In March 2021, me and Sacha took a week off before the vineyard harvest season began and set off in the van. The second half of our trip took us to The Catlins, on the South East coast of the South Island in between Dunedin and Invercargill. I hadn't heard much about the Catlins prior to our visit, I had spoken to a few people who had been and travelled it but it's not on the top of the list of 'big' tourists spots in NZ so we were really excited to experience a totally new area of the South Island. And we were not disappointed.
As with anywhere, a variety of factors can impact your memories of a place and we were just so incredibly lucky to have the experience we had in The Catlins, I have heard mixed reviews since so I know it's not everyone's 'must see spot' but it holds some of my favourite memories of my whole two years. We drove from Timaru to Oamaru (probably the most boring drive we did in the whole of NZ, I can't sugar coat it, there was just a lot of cows), down to Dunedin and then to The Catlins. One of the first things to do on that route is to park up and do the short walk to Nugget Point. A little lighthouse on the coast and a little bit of pacific coast heaven (pictured above). A beautiful walk, with beautiful coastal views and the weather we had made it all the more beautiful.
We hadn't planned where we were staying and there were zero free camp options in this area so we headed to Curio Bay which is the main hot spot in the area and had everything crossed we would find something. And we did: Curio Bay Camping Ground. $35 per night (works out about £9 a night each and I challenge you to find somewhere as nice as this for that price in the UK). It is a pretty standard price for a campsite at the end of summer and for the location of this one, we thought it was a bargain. If you are a self contained van you can park right at the top of the cliffs with 180 degree views of the ocean below and therefore more opportunity to wake up and see dolphins in the morning, who doesn't want that.
We were lucky that two of our friends were also in The Catlins at the same time as us, and so we spent a night with them, drinking gin on the cliff tops and looking out into the open ocean before cooking up a bbq and seeing dolphins swimming in the distance. It was a beautiful night with friends and food and I felt so relaxed and happy.
Curio Bay is a haven for New Zealand's Hector's dolphins. They are a very small dolphin which are only found on the coast of NZ. I had seen them in Kaikoura and didn't really expect to see them again without being on a boat tour. The 4 of us were walking along the beach in the morning watching the surfers in the bay when all of a sudden we heard squeals of joy. Sure enough we looked out to into the waves and couldn't believe our eyes when we saw a pod of at least 10 Hector's dolphins surfing the waves with the people out on their surfboards and body boards. We followed them up and down they bay for over an hour, watching them ride the waves and dive in and out. It was absolutely incredible to see these amazing creatures in the wild, so close to the beach just enjoying the ocean. There is such joy in moments like this and I think about this moment regularly now that I am home, I can only imagine the feeling of those in the water with the little Hectors dodging underneath them.
I would recommend The Catlins to anyone who has an extended period of time in New Zealand, there is so much to see and do (including penguin colonies which we didn't see due to the time of year). I can't guarantee you'll get good weather, but I think it's worth the risk for even just a moment of pure joy like what we had.