Thursday, 23 March 2017

Feels like home

It's a funny thing isn't it, gut feeling?  When we very first spoke about hitting the road last year and the possibility of buying land, everyone's first question was 'where?'  Our response was always the same 'the deep South!'  Which was funny really, because neither Gareth or I had ever been there.  Aside from the fact Otago and Southland had some pretty good rugby and cricket teams, I knew pretty much nothing about the area other than it frequently had both the highest and lowest weather temperatures on the evening news.  But we just had this instinct, this strong feeling that that was where we should go.  And now we're here!  And it seems our instinct was correct.  The more time we spend here in the deep South, the more we feel that this is the place for us.  We have been from one end of the country to the other, seen countless beautiful things and fallen in love with many different places.  But none of them have felt like home.  Here, it feels like home.

One of the Catlins 'must-do's' - Cathedral Caves

Before we went travelling, I had never heard of the Catlins before.  Actually I had never heard of countless places before; it was only through the Facebook motorhoming groups I belong to and their incredible photos that the Catlins ended up on our to-do list.  If you've never heard of it either, the Catlins is an area between Baclutha and Invercargill which is sort of between the Otago and Southland region.  I'm using the Wikipedia definition because it's a place that is very hard to describe.  It covers vast areas of farmland, but it is like any other farmland I've ever seen, it's so staggeringly beautiful.  There are mountains, rainforests, beaches, lakes, you name it; it's got it.  Forget Queenstown and your other touristy places, the Catlins has more things to do than any other area we've come across.  Where else in the world can you see sheep grazing on one side of a hill and sea lions and penguins flip-flopping and hopping about on the other!  We were so exhausted after a week there that we literally couldn't take in any more, we had seen so much!  But it was brilliant and it was there that we found the first place we really, really wanted to live.

McLean Falls.  The Catlins has a LOT of waterfalls!

We spent the duration of our stay at a family run campground called Hillside, near Kaka Point.  There is an NZMCA ground at Niagara further along the route but we found our location much more convenient and closer to where we wanted to be.  Besides, Hillside was brilliant!  For $10 a night you had all the facilities you could possibly need, it was close to everything and the family even makes home cooked scones with jam and cream for the campers every Friday.  Throw in some gorgeous rural views with glorious sunrises and sunsets into the bargain and you have a really lovely and peaceful place to stay.

Roaring Bay, just up the road from our campground

Puraukanui Bay

Puraukanui Falls.

When you head in to the Catlins, especially from the Dunedin end, it's hard to know where to start.  There is literally so much to do!  It reminds me a bit of Milford Sound in that you can't go for more than a few kilometres at a time without coming across yet another different and exciting spectacle.  We were advised to allow at least three days in the area which I would definitely recommend - in fact we were there almost a week and still didn't see everything!  But we saw everything we wanted to see, including all the 'must-do's'.

Spooning seal style at Cannibal Bay

One of the things I was most excited about was the possibility of seeing seals and the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin, also known as the Hoiho.  We didn't have to wait long to see the seals, there was a whole bunch of them at Cannibal Bay, which was the very first place we went to.   Pardon the imagery but on first arrival at this small, rugged and very quiet little bay, it looked as though the beach was littered with enormous lumps that looked like giant dog poo!  It was in fact, lots of sleeping seals.  Big ones, small ones, furry ones, sleek ones - every now and get one of them would stretch and get up and waddle lazily over to another before flopping down alongside and fall immediately back to sleep.  The other one, if it woke at all would open a sleepy eye, raise a flipper as if to say 'Oh hello, it's you', before doing the same.  They didn't give a hoot about us and Minnie being there as we wandered around, quietly observing.  It made me very glad that we hadn't paid a fortune in Dunedin a few days earlier for the privilege of being able to see them from a small boat!

I'm coming to get youuuuu!

Oh hang on, I've changed my mind...

Yep, I'm done now...

From there we went to Surat Bay, named after a ship which was wrecked there in 1874.  This glorious stretch of beach was lovely to walk along.  There was only one seal on the beach and it was sleeping peacefully near the water's edge, while we stayed close to the dunes.  After a big walk, little old lady Minnie was getting a bit tired so I waited with her whilst Gareth went exploring further down the beach.  I decided to sit where we were, well out of the way of the sleeping seal, however just as I was about to sit down, the seal awoke, caught sight of us and immediately began making its way towards us at an alarmingly fast rate - no kidding, these things can really move!  They may look cute and docile but they can also be aggressive if they feel threatened and can bite.  The closer it got, the bigger I realised it was!  I tried to move way but poor Minnie was frozen to the spot and would not move.  Just as I really started to panic, the giant creature stopped dead in its tracks a few feet away from me and plopped down on its belly, looking straight at me with big melting pool eyes.  Seconds later, it was asleep.  In the meantime, Gareth had seen us from the other end of the beach and was running up to come to our aid.  By the time he arrived we had attracted quite a bit of attention from foreign tourists, all wanting to know what had happened and to take photos of our still sleeping friend!

Jack's Bay

With so many beautiful bays all close to one another, we had time to visit Jack's Bay before calling it a day.  Obviously this was one of my favourite places, sharing the same name but the Jack in question was actually a Maori chief known as Bloody Jack, who escaped and swam there after losing a battle in 1844 but unfortunately drowned.  These days Jack's Bay is far more peaceful and we had an enjoyable hike up the hills to Jack's Blowhole, which is unusual in that it is 200 metres out to sea. We thought we had seen quite enough seals for one day but were lucky to stumble upon a sleeping family of seals right in front of some local houses!  We stood and watched, enchanted as an adorable baby seal toddled its way along in search of his family, calling out to its mum until he finally found them and went to curl up amid the sleeping pile.

Muuuuum!  Where are youuuuu!

We were just about to leave when I turned around and caught sight of the most enormous bull sea lion making its way out of the ocean.  This time it was Gareth's turn to be taken aback.  What should we do?  We were more than a safe distance away but didn't know if he would see us as a threat to his family and this guy was HUGE.  We stood like statues, waiting to run if necessary (fortunately Minnie was in the car this time!) but there was no need.  All this fella was interested in was getting home to his family and as soon as they heard him approach, four little heads immediately popped up and welcomed the head of the family back with much excited jostling and big sealy kisses as if to say 'Yay!  Daddy's home!'  It really was enchanting and even more so to see the little baby (who was obviously the apple of his father's eye) emulating his dad's behaviour.  We felt truly honoured to have witnessed such a spectacle - but now it really was time to call it a day!

Daddy's home!

One big, happy family!

Whilst we saw an awful lot of seals we weren't fortunate enough to see the timid Yellow Eyed Penguins.  I think the seals we saw at Roaring Bay and Nugget Point probably had a bit to do with that!  However in the days which followed there wasn't much that we didn't see.  The Catlins is home to some incredibly beautiful waterfalls and it was lovely walking through the rainforests to get to them.  One of the things we liked best about the Catlins was that there was so much that Minnie was able to do with us, which is rare in conservation areas.  She absolutely loved it there and was clambering over rocks and climbing up waterfalls with us!  It was a really special time for all three of us.  As usual, our favourite places were the ones off the beaten track (who am I kidding, almost all the best spots in the Catlins are off the beaten track!)  We drove miles and miles of winding, narrow, gravel road and although I didn't need Michael Buble to get me through any of them, a few of them were close!  The road to Cathedral Caves, which is only open for two hours a day at low tide, is quite possibly the worst road we have struck yet!  Fortunately it was worth the drive.

Feeling right at home here!

What we weren't expecting was to feel so comfortable and at ease in the Catlins.  I guess we had no pre-conceived ideas at all but with every day that passed, we didn't actually feel like tourists, we felt as if we were at home.  Everyone from the campground owner to the people in the little town of Owaka was so welcoming and helpful and we actually ended up spending a couple of days just driving around and researching the area looking for land.  We did find some but fortunately the locals were quick to let us know where NOT to buy e.g. the flood prone areas!  Small blocks of land in the Catlins are relatively unheard of as the area is made up of hundreds, if not thousands of acres of enormous farm blocks, but who knows?  Maybe a kind farmer or somebody out there somewhere will be nice enough to sell us off a tiny piece.  I'm sure they won't miss it and in turn we'll treasure it.  We live in hope; for now, the search goes on!

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