Sunrise at Nugget Point Lighthouse. © Arief Rasa

Southern Scenic Route: Queenstown to Dunedin

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If you get as far south as Te Anau, it’d be rude not to keep going, don’t you reckon, and have a look at the deep south.

Beyond Te Anau, you can either take a detour off State Highway 94 to visit Manapōuri (and Doubtful Sound beyond). And from there you can follow the web of secondary roads into the wilds of Southland to Tuatapere and the little fishing town of Riverton.

Or you can stick with State Highway 94, south to Winton and the southernmost city in the world, Invercargill. Either way, you’ll want to press on through Invercargill to Bluff, climb the hill and contemplate the Southern Ocean from the New Zealand mainland’s most southerly point.

From there, head out around the Catlin coast – ‘the Catlins’, as it’s known in this part of the world, where they pronounce ‘fur seal’ as though there are four Rs in ‘fur’. For fur seals, there assuredly are, along with Hooker’s sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins and Hector’s dolphins, along with immaculate white-sand beaches (many receiving New Zealand’s biggest surfable waves on their day), tracts of native bush, rivers, lakes and waterfalls.

A popular tourist destination is Curio Bay, where you can walk among the visible remnants of a 180 million-year-old petrified forest. At dusk here, the yellow-eyed penguins haul out and spend the night among the boulders at the head of the beach.

Curio Bay is on the western headland of Porpoise Bay, where pods of little Hector’s dolphins frequently swim within spitting distance of shore. (Not that they spit, of course, and nor should you). Seals and the endangered Hooker’s sea lion lumber up the beaches of this entire coastline, too, to bask in the southern sunshine.

Further round, you can make a short detour out to Nugget Point, where there’s a lighthouse perched on a headland above a set of small, weather-beaten islets. The views from here are well worth a look, southwest along the south coast, northeast across Molyneux Bay towards the Otago Peninsula in the misty distance. There’s a gannet colony here, and besides the usual sea lions and seals, you may spot the odd sea elephant, too.

All the way around the Catlins road, there are side trips of scenic and historical significance. Just north of Papatowai, you can visit Purakaunui Falls, one of the most photographed cataracts in New Zealand.

From Kākā Point, where the density of cribs increases, you’re out of the remote southern leg of the circuit and on the road to Dunedin. As you roll in from the main road south, they’ll note the mud on your car and nod at you, as at another soul who’s in the know.

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