4 – 6 April 2010, New Zealand
On Easter Sunday, we headed out of Riverton and toward the Catlins on New Zealand’s south eastern coast. Along the way, we passed through a couple of places that had a ghost town like feeling to them as nearly everything was closed for the holiday. We were undeterred by the lack of available services as our focus for the next couple of days was wildlife viewing and coastal scenery. By now everyone is probably tired of hearing about the weather but it must be said that, unlike our time on the west coast, our two day road trip through the Catlins took place under sunny blue skies!
A bit off the beaten track, the Catlins are known for rolling hills, rugged coastline and an abundance of animals such as penguins, seals and sea lions. Filled with high expectations, we twisted and turned along the coastal scenic route that runs directly through the Catlins. With every bend in the road, we were bombarded with amazing views. Rolling hills covered in fluffy white sheep could often be seen on one side of the road while empty beaches stretched out on the other. To top it all off, short walks leading to beautiful waterfalls and other scenic overlooks were plentiful. Despite all of the beauty and the abundant wildlife, we ran into very few people.
One of our primary motivations for visiting the Catlins was the expectation that we might see a Hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin). Hoiho’s are the world’s rarest penguins and can only be found in New Zealand. The best time to catch a glimpse of them is during sunset and we managed to time our arrival at the viewing hut perfectly. Within minutes of arriving, a penguin strolled out of the water and made its way across the sand. Over the course of the next hour, several more penguins appeared. One by one, they made their way across the sand until they were all congregating in a small circle. Despite the monotony of their actions, we couldn’t take our eyes off of them. As the sun went down, the temperature started to drop. Simultaneously, four noisy tourists showed up, ruining the tranquility of the experience. Interpreting that as our cue to move on, we reluctantly headed back to the car.
Unable to fit everything into our two day road trip through the Catlins, we never made it to the beach where sea lions are often found basking in the sun. A quick search through the guidebook reveled they are often seen in the Otago Peninsula, a couple of hours north of the Catlins and essentially on the way to Dunedin where we had booked a hostel for the night. Motivated by the possibility of seeing these impressive looking creatures, we drove out of the Catlins early the next morning. Time was at a premium as we only had two full days left in the country and there were plenty of things we still wanted to do.
Once we reached the Otago Peninsula, we headed straight for Sandfly Bay. Strong winds greeted us as we stepped out of the car, eyes fixated on the beach below. From our vantage point, no sea lions were visible but we decided to hike down to the beach anyway. This was a good move on our part as we ended up seeing four sea lions! The first one caught me a little off guard as it looked like a giant rock from a distance but its features become more defined as we approached. Heeding the advice we had been given, we maintained a safe distance from the animals. Despite their large size and the awkwardness of their movements, they are apparently quite fast and, when provoked, have been known to chase people up the sand dunes, teeth bared and not afraid to use them. After being entertained by the sea lions for a couple of hours, we finally had our fill so we trekked back up the beach to our car.
Having realized just how much the Otago Peninsula has to offer, we felt torn between our desire to spend more time exploring the area and the multitude of activities in Dunedin. It was a tough decision, but since we had spent the majority of our time in New Zealand exploring the outdoors, we chose to leave the Peninsula behind and head into the city.