The drive from Queenstown to the Catlins is one of the more mellow New Zealand drives. First, you will drive around Lake Wakitipu, which is the highlight of the drive. This lake is huge and very blue, offering stunning views of The Remarkables, Devil's Staircase, and other alpine mountains that surround it on all sides. It's a very windy road and is 100% the most scenic part of the drive. From here it's all long straightaways through farmlands.
Before getting to the Catlins you finish your long 4 hour drive with the last hour driving on loose gravel back roads through cattle and sheep fields. We were doing this part of the drive after sunset and an eerie fog was sitting on the ground giving off some kind of Sleepy Hollow vibe. We stayed at Thomas’s Catlins Lodge and Campground, a hostel/campground that used to be an old hospital. This place also had an eerie, haunted feel to it, though the staff was incredibly friendly and everything was clean. However, it was just the fact that you could feel the old hospital history still in it.
We spent one full day exploring the Catlins in a condensed sight-seeing journey down the Owaka-Invercargill highway. Our itinerary had us beginning at Cathedral Caves, then continuing to Slope Point, McClean Falls, Lake Wilkie, Matai Falls, Purakaunui Falls and finishing at Jack's Blowhole.
Cathedral Caves are only open 2 hours before and 1 hour after low tide, which would be 11:50 am for us this day. We arrived at noon and learned the gates don't close until 2 pm. We cut it close and it was drizzling down rain, but we were happy to have made it here in time. It is a very large sea cave, by far the largest that I've ever walked through. It carved a shape of a V into the rock cliff. One entrance on the left led you about 75 meters into the back where it was pitch black and connected with the entrance on the other side. The ceiling was probably 20-30 meters tall and it was wide enough to drive our campervan through (to give perspective). It also provided great shelter from the rain that was coming down outside.
The entrance to Cathedral Cave
We walked through the cave and ended up on the other side of the beach.
Slope Point is the most southern tip of NZ, not counting any islands off the main two islands. The hike was a short 40 min return hike that took you through a coastal farm with cattle and sheep roaming around and led you to the land's edge. The land dropped off over rocky cliffs and met the raging blue ocean. The beaches were rocky and the water looked a little treacherous. We were told to look out for dolphins, penguins, and sea lions, but we experienced no such luck while there. We took pictures with the lighthouse and we checked off on our bucket list driving from the most northern tip of New Zealand to the most southern tip.
Slope Point - most southern point of New Zealand's South Island
As we continued down the rugged coastline, we stopped off to do another short 40 min return hike to McLean Falls. This is our highlight of the Catlins. The trail itself glows green, with moss growing on all sides and surfaces along the trail, and huge ferns and palms to admire on both sides of you. You think you've reached the end when you get to the first waterfall segment. This first fall is a wide but short 7 meter drop and feeds into the river and bright mossy green covered rocks. The combination of the mossy rocks and the waterfall makes for a perfect picture. However, you still need to hike up to the upper falls where you'll find a much larger waterfall pouring at the top of this little forest river. This waterfall is much taller, probably about 30 or so meters and offers great viewpoints with its surrounding rocks that form a large natural staircase up to the fall's main base.
Casey exploring McLean Falls
Long exposure of the lower half of McLean Falls. We hiked to this point and thought we had reached the falls. As we continued on the trek, we realized there was much more to see.
Hannah with another part of the falls.
Beautiful McLean Falls
Lake Wilkie is another short hike, about 40 min return, but we only did a shorter walk to the first viewpoint. It is a mirror lake and it was a windy day, which seemed to be our luck when visiting mirror lakes. It was a pretty lake and worth the stop, even on a windy day. The next waterfall is Matai Falls. This is another 30 min return short hike and the waterfall is tucked behind the lush greenery and is a more narrow stream of water compared to the McLean Falls. Another minute further is Horseshoe Falls, also a little underwhelming compared to McLean Falls. They're worth walking through, as all the trails in the Catlins offer plenty of scenic sights and are easy and short enough to fit in. The last waterfall on our intinerary was Purakaunui Falls. It is the furthest east on the coast and it is another short 30 min return walk. The trail is just as beautiful as the previous trails and has a pretty stairway down to the bottom of the falls. These falls are different than the first couple falls because it is by far the widest of the falls. It's heigth was probably under 10 meters but its width was well over 30 meters. It was a very beautiful waterfall and definitely a must do in the Catlins.
Our last stop of the day was our longest walk of the day. The return trip time to Jack's Blowhole was 1 hour and had more hills both to and from the blowhole compared to our other walks of the day. It was just off the ocean near Jack's Bay and led through farmland to a gorge that was over 200 meters away from the coast. The ocean had dug a cave all the way to this gorge that surfaced through the farmland where waves would send water crashing up through the surface causing the blowhole effect. The tide was low while we were there and the waves did not create a strong enough force to cause the blowhole effect. It's still scenic to see the ocean crashing around 50 meters down the gorge's walls and so far away from the coast itself. We'd advise visiting here at high tide.
Jack's Bay on the way to Jack's Blowhole
Dunedin is the second largest city in the South Island, next to Christchurch. However, while we were there it felt more like a ghost town. It took Hannah and I a good couple hours to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Dunedin is 100% a college town that thrives on the college economy. The University of Otago is located here and it was summer break! Just like WVU, everyone left in the summer and only locals and summer students stuck around. This explained the eerie ghost town feel we got.
Dunedin offered some nice city views and restaurant & bar experiences. Firstly, we stopped by the Dunedin Railway station to capture a perfect picture of the station with its European influenced archictecture and colorful front gardens. Next, we checked out the world's steepest street, according to the Guiness World Records, named Baldwin Street. Anyone who has lived in cities like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, or Morgantown, WV might question what kind of metrics they use to give this street this title, but it's still very steep. It was steep enough that we didn't trust that our old crappervan could make it up so we didn't attempt to drive up. There are a lot of smaller city parks to enjoy and the city all forms around the octagon in the center. Surprisingly, we stopped by our first brewery visit in New Zealand, Emerson’s Brewery. The brewery was fairly large, located in city limits, and had an amazing list of home brews. We did a taster comprised almost entirely of different kinds of IPAs and pales ales and enjoyed each beer we had. My favorite was the Bird Dog IPA and Hannah's was the Hazed & Confused IPA. This brewery is a must do in Dunedin, especially for beer fans. Most of the night life was closed early while we were there due to the absent population of students, but we did find a nice cozy bar named The Inch. We walked in and found different pods of locals dispersed around the bar. The bar was playing American Beauty by the Grateful Dead in its entirety, so we knew we were in the right place. If you ever make it to The Inch and Matt is tending the bar or an older dread-locked hippie, named Felix, is getting toasty, tell them you're a friend of Casey and Hannah’s!
The beautiful Dunedin railway station and gardens
Beer tasting at Emerson's
The steepest street in the world. What do you think?
Mount Cook & Lake Takapo
Home of New Zealand's largest mountains and glaciers and bluest lakes and rivers, it is no wonder that Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo are highlights of our New Zealand journey. Not only would they be highlights for us, but they'd be the last outdoors adventure for us in New Zealand. It was bittersweet to think about this.
The drive into Mount Cook from Dunedin gets really exciting in the last hour, once you've reached Lake Pukaki. This large lake is an incredible shade of aqua blue. Once you've reached this lake, you can now see the Mount Cook region at the far western edge of the lake. Lake Pukaki is a definite stop for a picture, as you won't see a lake more blue than this (sorry Lake Tahoe). The glacier waters feeding into this lake really help make sure they it stays glowing blue all year. After the lake you begin to arrive in the mountain valleys that offer stunning views of Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier. The valley is flat and gives you an amazing perspective of just how large this mountain range is. The Tasman Glacier is the longest running glacier in NZ at over 23 km long. Mount Cook is the largest mountain in NZ at 3,724 meters high. We set up camp at the only DOC campground in the area, located at the base of the mountains.
Incredible views of the mountain driving into Mount Cook
Lake Pukaki - the bluest water we've seen yet on our trip!
More fabulous views. We pulled off multiple times on the drive in to get photos and take in the views.
Here we did two amazing, must do hikes. The first is the Hooker Valley track. It is a 1.5 hour return trip that takes you over 3 swing bridges over a large glacier water river and ends you at an awe-inspiring glacier lake. When you get to this lake you will be feeling the cold glacier air and wind hitting you and you will notice large ice formations in the lake itself. Icebergs! We walked down to the lake to see the icebergs close up.
Hooker Valley hike. It was an overcast day but still remained hot until we reached the lake at the end of the hike.
One of the many swing bridges we crossed on the hike. The mountain is so high, you can't even see the top due to the clouds.
Taking in the beautiful scenery.
Small icebergs behind us. Some blend in with the lake but if you look closely you'll see them. Be sure to check the galleries at the end of this post. There are more photos from Mount Cook you don't want to miss!
The second hike we did was the Blue Lake and Tasman Glacier Lookout View hike. It is a half hour return trip hike and also offers a very rewarding end. You will find the Blue Lake to be a little deceptive, as it's actually a strange green color and doesn't have a very inviting feel to it. However, at the end of the trail is a large glacier lake where you will notice that the Tasman Glacier is actually melting into this lake. You can see the edge of the glacier, which looks like regular dirt ground upon first glance, but on second glance you'll see the large layer of ice that looks like a solid break where it is connected with the odd shade of aqua colored lake. The glacier continued all the way into to the mountains and through the ranges following Mount Cook. It was an amazing experience and the views of the glaciers sitting on top of this whole mountain range was truly unique.
The Tasman Glacier. It's hard to tell due to the dirt, but in the distance is the glacier, the longest in New Zealand.
Hannah using the binoculars to get a good view of the glacier.
We had hoped to hike to the Mueller Hut but passes are required and unfortunately they were completely booked when we were there. We’ve heard great things about this hike and definitely recommend some planning if you make it to Mount Cook so that you can book the Mueller Hut that is located 1,800 meters up the mountain. Here you can hike up a mountain trail and reach the snow and ice of the glacier where you'll camp at the hut. It would have been an amazing experience and we still have it on our bucket list for a future adventure in New Zealand. It books out quickly, and you need to reserve this far in advance.
As we were leaving the Mount Cook area for Lake Tekapo we came upon a lavender farm. The fields were beautiful and there were chairs placed throughout the fields that allowed us to sit down and take in the sights and smells. As you might imagine, the fields smelled amazing. One of Hannah’s favorites scents/essential oils is lavender and she was in heaven.
Lake Tekapo was the last stop for our outdoors adventures in New Zealand. This is another aqua blue lake comparable in color to Lake Pukaki. Here there is lupins growing around the lake that make for a nice nature photo, especially at sunset. The water feels refreshingly cool, especially on a hot day and is worth swimming in. Maybe go wake boarding or rent a paddle board if you find yourself there. The highlight of Lake Tekapo for us came at night. From Mount Cook, to Lake Tekapo and continuing further was New Zealand's largest "dark sky reserve." This area had the least amount of light pollution in one solid strip, allowing the stars and the milky way to shine brighter than ever. You could actually see the cloudy starlight density of the milky way and spot shooting stars every other minute. The stars really lit up the whole sky. Of course, no camera (at least in our collection) could capture the beauty of this moment. We tried to do a nightlapse with our GoPro 5 but it didn't turn out. Oh well. You'll have to experience this one with your own two eyes.
Christchurch is New Zealand's second largest city and its the largest on the South Island. Although, once you've reach city limits, it doesn't feel like a large city. Despite being a city, we did get a great nature adventure out of it. On the northern coast of the city lays a DOC campground called Aware/Godley Head. This park adventures up a coastal mountain range and involves a very windy and steep ascension to the entrance. Once located at the campground, you're at the edge of this penisula and the ocean is surrounding you on three sides, with large ocean cliffs giving great views all around. If you're camping, this is a must-do, and it's the only DOC campground near Christchurch.
Christchurch has a slower, relaxed city vibe. There's plenty of restaurants, shopping, museums, and small parks, however everything about the city feels very subtle. There are no towering skyscrapers or buildings, a lot shops and restaurants closed early, and traffic was minimal. I spent a lot of my time getting caught up on work while Hannah explored the city. It rained the entire time here so she found herself visiting museums, bookstores and other indoor shops to keep dry. Her highlight was the Canterbury Museum. The museum explores New Zealand’s rich cultural and natural heritage. It is free and has over 15 different exhibits with history about the Maori culture, World War II and the impact it on had on New Zealand, the 50 greatest photographs by National Geographic and the stories behind the photos and so many others.
From Christchurch, we depart to our second country of our grand voyage, Australia.
THE CATLINS GALLERY
MOUNT COOK & LAKE TEKAPO GALLERY