A couple of days in the Catlins

On a recent trip to The Catlins and the south coast, I visited a few scenic locations that have been on my list for a while now. The area is well known for its spectacular coastal drive, the Southern Scenic Route. However, many people don’t know The Catlins is also home to some of the South Island’s most beautiful waterfalls. With many of these locations off the main road, I was glad to have done my research before heading south.

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The Southern Scenic Route

The Southern Scenic Route is a 610-kilometre (380-mile) journey that roughly takes you from Dunedin to Queenstown and covers The Catlins and Invercargill, New Zealand’s southern-most city. The journey covers a diverse landscape of rural, coastal and bush landscapes and the opportunity to sight some extremely rare wildlife like the hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin.

Yet, I wasn’t here for penguins. I was here to revisit places I had once passed as a commercial photographer. The places I didn’t have time to stop and explore. This trip, I was taking time to find the waterfalls.

Waterfalls of the South Coast

I have seen a few waterfalls in my time. Photographing areas like Fiordland has given me access to some superstars like Stirling Falls in Milford Sound, a waterfall that is taller than Niagara Falls. Yet, the waterfalls of the south coast are regarded as some of the best. And for those who are willing to take the time to wander down bush tracks, they are well worth the effort.

Purakaunui Falls

The first stop was Purakaunui Falls, located a 15-minute drive from the tiny town of Owaka. The walk to the falls from the car park is a gentle 10-minute stroll through the forest, which left me wondering why I had never been here before. I take in the native forest and a few small cascades along the way.

Arriving at the falls, I find a picturesque waterfall, 20 metres tall and falling over three tiers. Most people will take in the view of the falls from the viewing platform. But now that I have time to stop and ponder the best view of things, I decided to skip the platform and walk across to the pools off to the side of the falls. Rather than the front-on view from the platform, I can get closer and capture the details of the whole scene.

Using a neutral density filter to increase exposure time, the water takes on a smooth appearance as it cascades down the falls and into the pools below.

So far, slowing down and exploring quiet roads is off to a great start.

Matai Falls

The next waterfall is located a further 15 minutes along the road. At 10 metres tall, Matai Falls is not as tall as Purakaunui but being much narrower, it is no less impressive.

Matai Falls is set amongst a dense podocarp and broadleaf forest. Again, the aim here was to capture the smooth movement of the water set against the dark, mossy rocks and bush behind it. The falls are beautiful, and the image comes out wonderfully.

There is much more to explore at Matai Falls, including Horseshoe Falls and the Matai Rail Trail, which branches off the Matai Falls track. The rail trail walk follows the old railway line, which shut down in 1971.

Early start for Nugget Point

The next morning, the plan was to visit Nugget Point, home to the iconic Tokata Lighthouse. One of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses, Tokata, is found halfway between Invercargill and Dunedin.

Known as ‘the nuggets’ to locals, the location offers incredible panoramic views from the rocky outcrop jutting out into the Southern Ocean. The area is popular for sightseers, but also photographers. I was up at 4:30am to make sure I would have the location to myself.

Arriving at Nugget Point around 5:45am, I was surprised to see two cars already in the car park. It was a reminder that these beautiful locations will always have people there to admire them, whatever the time of day.

Luckily, these two cars belonged to photographers who were there to shoot the nuggets in front of the lighthouse. It appeared we would be staying out of each other’s way.

My shot this morning would capture the whole incredible scene in the early morning light; the lighthouse, rocks, and the ocean stretching off into the distance. It was the perfect morning, and the sunrise did exactly as I had hoped it would.

Sunrise at Nugget Point

Mclean Falls

And then, it was back to waterfall chasing. McLean Falls at its highest point, is 22-metres and is a classic tiered waterfall cascading over the rocks. The mossy rocks on either side of the falls make it a real beauty.

Koropuku Falls

After Nugget Point, I turned towards my final destination in the Catlins, Koropuku Falls, located two hours south of Dunedin. Access to Koropuku Falls truly is off the beaten track.

The  40-minute return trail to Koropuku is not an official walking track. The route has been carved out by two passionate locals who wanted to open the stunning falls to visitors. The track is not too challenging (as long as you have your good hiking boots on). Coming in at just 10-metres tall and without any of the multiple tiers or cascades of the other falls, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Koropuku. But in the end, this beautiful little waterfall and its perfect curtain of water hidden down the end of a bush track gave me the image of the day.

And even better, it was completely off the beaten track. Exactly what I look for these days.

The Koropuku Falls

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