Curio Bay: serenity, surfing and sea lion adventures (with video)

There are plenty of reasons to visit Curio Bay in the Catlins. But travellers who are conscious of their limited time in New Zealand may opt for the more marketed attractions on the regular tourist routes. And they’re missing out. Bigtime.

Curio Bay in the Catlins, South Island, New Zealand

Curio Bay in the Catlins, South Island, New Zealand

Granted, Curio Bay isn’t somewhere you just pop over to from a major South Island tourist hub. Situated off the Southern Scenic Route between Invercargill and Dunedin, it is quite a drive, albeit a spectacular one, through beautiful, rugged, untamed nature. If you thought Milford Sound was remote, try the Catlins and it’ll beat Milford any time for that feeling of isolation, and not only because of the strange lack of camper vans and tour busses on the roads.

But back to my original point: why go there, other than for solace in stunning coastal scenery?

Well, for one Curio Bay is famous for its petrified forest: the tree fossils can be seen at low tide, up close or from a viewing platform, and are over 160 million years old. There’s a fantastic campground there, too, with tent and van sites on top of a hill overlooking the bay. You may also get to see yellow-eyed penguins in Curio Bay. And for the sports enthusiast, Curio Bay’s very own little surf school provides everything a novice surfer needs to successfully stand on their board after only one afternoon of riding the rather docile but regular waves in this beautiful, remote spot. A perfect mixture. Just don’t forget there’s more wildlife than the cute yellow-eyed penguins, and in places where you least expect it…!


Wildlife adventures

It was a relaxed, sunny Saturday afternoon in February, and I had just woken up from a short nap in my tent. I had spent 4 hours surfing (which by the way, was my first time on a surfboard and just brilliant, but that’s another story) and badly needed some energy. Still dozy I stepped out of my tent and couldn’t help but feel that I had really hit the jackpot with my tent location. I mean, it couldn’t have been any better than this: a private spot, nestled between the flaxes, around 10 metres away from the cliffs, with perfect views over the sea. Yes, this was the penthouse suite on Park Avenue in terms of tent real estate!

I realised there was a guy standing near my tent, pointing his camera towards something of interest to my left, so I turned around and saw… a HUGE sea lion. There, 15 metres away, a 300-pound sea lion sunbathing and rolling around in the grass. How on earth did he manage to get there? Climb up the cliffs?! Although my brain was still preoccupied with the awesomeness of wetsuits and surfboards, I somehow managed to react at lightning speed and jumped back into my tent to grab my camera. I had to get a bit of footage and some pictures of that fellow rolling around in the grass before more people came and scared him away back to where he had come from, wherever that may have been.

Curio Bay sea lion, South Island, New Zealand

Curio Bay sea lion, South Island, New Zealand

Oh, what a thought. Little did I know that he was the angry landlord coming to reclaim his habitat. It had somehow escaped me that today’s sea lions prefer more modern accommodation. I was standing between my car and the cliffs when my new little friend decided to run towards me. Who knew these floppy, clumsy looking animals could actually move that fast on land!? I jumped to the side and my partner and I continued filming him at a respectful distance. The rest is best explained by our video here:



Who knew that Curio Bay sea lions were partial to yellow tents? This guy must have really missed his Kathmandu outdoor equipment since his last window shopping experience. In any case, he certainly gave us a run for our money in competing for prime camping real estate! Am I glad I woke up from my nap!

Sea lion on Curio Bay campground, South Island, New Zealand

Sea lion on Curio Bay campground, South Island, New Zealand

So who says you can’t have original adventures anymore in our modern world? If you want to get your adrenaline pumping and don’t have the courage to go bungy jumping, your next New Zealand adventure may just be waiting for you on one of those many stunning campgrounds!


By the way, you can also surf with the hector dolphins in Curio Bay if you’re looking for an adventure that includes wildlife, but not necessarily running away from it…! Have you been to Curio Bay? What was your experience of it?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  6 comments for “Curio Bay: serenity, surfing and sea lion adventures (with video)

  1. meagaan
    22 March, 2011 at 20:39

    hahaha What if you had been inside your tent when that happened!?

  2. 22 March, 2011 at 20:47

    An unexpected cuddle with a 300-pound sea lion is not my idea of a restful nap after an afternoon of riding the waves. I probably would have jumped up and run away, still inside my tent…

  3. Ida
    1 April, 2011 at 22:09

    That 300-pound sea lion sunbathing and rolling around in the grass is sure a once in a lifetime wildlife-experience. Amazing.

    • 1 April, 2011 at 22:42

      It’s a great place to explore wildlife. And sometimes, wildlife explores you…

  4. 29 July, 2011 at 04:27

    The name sounded familiar, and once mention the petrified tree’s I knew for sure I visited that place. Also got lucky and saw a yellow-eyed penguin there 🙂 You are lucky that the sea lion showed up when you where outside the tent, imagine waking up and opening the tent. And then seeing this big sea lion sitting in front of you 🙂

    • Christina
      29 July, 2011 at 05:01

      I didn’t get to see any penguins, but I have to say after the surfing and the sea lion encounter I’d had about enough adventure for the day. Driving on from Curio Bay to Owaka later, I couldn’t shake that thought that you also had: what if he’d visited a little earlier?

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