There’s no sign of habitation, no other vehicles on the road and no cellphone reception. And when I finally arrive as darkness is falling, I pull snail off the road and into – a bog!
As I step out, my sandals sink into mud. But the van is level, the bay looks beautiful and it turns out I am not alone. A couple of vans and two small tents are already here. So maybe I’ll be staying longer than intended….
After cooking up a stir fry flavoured with Laksa Soup and pondering how I might get inventive with tow ropes and nearby trees in the morning, I drift effortlessly into sleep.
Dawn makes the journey more than worthwhile.
A sliver of moon still hovers as red starts streaking the sky. It’s the start of a light display that just keeps growing in intensity.
I walk into this vastness of light to the sounds of sea break and oyster catcher call.
It is pure magic. And in this part of the New Zealand, magic is in plentiful supply.
There’s a timelessness about the Catlins.
Further South, in Curio Bay you can walk through forest remains that are 170 million years old. Petrified for posterity by volcanic activity, trunks of trees alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth are clearly visible, their growth rings stuck in time.
The sea’s restless pounding has worn away the soft stuff. Only the obdurate endures.
This area boasts some of New Zealand’s oldest sedimentary rocks – laid down when it was still part of Gondwanaland. Since then, the earth’s relentless forces have tilted and folded the rocks, creating fault lines visible at places like Cathedral Caves.
Here, vast chasms run deep into the headland forming two sets of connected caves that can only be reached at low tide. Kelp abandoned by the sea spreads its long tresses over the sand at their entrance. Streams from the forest above cascade over bright green weed or drop like mini waterfalls over natural terraces that skirt the steep cliffs.
It’s an amazing stretch of coastline that’s rich in wildlife.
At Waipapa lighthouse, care is needed to avoid tripping over rare Hooker’s Sealions as they lounge in the sand dunes. Many are young bulls who’ve been kicked out of breeding colonies in the Auckland Islands. They have no fear of humans and can lollop towards you at speeds of up to 20kph. Unlike fur seals, their strong rear flippers are not fused together so they’re both faster and more agile on land.
Colonies of rare Hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguins also live along the coast below Nugget Point or at Curio Bay – where the one below was performing for a bunch of spectators from the nearby campground.
There’s a lot still to see – if I can extract myself from the mud. By 10am, the dew has dried and it’s threatening rain. I climb into snail, cross my fingers, put her into reverse, gently gun the motor and bounce backwards out of the mudhole.
Snails rule! And the towrope can stay in its bag until another day.