the sand beach below. There were three when we arrived, a brown bull by himself and a black bull and brown female, and they were all sleeping.
But when a gray pup bounded out of the grass to the pair, the action started, and suddenly a gaggle of tourist materialized, madly taking photos and running for selfie sticks.
We watched the three sea lions for a long time. There was a lot of nipping and snarling and rubbing of necks, and the female was definitely the focus of attention, but we couldn’t figure out the family dynamics.
At first, the bull kept the obnoxious pup at bay, but later mostly let him (it was hard to think of it as a girl) bug his mother as much as he wanted. Or was all that nipping just affection? If only we could carry a little naturalist around in our pockets, to explain these things.
At least we finally understood the difference between sea lions and fur seals. Sea lions have blunt noses and prefer to hang out on beaches, not rocks. And they’re bigger, a lot bigger. When the black bull lion puffed out his massive chest, threw back his head and roared, baring a jaw full of sharp teeth, he looked just like a Tyrannosaurus rex.
A tour bus was trundling down the gravel road as we left. Our next stop was Curio Bay, which is full of rocks that, on closer inspection, we could see were actually petrified tree stumps. They were conifers and palms until heavy rains on ash-covered volcanoes nearby created a muddy river full of silica, which turned the trees to stone within months.
It was fascinating, except the sandflies wanted to turn our legs into bloody stumps. Curio Bay also is a good place to see yellow-eyed penguins and Hector’s dolphins, if you can brave the peskier wildlife.
We stopped for lunch at the busy Niagara Falls Cafe, a sunny little outpost surrounded by roses. That was a treat, since we rarely take time for a sit-down lunch. Beth had the lamb burger with aioli and slaw, and Torsten had the beef burger with aioli, gherkins, smoked cinnamon, tomato salsa, cheese and the beets that seem standard issue on Kiwi burgers.
That was kind of a weird combination, and Beth was glad she’d got the lamb burger but sorry she’d passed up the Stanley Green IPA from Invercargill Brewery for a cappuccino. The cappuccino was the first that wasn’t very good, though it did have the wonderfully marshmallowy, chocolate-flecked foam top that Kiwis do so well.
We turned onto a gravel road to see McLean Falls and were not too surprised to find a car park full of campervans. We weren’t expecting much — we’ve seen so many waterfalls over the years — but as tourists we’re required to stop. It turned out to be a lovely walk through forest to an impressive 72-foot cascade of the Tautuku River straight down a rock wall, with a shorter drop and rapids below that.
Our main stop was right around the corner — Cathedral Caves, which can be visited only during the three-hour window around low tide. We arrived only 15 minutes into the window, and already the 100-car gravel lot was half full.
We paid our $10 to the landowners, walked a kilometer through forest and came out on a gorgeous beach, where a convoy of visitors was tramping across the sand to sea caves set into a rocky headland. It reminded us of the pilgrimage to the mainland Apostle Islands sea caves across the ice of Lake Superior.
Like those sea caves, Cathedral Caves are caused by the erosion of sandstone by waves, but they’re horseshoe-shaped, with two entrances and a 100-foot ceiling. The tide wasn’t quite out of the east entrance, so we sloshed through the water and went back to make another circuit.
We drove as far as Papatowai, which looked like a real town on the map but, like the others on our route, was barely there. It did have a beautiful clump of the tall red-and-yellow torch lilies, also called red hot pokers, that Beth had been admiring on the roadsides.
Then we turned around and headed back to Invercargill on a route that was faster but still scenic, with green hills dotted by grazing lambs. Some were fat and rolypoly, with thick fleeces, but others seemed almost gaunt, with their ribs sticking out — until we realized the “ribs” were the lines recently made by shears.
Back in Invercargill, we stopped by New World Market for deli salads and treats, and settled in for a quiet night at our motel. Beth kicked back with a half-liter of Galbraith’s Special Edition Pale Ale/New American Style, and Torsten had not one, but two bottles of his favorite Bundaberg sparkling fruit soda from Australia: peach and pineapple & coconut.
That’s as wild as we get. Next: a look around Invercargill, then back to Te Anau for two days of kayaking on Doubtful Sound.