Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in the Catlins


Well, as you can see from the heading and the photo below, we're having Christmas in the Catlins this year. 

We're at the Pounawea Motor Camp, just a few kilometres from Owaka in south Otago. The camp is a very compact little motor camp surrounded by native bush and on the edge of the Pounawea Scenic Reserve.

We arrived a few days ago, ahead of our Winton family, who will be joining us in their caravan on Friday for Christmas & New Year. The Christmas lights are up although being way down here in the south they don't start twinkling until well after 10pm. One of the bright orange camp lights illuminates everything on the other side of the van, it's just as well we've set up on this side otherwise the lights would be non-existent.

The camp also sits on the edge of the huge Pounawea Estuary.

Pounawea means 'meeting place of waters', and it is, as the Owaka and Catlins Rivers flow down either side of the small peninsula Pounawea and the camp sit on. The tide movement is massive inside the estuary, it disappears across the mudflats at a very fast rate, it can also creep up on you very quickly if you turn your back.

The birdlife across the estuary at low tide is fantastic, all the usual suspects and more, along with plenty of those comic cousins of the White Heron, the Royal Spoonbill, the one on the right complete with leg bling!

We've explored this area before, we've spent about 6 weeks in the Catlins during two visits not long after we arrived in the South Island three years ago. We stayed at Newhaven near Surat Bay which is across the estuary from Pounawea. We drove around to Newhaven to check the walk to the bay out for sealions (none spotted). The Catlins is well known for sealions, they haul out to rest on the beaches and in the sand dunes right along the coastline. They also swim up the estuaries at high tide and rest on the banks. We'd already seen two at a distance, one near the camp and one over the far side. 

This is looking back towards Pounawea from Newhaven, the camp is in the bush at the left of the houses.

While there's plenty of bird life out on the estuary, the bird life around the camp and in the reserve is positively amazing. The dawn chorus is spectacular- spectacularly deafening! I can set my watch by it- 4:40am and the cacophony steadily builds to a very loud crescendo before suddenly dying to the odd late comer call about 45 minutes later.

I turned my camera video on to record the noise for you- an amatuer attempt, there are no pictures of course, it's still pitch-black, but at least you can hear some of the noise from the resident bellbirds and tui along with many others chiming in. There is one noise that had stopped before I thought about recording it, I'll try for another recording and add it to the blog in a day or two.

Of course once the birds wake me there's no going back to sleep, so I've taken the opportunity of watching the sunrise the last three mornings. 

The camp has a number of cabins along the water's edge, what a great view to wake up too.

Now you'll have to bear with me on this next little story. After taking the sunrise photos above I went back to the van and back to bed to read the web 'papers'. I got up again about an hour later and lifted the blind in the lounge. As I looked out I saw, through a gap in the trees, a log floating past (we're about 100mtrs from the water) and then I thought that was no log, when it floated through the next gap. I grabbed my camera, dressing gown and Crocs (in that order!) and raced down to the water's edge just in time to see a sealion hauling itself out of the water further up the estuary.

There's a walk from the camp through the reserve and around the estuary and back along a short path to camp. I thought I'll walk down the short track and find the sealion on the estuary edge. I did a double take when I saw him approaching me up the path! I quickly retreated to the other side of the fence and he stopped too, probably wondering at the fluffy white(dressing gown) 'sealion' approaching him. I've lightened these photos a lot so you can see him but it was pretty dark and pretty scary with a big lump of blubber thumping down the path towards me.

I thought he'd disappear into the bush or back the way he came but no, he wobbled his way all the way up and around the end of the fence- 'he's done this before', I think to myself.

And sat down near one of the cabins (no one staying in it)...

He was a big boy with a mane as well.

I kept a good distance away from him (actually a tree trunk or two between him and me), I've seen how fast they can move, but in the end he must have decided this wasn't the place to hang out today and headed off towards the cabin!

He crossed the deck (imagine that, sound asleep with the curtains open to hear a thump, thump, thump and wake up to a sealion on your deck!)...

...and by the time I got to the edge, was heading off into the sunset....I mean sunrise! What an cool experience, you just never know where or when they're going to happen. Two seconds either way in opening that blind and I would have missed him altogether, and been none the wiser waltzing along the track later in the day. Now I carefully check in the undergrowth as I pass by.

Yesterday we did a little tiki-tour back to Nugget Point...

...just to check it out again after our previous visit.

And surprise, surprise, it was just as stunning and breath-taking...

Next was a re-visit to Cannibal Bay, where we'd seen eight sealions on our last visit. This time there was just the one, sound asleep at the far end of the bay.

We parked up not far from him and had lunch on the back of the ute. It looks lovely and sunny but there was a very cold wind blowing in off the sea.

I got a couple of strong whiffs of seal while we were having lunch and then spotted a couple just behind us on the rocks, a male sound asleep in the sun and another creeping through the rocks towards him. They had a bit of a tussle after spotting each other and the intruder was sent packing.

The sleeping seal resumed his sunbathing and slumber position but kept a beady eye on us for a short while. 

Did you know that seals are mostly found on rocks and sealions on sand, seals have a 'dog' face with a pointy nose and long whiskers, while sealions have a bear face and shorter whiskers. Seals are generally scared of humans and will head to the water, sealions aren't afraid and will often mock-charge humans (and bite if they get close). Sealions have the ability to 'walk' on land while seals have to slither forward because their flippers don't rotate.

After lunch we walked across the headland on a very sandy track and through hundreds of yellow lupins (you can rest easy, I don't like yellow lupins but the perfume was divine)... check out the north end of Surat Bay for sealions! The last time we walked 5kms along the beach from Newhaven to find 4-5 sealions here too. Not today, there wasn't a single one to see. The entry to Pounawea Estuary is down the far end of this bay.

We retraced our steps back over to Cannibal Bay, headed back along the beach to the road and back home to Pounawea.

The birds woke me once again this morning and a quick glance out the window confirmed that there was going to be another intense orange sunrise so it was on with the dressing gown and back down to the water's edge although the tide was still on it's way in. And not a wayward sealion in sight.

This will be my last post for awhile, I'm going to do a little relaxing and enjoy some family time over the holiday period. I would like to take this opportunity of wishing you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful New Year, wherever in the world you may be.

I'd also like to thank each and every one of you for your continued support and encouragement for my blog and photos during the past year. It makes it all worthwhile knowing that there are people 'Out There' enjoying and following along on our travels. Take care & travel safely, see you in the New Year.

Ohau C Campground, Lake Benmore, MacKenzie Country


  1. Wow, wow, wow! How lucky were you to get to see the sea lion staggering down the path. One of the photos of him looks just like a statue. I know that you know (does that make sense!?) how much I want to be in places like this taking photos like this - but after this blog, I AM SO, SO, SO KEEN. Thanks for sharing these pics and keeping me so enthused. We wish you and David a very Merry Christmas and a happy and safe 2017 xox.

    1. Thanks Katrina, we've had a wonderful Christmas & New Year and it looks like you guys have too. Safe travels and enjoy your new life.

  2. Wishing you and David a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I look forward to reading about your travels in 2017 and seeing all your amazing photos. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us.

    1. Hi Joanne, lovely to hear from you and thankyou for your kind words, I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog. You have a great 2017 too.

  3. I had read about the “Dolphin of Pounawea” and was quite keen to track it down when we traveled down that way several years ago. Not a real dolphin, but a simple wooden structure built in 1882 for the grand sum of 25 pounds. Boats returning to the estuary tied up at the dolphin, then the force of the turning tide swung the boat around the narrow estuary channel. Once very common, few of these timber dolphins survive today. Not quite sure what our travelling companions thought of the dolphin when we finally found it - a little less than enthused, I feel. But it was an interesting piece of local history that still survives, so well worth checking out.
    Merry Christmas and safe travels to you both. We love reading your blog, admiring those wonderful photos and following your travels.
    Robin and Jenny, Romany Rambler

    1. Hi guys! Yes, I found the 'dolphin', it was one of the first photos I took when we arrived. It's taken on quite a lean since our last visit and I'm not so sure it'll last the distance which is a shame. Look out for it in my next blog. Thanks for your lovely words and I'm glad you're still enjoying the blog. Safe travels and all the best for the coming year too.

  4. I really enjoy reading your blog Shellie. Entertaining and informative and such beautiful photos. I do hope you and David have a lovely Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

    1. Thankyou Ruthena for your kind words which are much appreciated. I'm pleased you're enjoying the blog and photos. I hope you had a lovely Christmas too and all the best for 2017.

  5. What a fantastic place for Christmas! Love the sealion story. I have yet to meet one, envy you. Any mistletoe down there? Looking forward to more exciting posts in the coming year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, David and everyone in the family, have a great time in Catlin!

    1. Hi offstone, hope you've had a lovely Christmas and New Year too. The sealion hasn't been back that I know of but a leopard seal made a feisty appearance while David was fishing yesterday. It chased people out of the water and scared poor Ollie so much he had to come home. No mistletoe to speak of either- will need to return to the mountains for that. All the best for the coming year and maybe we'll see you again soon.

  6. Dear Shellie and David,
    Thank you for continuing to blog and your photo stops and photos are amazing. I started following you a couple of years ago via email and this April I was talking to my sister and found out she has been following you since you started so you have loyal KIWI followers not only in God’s Own Country but across the pond. Your journeys remind me of the words of Frost:
    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less travelled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    Happy New Year.

    1. Hi Olwyn, it's lovely to hear from you and to hear what a small world it really is. I'm honoured to have both you and your sister following me and to know that you both enjoy the blog and my photos so much. Thankyou. And I love that poem, I remember reading it when I was looking for a blog name, you've just reminded me again. Best wishes to you for the New Year.

  7. Thanks for your write up. It made my day. We live at our farm way off Clydevale but never camp at Punouwea. Will make an effort this new year. Always think that the Catlins is on our doorstep befitting the visitors from afar. Now your blog definitely changed my mind. Thanks a million!
    Happy new year to you and David.
    Safe travel for 2017 and beyond.
    The Ranch

    1. Hi there Wichanee, thanks for taking the time to comment and for your kind words. Sometimes it takes another person to point out what's in your own backyard as often we take it for granted. The Catlins is a very special place and we thoroughly enjoy our visits here....although sometimes I wish the weather was a little warmer! ;) Best wishes for 2017 to you too. And enjoy Pounawea when you stay too.


Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's much appreciated.