McLean Falls, The Catlins, South Island, New Zealand“Are you scared?” she asked me. Scared, me? No way. But the truth was I was a little scared. New Zealand is often considered the adrenaline capital of the world but I wasn’t queueing up to jump off a bridge or leap out of a plane. No, I was getting ready to walk back into a pub full of local Kiwis. When I first set foot in room 3 minutes earlier in my bright blue jacket and brown beanie with a silly puffball on top, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Getting stared at by every set of eyes in the room was unnerving enough the first time around and now that I’d placed my order with the waitress in the Bistro next door I was steeling myself for re-entry.

It was my second to last full day in New Zealand and I wanted to spend it being a tourist. The previous three weeks were hardcore photography bootcamp: sunrise and sunset every day, marathon drives, and more than one multi-mile hike back in the dark. I was exhausted and it was time to relax a little. So two days before my flight back to the US I found myself in the Catlins, the wet, wild, and seldom-visited southeast corner of NZ’s South Island.

The plan was, well, there was no plan. I just wanted to sit back and relax. But too much relaxing in the Catlins can come back to bite you since every place that serves food closes at 5:30 in the evening. Every place except one that is: the Tokanui Tavern. At first glance the place was about as charming as a hospital and looked like it ordered its furniture from the same catalogue. Formica tables and hard-backed plastic chairs, fluorescent lighting, and I think I even saw a defibrillator lurking in the corner. But as non-cozy as the Tokanui Tavern was, it did have two major things going for it: it was open late, and it served damn good fish and chips. For those two things I’m willing to brave the stares of every Kiwi in gumboots on the planet. And in the end the Tokanui locals were just curious -as all locals everywhere are- and were warm and welcoming. Once the ice was broken I had a lovely evening chatting with them, playing a little pool, and munching on fish and chips. A great start to my Catlins adventure.

The Catlins are known for three major things: waterfalls, wildlife, and a storm-lashed coast. The seascaper in me was hungering to explore every nook and cranny of that coast, but with my flight home looming in the not-distant-enough future, I decided to save the exploring for my next trip. Instead I opted to keep things low key and just poke about the area surrounding Curio Bay, which is rife with waterfalls. Saving the best for first I visited the amazing, torrential, gut-rumbling wonder that is Niagara Falls, New Zealand. Yes, that little trickle in the background is it.

Niagara Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

Named by an American surveyor with an idiotic sense of humor, Niagara Falls New Zealand is startingly underwhelming, little more than a series of rapids and boulder-strewn white-water chutes. I think my face pretty clearly paints the picture of how amazing these falls are. But the nearby Niagara Cafe served up an delectable brownie sundae which pumped me back up in a surge of sugar-driven perkiness. The joke was over, now it was time to visit a real waterfall.

Enter McLean Falls. This thing is like the energizer bunny of waterfalls: it just keeps going and going and going. The stream (the McLean stream I assume?) tumbles down a nearly endless series of cascades, finally finishing up in a pool 66 meters lower than it started. I got to the falls early afternoon, and like afternoons everywhere, it seemed like I hit rush-hour traffic. Dozens of tourists were milling about the falls overlook and a few plucky souls even clambered up the rocky terraces to the bottom of the first cascade. And as eager as I was to shoot these beautiful falls, I wasn’t particularly excited about having adventurous tourists in my shot. So I sighed a big photographer sigh and waited for everyone to leave.

One of the great things about being a photographer is you tend to have more patience than just about everyone who is not a monk, so I stuck it out and soon enough the snapshot shooters were done and scooted back down the trail, leaving me all to my lonesome. I crept out onto the first slippery-as-snot set of terraces and plunked my camera down right next to the falls for an in-your-face view, fending off a fair bit of watery shrapnel, but being rewarded with shots like this for my troubles.

McLean Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

Now waterfalls are great and everything, but the real reason people flock to Curio Bay is the animals. There’s a resident population of Hector’s dolphins who live entirely within Curio Bay. The octogenarian running the area I-site told me that these happy, frolicksome critters can actually be a nuisance in the summer by playing with and nuzzling swimmers in the water. I can only imagine the complaints: Grandma, I want to go swimming but there are too many happy dolphins who want to play with me! Yeah, life must really suck for you. In the Fall the dolphins obviously become a bad-tempered, elusive, and sneaky group because even though I went looking for them I didn’t see squat.

Though I did see squat, little penguins. Curio Bay is the best place in the world to see the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, one of the rarest penguins in existence. Every dusk, these goofy little guys haul themselves out of the ocean in order to puke up a fish-based paste for the enjoyment and nutrition of their youngsters. With this kind of predictability, it’s equally predictable that you’ll see scores of silly humans at the shore straining to catch a glimpse of these ungainly creatures. It’s a bit of a zoo, and I’m not talking about the penguins.

Tourists in Curio Bay to photographing Yellow-Eyed Penguins

In New Zealand it’s just as common to call something by its Maori name as by its English name. And so a Yellow-Eyed Penguin can also be called a Hoiho, which sounds to me like a line-dancing move: Take your pardner by the hand, now ho-i-ho! Most of the tourists were hoihoing up and down the beach looking for penguins, as if one was somehow better than another. I saw one penguin, now let’s go find another for it will surely be yellower and more-eyed than the last! Just like my visit to the Catlins in general, I decided to not run around trying to see every penguin, but rather to just chill out and enjoy this Hoiho as he made his nightly commute from the sea to his waiting young.

Yellow-Eyed penguin at Curio Bay, The Catlins, New Zealand

*please note it’s actually pronounced hoi-ho

Hoiho and waterfall experiences in hand, I wrapped up my Catlins visit and headed back to Queenstown for the flight home. A great end to an amazing photography adventure.


(The Catlins is one of the areas we visit on our epic New Zealand Photography Tour, so if you’d like your own chance to photograph yellow-eyed penguins, luscious waterfalls, and an extremely dramatic coast, check that workshop out.)

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