A hoiho on the shoreline.
A hoiho on the shoreline. Jill Worrall

Rare species at home in the south

THE view from the summit of Florence Hill just south of Papatowai is one of timeless splendour. The wide sweep of Tautuku's golden sands curls around the bay, ending in the headland and narrow isthmus of the Tautuku Peninsula.

Rainforest, broken only by the thin thread of the highway, stretches far to the west.

The weather was still unsettled so the stormy sea was pounding the headland beside us, sending plumes of spray up through a blowhole among the tumble of rocks.

There are numerous walks between here and Waikawa about 40km to the south but we were on a mission to reach Curio Bay in time for a date with some of New Zealand's rarest inhabitants.

Curio Bay is perhaps best known for its petrified forest -180-million-year-old fossilised wood that is considered to be one of the best examples of a petrified forest in the world. But early every morning and at around sunset every night it's the yellow-eyed penguins who nest in the coastal scrub above the beach who steal the show.

A side road leads off the Southern Scenic Route (which at this point has turned away from the coast) towards Waikawa. From here the road hugs the shores of the Waikawa estuary, ending at Curio Bay.

From the car park there's a short walk through the rustling rattling flax to a viewing platform that overlooks the petrified forest. If you want to see as much as possible of the amazing array of fossilised tree stumps, logs and even ferns come at low tide.

During peak holiday periods access to the beach is restricted to ensure the penguins are undisturbed as they come ashore (honorary rangers are on hand to supervise this) but at other times you are free to wander across this forest, frozen in time.

Back in the Jurassic era, volcanic action half buried this forest, preserving the stumps. Whole trees were also washed into the area by floods and they too were buried. The process known as silification then replaced the wood with stone, replicating in wonderful detail the structure of the original trees and plants.

When I first came here there were only a handful of other people paddling among the rock pools that had formed between the logs.

Today Curio Bay receives more than 100,000 visitors a year. But as I'd encountered elsewhere in the Catlins this time, I was definitely in a minority - almost everyone else seemed to be from overseas.

That is apart from the two yellow-eyed penguins that had chosen to come ashore a little earlier that day - before the beach was closed off.

Maybe even hardy penguins wanted a break from the southerly storms that had been stirring up tumultuous seas.

One of them had surfed in very close to the staircase that leads to the beach. Graceful in the surf he or she was much less so on land. The penguin hopped laboriously, flippered feet close together, from boulder to boulder up the beach, apparently unconcerned by our presence (visitors are urged to stay five metres away from the birds).

The yellow-eyes, or hoiho, mate for life and lay eggs between September and November so over summer they are feeding their chicks. That meant that somewhere near us - among the hebes and flax above the shore - at least one chick was waiting for its evening feed. But the penguin was not being rushed. It stopped for the odd preen of its feathers and then made a piercing call to alert its young it was on its way.

From the undergrowth came the urgent reply. Hoiho are one of rarest penguins in the world. There are about 5000 left and they are found only in the lower South Island.

Loss of habitat and predators, including dogs, cats and other introduced animals, all threaten the birds' existence.

Becoming a tourist attraction has added another hazard as humans on the beach can deter the birds from coming ashore, which can lead to chicks starving to death.

However, "our" penguin had made it safely into its burrow, assuring its family of at least one more meal.

To the north of Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay, which confusingly is not named after porpoises but after Hector's dolphins, the world's smallest and rarest marine dolphin. Porpoise Bay is the only place in New Zealand where the dolphins regularly come so close to shore.

As if on cue, seconds after we parked our car on the headland that separates this bay from Curio Bay, a small pod of dolphins surfaced just in front of us.

Hector's dolphins come here to breed as well as to feed and rest but at least some of these dolphins appeared to be just surfing the waves for fun.

I could have watched them for hours but a southerly squall had rolled in, obliterating the view.

This truly is the wild south.

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