Matai Falls: The Catlins
Most visitors to the Catlins explore the rugged coastline with its rocky outcrops, caves, lighthouses and wild critters. On our second day in this forgotten corner of New Zealand, Geoff and I decided to turn away from salty flavoured activities and head inland to hunt for waterfalls. Technically, there are over 70 waterfalls along the Catlins coast and we decided to visit the big three: Purakaunui Falls, Matai Falls and McLean Falls.
Roaring Sea Lion: Nugget Point
Sea Lions, New Zealand fur seals and yellow eyed penguins all call the 47 hectare Scenic Reserve at Nugget Point home.
The räpoka is one of the world's rarest sea lion species and can be found on the sandy beaches. They became a protected species in 1894 after being hunted to the edge of extinction.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
A razor back ridge known as Nugget Point - Ka Tokata extends out into the Pacific Ocean, 8 kilometres south of Kaka Point. It is the Catlins most iconic location and it is one of the most photographed lighthouses in New Zealand. I had a ‘pinch me, I’m really here’ moment as the lighthouse came into view. I’ve grown up with that image, but never seen the reality.
The Lenz Reserve, just past Papatowai, is owned and managed by Forest & Bird NZ. Named after Trevor and Ivy Lenz it is set on the site of George Clark’s original Tautuku sawmill. A special feature amongst the rusty relics is the restored ‘Traills Tractor’- a Fordson A farm tractor that was modified to work on the bush tramway.
Waipati Beach is home to the Catlin’s version of the ‘Cathedral Caves’. The two caves are linked in a ‘V’ like formation and in places, their cavernous roof is thirty metres high. The rocky ceiling creates a natural acoustic resonance, with the sounds of the Pacific Ocean’s waves in the background you can hear why Dr T. M. Hocken named them ‘Cathedral Caves’ in 1896.
The caves can only be visited for an hour either side of the low tide. When you check the tide table make sure you factor in the twenty-minute bush walk and five-minute beach stroll to get there. There is a $5 fee charged to cross the private land to reach the caves, this goes to maintaining the access road and tracks to the beach which is not a cheap exercise.
Just south of the Cathedral Cave’s turn off, Newcastle Road has a sign that points to the start of the Mclean Falls track. The car park is at the confluence of Tautuku River and Duckaday Creek, and the twenty-minute walk takes you to the Tatuku Rivers most stunning falls.
At 22 metres high, these are the tallest falls in the Catlins, and on a hot day, the slippery scramble to the pool at the bottom of the main falls is worth the extra effort.
Who says New Zealand has no ‘old school’ history? At Curio Bay, you can a see a petrified forest that was ‘living’ over 170 million years ago. These trees are unique, unlike any growing today, although, they are distant relatives of the kauri and Norfolk pine. In fact, these Jurassic conifers are so old that birds hadn’t evolved while they were standing.
The Maori People called Curio Bay and its fossilised forest Tumu Toka, which roughly translates into ‘hardened wood’ or ‘stump wood’. Scientists believe a volcano erupted during torrential rain, and ash filled flood waters engulfed the forest. The scientific term for this fossilised phenomenon is ‘silification’ and the trees would have looked like they had been struck by Narnia’s Ice Queen only a few weeks after the eruption.
Geoff and I wandered along the rocky, stumpy, coastline investigating the forest remains; and were on the lookout for hectors dolphins and yellow eyed penguins. On this particularly windy day even the wildlife stayed well hidden.
At Waipapa Point, just along the coastline from Curio Bay, we were assaulted by gale-force winds and I sacrificed my umbrella trying to get moody shots of the wooden lighthouse. The Point marks the Eastern entrance to Foveaux Strait, and the treacherous Otara reef. The Maori people called the point Waipapapa, and highly valued this stretch of coastline with its abundant kai moana (sea food). However, they knew the submerged dangers hidden by the high tides and warned the whalers, sealers and other seafarers when they began to explore the area.
On April 29th 1881, the point was the site of New Zealand’s 2nd worst civilian maritime disaster on record. The S.S. Taraua was steaming from Port Chalmers to Melbourne via Bluff when she struck the reef and began to sink. The lifeboats overturned, 131 people drowned, and the twenty survivors along with the bodies were found littered along coastline.
The colonial government were quick to respond and materials for a lighthouse were ordered from Scotland in December 1882. The lantern room was made out of out of bronze, copper, cast iron and glass, and was built in three separate sections by James Milne and Sons. When completed the three sections were shipped to New Zealand. In 1883, the room was placed on top of the double skinned wooden tower. Made out of kauri and totara, the Waipara lighthouse stands at 13.4 metres tall, and it was one of the last wooden lighthouses to be built.
John Frederick Erecson manned the first watch on January 1st 1884 and diligently kept the paraffin lamp burning. The light was upgraded to kerosene in 1912 and electricity in 1943. Waipara was actually the first lighthouse to be lit by the national grid and was fully automated in 1976. The light even went ‘green’- that is environmentally friendly, in 1988 thanks to the installation of solar panels. Today, it flashed five times every twenty seconds, from dusk till dawn, every night of the year.
Although the views on a sunny day are spectacular, when we visited the point was a sombre place: barren, Baltic cold and assaulted by the wind. I’m a strong swimmer; however, I doubt I would have lasted a second in the relentless pounding of the freezing waves even in a wetsuit. I can only imagine what it would have been like to get into a ‘lifeboat’ in heavy Victorian clothes. Let’s hope the lighthouse keeps doing its job indefinitely, and there are no more wrecks like the SS Taurua.