The Catlins Coast on a not-quite-so-windy day. © Graeme Murray

Southern Scenic Route: the long and winding road

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A faded brown road sign stands just along from Queenstown’s Remarkables ski fields. It’s no-nonsense and to the point: ‘Southern Scenic Route starts here. Follow symbol.’ 

Over three days I will do just that – follow the symbols and see what happens.

Heading out of Queenstown, the deep blue of Lake Wakatipu soon vanishes, leaving only grey road dividing up the ginger grassland. Further back, the snow-capped ranges resemble vanilla ice cream slowly melting over a big ol’ scoop of chocolate. With this thought in mind, I pull over at a cafe in Garston and head straight for the freezer.

In an immaculately quaint cemetery, just shy of the Tuatapere Scenic Reserve, I discover the answer to one of the most head-scratching questions of the modern age. I’ve stopped for a bit of a snoop when, suddenly, a chicken darts out from behind a tombstone, giving me one heck of a fright. It zips across the grass, glances back at me, then struts coolly across the tarmac. What happens next is astounding, but what that chicken does when it crosses the road is a secret that shall remain with Tuatapere’s graves.

There’s something about the stretch of road where Southland’s farmlands dissolve into the rough and tumble of the Southern Ocean that compels me to take a break. The exact spot is on the right, halfway up a languorous incline that follows the coast just outside Orepuki. It’s called McCracken’s Rest and it marks the extreme south-western point of New Zealand’s highway system. But the real attraction is the view it affords over the wild ocean waters of Te Waewae Bay. 

I hang around a while – the lone traveller on the long road, sombrely reflecting in dusk’s hazy glow, looking for answers in the ocean’s endless horizon.

But it is time to crack on to Invercargill before the south drowns in deep stouty darkness.

Leaving Invercargill the next morning is glorious. This is no slight – rather, day two of my journey is an absolute beaut. The beaming white sun illuminates the landscape brilliantly and I wonder if the bitingly brisk air is somehow accentuating the light. The farmlands zipping past the window are a lush, vibrant green; filled with white marshmallow sheep that look like they’ve just been dropped into a bowl of lime jelly. It’s an incredibly pleasant segue into the windy mountains of the South’s famed Catlins.

From a hilltop vantage point at Curio Bay, I watch frothy white breakers lash violently at the rocks, flip-flopping bunches of thick murky seaweed. Up here the air is thick with salt and although I know it will be much worse at the bottom, I decide to venture down to the shore. 

Having no idea what a petrified forest looks like, it comes as a surprise to realise I’m standing in one and not just on log-like rocks. The forest piques my interest but I'd clambered down to the shore to try and spot the yellow-eyed penguin colony that makes its home in this part of the bay. There are plenty of instructional, bossy signposts (‘Do not approach’; ‘Keep distance’), so my hopes of seeing this rarest of species are high. And sadly misguided. 

It’s easy to let my imagination run wild on the path to Matai Falls. At first, I don’t notice the silence. Then all I hear is the ruckus. Birds chirping above, weird scurrying noises deep in the thicket. Aside from the obviousness of the walkway, the rest of the surroundings look positively prehistoric or tribal. The damp hangs heavy, only the most determined of sunbeams able to force their way through the towering canopy of this regenerating podocarp/broadleaf forest. There are two waterfalls to see along this one path. Both are spectacular, both are thunderously loud. I watch the water tumbling down, incessant and reckless. 

At Surat Bay, the sand is soft and clumpy. In the distance is the peculiar groaning of a sea lion colony. After being gypped by the penguins earlier in the day, I’m determined to see one of these beasts in the wild. The wind howls in protest – or, perhaps, warning. Through squinting eyes, I spot a noir blob lazing by the water far, far ahead. I tramp on, leaning forward to combat the strength of the unrelenting wind that is now positively shrieking. 

The ocean wraps and unwraps itself around a large rotund log that’s glistening black in the wet of the incoming tide. I hear the mocking cough of a sea lion and begin the slow trudge back to the car. 

After a night keeping warm in Balclutha, I point the car towards Milton and drive out of town.

Everything is grey and wet; the sky, the ocean, the day. The turbulent sea feels much closer than is safe, as it collides up against the roadside’s edge, frothing at the rocks and occasionally spitting at me as 

There’s no fanfare for completing all 610 of the Southern Scenic Route’s kilometres. I’ve been on the lookout for a bookend – another brown road sign declaring the end of the road. But there isn’t one; just a set of traffic lights at the bottom of a steep hill on the outskirts of Dunedin. It seems an unfitting end to such an inspiring stretch of New Zealand. The majestic disappearing into the mundane, its wild variation and oscillating landscapes abruptly halted by a bright red spot. But, then the light changes green and I drive on, leaving the route and its wonders behind, as I try to figure out where I should stop for lunch.



Story by Karl Puschmann.

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