Southern Scenic Route, New Zealand

To recover from our hike, we took a few days to drive leisurely down the coast of the the South Island of New Zealand. The well established Southern Scenic Route had lots of options for activities along the way ranging from hikes and wildlife preserves to historic lighthouses and fishing villages.

Day 1 – Friday March 13, 2015

With the Milford Track completed, we were left with time in New Zealand and no set plans. Several ideas were thrown around; to take a cruise across Milford or Doubtful Sound, drive north to Mt. Cook, or drive south and take a ferry to Stewart Island. Finally we decided to drive the ‘Southern Scenic Route’.

The Southern Scenic Route (SSR) is an established tourism route which runs from Queenstown through Te Anau and south to the coast which it follows until the city of Dunedin. Brochures with maps and information about attractions along the way are available at tourism centers on the South Island. Before we could set out on the route we had a few errands to finish in Te Anau; laundry, breakfast, and grocery shopping. We stopped at Miles Better Pies for venison and beef/cheese pies.

Close to noon we set out on the Scenic Southern Route. The first portion of the Southern Scenic Route, the Te Anau to Manapouri, we had mostly completed on our own during our few days in Te Anau. Highlights according the the route guide included the Fiordland National Park Visitor’s Center and Frasier Beach.

By the time we passed Manapouri and were breaking new ground, the weather had started to turn. It was cloudy with cold scattered rain showers as we through Western Southland and towards Tuatapere. We stopped once to check out the Clifton Caves. Some parts of the caves are open to the public for spelunking. We grabbed our headlamps and headed towards the cave. Not very far in we decided stop and turn back; my headlamp was almost faded, it was damp and slippery, and we were still sore from the hike the previous day. The fact it was starting to rain and the caves are known to flood didn’t help either.

Not too much further down the road we stopped at McCrackens Rest viewpoint and our first look at the coast. The viewpoint overlooks Te Waewae Bay and small islands known as the Solanders. The clouds during our visit prevented us from viewing the Solanders, but there were a lot of waves to watch.

We stopped at the next three stops recommended by route map; Gemstone Beach, Monkey Island, and Cozy Nook. Gemstone beach is known for changing with the tides from sand to stones and back. Many gemstones have been found at the times when the beach is stoney. We took a very short walk along the beach, but found it to be mostly sandy. Maybe if it looked like a prospect of finding gemstone we would have walked further dispute the cold wind and rain.

Monkey Island also didn’t impress us much. We didn’t expect to find any monkeys, but with the high tide it wasn’t accessible. Cozy Nook also seemed to be more of historical significance than of interest to our casual sight seeing. The weather had started to make me tired (or maybe the Milford Track hike caught up with me), so I took a nap in the car while Jon drove a little and then pulled over to enjoy the views.

To wake up again, we decided to try a short hike at Mores Scenic Reserve. A few trail heads started from the scenic reserve, some which would have taken hours to hike. We chose a short trail to a viewing platform.

We finished our day driving to the city of Invercargill. Invercargill was small, but much larger than many of the other towns along the SSR including Te Anau. We checked into a cheap hotel which we had found online. The hotel was actually more for long term apartment rentals and nice for the single night price. We used the hotel wifi to find a restaurant for dinner in town. The Rocks was more expensive than we normally try to eat while traveling, but was a very nice meal. We started out with an appetizer of oysters, which we agreed might have been the best (to date) that we’d ever eaten. I had a salad and Jon had a big seafood stew, which were also very enjoyable.

Day 2 – Saturday March 14, 2015

We started the day off with a wonderful breakfast from The Batch in Invercargill. Before leaving Invercargill, we took a few moments to drive through town and look at the SSR attractions we may have missed. We got glimpse of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, which is the largest pyramid structure in the southern hemisphere (and not at all impressive), and of Queen’s Park. The only attraction we stopped to visit was the Invercargill water tower, however we had to settle for exterior pictures because the tower is only open for tours on Sundays.

We were excited to get on the road and see The Catlins, an area of the south coast which we had heard great things about. To make the day even better, the weather cleared up and the day was mostly sunny and clear. The entire drive was beautiful. For the most part the landscapes were gently rolling green hills with grazing sheep. Near the coast areas the green grass seemed to go almost to the water and was only stopped by narrow rocky beaches.

Our first destination was Waipapa Point where a beautiful lighthouse overlooks a rocky shoreline and grassy bluffs. It was perfect weather for wandering around the area and we were lucky enough to see one huge sea lion and one New Zealand fir seal.

From Waipapa Point we drove to Slope Point. Slope Point was a short hike (15 min) from the road across a farm. The point itself was marked by a sign post declaring Slope Point to be the southern most point of the New Zealand South Island. What we really enjoyed seeing were the distances on the sign which indicated we were standing closer to the South Pole than to the Equator.

Next on our list was Curio Bay. Curio Bay is the site of a petrified forest and claims to be one of the ‘finest fossiled forests’. Stairs lead down to the fossiled area, which is underwater during high tide. Lucky for us, it was low tide during our visit. Ropes limited the public to a very small area in which to walk around. It was easy to see the petrified wood in the rocks beneath our feet, however I have to maintain that petrified wood is the most boring fossil ever. We didn’t stay long, although the waves crashing against the rocks in the distance were quite lovely.

By now it was after 3pm and we hadn’t gotten nearly as far as we were hoping. We decided to be more picky about our stops and we skipped a few. The next stop we made was at Cathedral Caves. Cathedral Caves was a large sea cave which can be entered during low tide. The Caves are maintained by an organization and cost $5 NZD to enter. We followed a forest trail down from the parking lot and finally had a short walk across the beach to reach the cave. The cave had two entrances and you can walk through the cave between them. The feature which makes Cathedral Caves stand out is the height of the caves. We had some fun taking photographs in the caves and then continued along our way.

We made our next stop Purakaunui Falls which were called the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand by our SSR guide. There was another short hike needed to reach the falls. The falls weren’t huge, but are very lovely. Jon and I both agreed that the water falling across the face of the rock in tiers looked like the ideal waterfall that fountains so often try to recreate.

Our last stop of the SSR for the day was Nugget Point. Like our first stop, Nugget Point featured a white light house overlooking a rocky coast. In front of the point are the ‘nuggets’, small rocky islands.

Nugget Point is also known for its wildlife preserve. We didn’t see any seals or sea lions, but we did see a yellow-eyed penguin. The yellow-eyed penguins are a big attraction and we had been looking for one all day. The reserve at Nugget Point has a beach which the penguins nest on. A hillside trail leads to a blind (or hide) where people can watch the beach without disturbing the birds. While we were there, one penguin walked out of the bush and entertained us for awhile by waddling around the beach and back into the long grasses.

We were hoping to complete the SSR and make it to Dunedin to spend the night, however it was becoming obvious that it would be late by the time we reached Dunedin. Instead we decided to find another small town to spend the night in. We ended up in Milton. There wasn’t much to Milton, although they are proud of their history as a mill town. We did have an okay dinner at the Kink In The Road restaurant.

Day 3 – Sunday March 15, 2015

Rather than continue on to Dunedin, which we didn’t make it to the night before as planned, we headed straight back to Queenstown. According to our road map, the route followed the Otago Goldfield Heritage trail, however we didn’t have a guide or see anything of particular interest to us while driving on it. Again, the scenery was lovey although it was different from the coastal route we had taken the day before. There were slightly more hills and rivers, but they weren’t as green and there weren’t nearly as many sheep. We stopped briefly at a fruit shop and bought a few varieties of plums and some peacherines (peach/nectarine combination).

Additional Photographs:

Gemstone Beach


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