Discover the Catlins | South Island | New Zealand
Laying deep in the south east of New Zealand, the ‘Catlins’ is a diverse, ecologically rich area with ancient podocarp forests, cascading waterfalls and variety of native wildlife.
Known as New Zealand’s Jurassic Coast, the Catlins is located in the south east of New Zealand’s South Island encompassing the edges of two districts - Otago & Southland.
Many choose to remain on State Highway 1 when travelling from Dunedin to Invercargill, unaware that diverting at Balclutha leads to a relatively untouched coastal haven of sandy bays, lazy seals, melodious birdsong, waddling penguins and rejuvenating podocarp forests. Throw in the antics of local sea farers, tales of tragic shipwrecks and extraordinary ancient forests and you’re in for an informative adventure.
The Catlins is part of the Southern Scenic Route and it definitely lives up to being ‘scenic’. From Balclutha you’ll travel through the grassy farmland of South Otago as you set out for Owaka, the first small town on your Catlins journey.
There is a junction along the way at Otanomomo where you can take a left turn and head for Kaka Point and the much-photographed Nugget Point Lighthouse. The track to the lighthouse is well formed and expansive views are incredible. You can also access a walkway to Roaring Bay from here which has a small ‘hide’ where the public can view rare hoiho (Yellow Eyed Penguins) as they come ashore in the late afternoon.
Kaka Point is a delightful wee seaside idyll with welcoming accommodation options should you decide to stay and explore. If you’re looking for a fabulous activity option, try a sea kayak adventure and take in the rugged coastline from the briny. You may encounter some of the aquatic wildlife including seals, penguins & dolphins while paddling. You’ll also enjoy a different perspective of the historic lighthouse and ‘nuggets’ from the water.
A trip to Kaka Point & the lighthouse will take you about 23 kilometres (25 mins) off the main Southern Scenic Route and you’ll need to double back to the junction at Otanomomo to continue your journey south to Owaka.
Owaka (the place of canoes) is the largest town within the Catlins District. A stainless-steel sculpture commemorating 'waka' is located in the museum domain. The museum itself holds a plethora of local treasures and history and doubles up as an information centre. The Owaka Library is also located at the museum and you can receive free WiFi there. Owaka provides a good service centre for travellers with great accommodation options, a small supermarket, hotel, petrol station and cafes. The wider Owaka area is made up of several coves and bays and there are a lot of different routes to choose from that will lead you to places of pure delight and natural beauty. If you’re not too short on time, leave Owaka using Royal Terrace and discover Cannibal & Surat Bays then continue via Hina Hina to Jacks Bay and visit the blowholes. Remember to check tide times for optimal viewing. From Jacks Bay double back to Hina Hina Rd which links into Lakeside Road leading to Purakaunui Falls turnoff. There is plenty of good signposting and these spots are easily found.
Purakaunui Falls is one of the most photographed cascades in the South Island. Easily accessed by a short walk through beech and regenerating podocarp forests, the walk is wheelchair and pram friendly as far as the top viewing platform. From there the track descends to the lower falls area where the most popular images are taken.
Back on the Papatowai Highway the next small settlement is Papatowai itself. Most famous for its quirky resident artist ‘The Lost Gypsy’ Papatowai also boasts an affordable and well laid out DOC camp. You’ll find it located behind the Papatowai Service Station. There’s plenty of room there for larger motorhomes and facilities include flush toilets, a kitchen and a good path to the local estuary. From here you can wander up the road to the gallery which also boasts a coffee cart where you can grab a barista made caffeine fix. (Seasonal)
Heading south from Papatowai you’ll pass over Florence Hill where many travellers choose to pull into the roadside layby and snap the great views over Tautuku Bay.
At the south side of Florence Hill there is a selection of walkways leading through native bush to sandy beaches frequented by sea lions, seals and penguins. You must adhere to the 20-metre rule and keep your distance from all wild animals. Lake Wilkie walk is a favourite, alive with the sound of whistling tree frogs and native bird life. This special environment is also home to Ruru (native brown owls), Hector’s Dolphins, Hoiho (Yellow eyed penguin), Hooker Sea Lions & several glow worm dells.
Located 11 kilometres from Papatowai heading south, turn into Rewcastle Road and travel for 3 kilometres to the car park. From here the track is well formed and easy to traverse. McLean Falls are a sight to behold and well photographed. The walk takes approximately 40 minutes return.
At low tide the general public may be able to take the walk to Cathedral Caves. This is a seasonal attraction and you’ll need to check their website for opening times. Massive caverns have been carved out of the cliff face at Waipati Beach. The walk to Cathedral Caves is one kilometre long via a well formed track through native bush.
Continuing along the Chaslands Highway the hidden gem of Koropuku Falls is easily missed. A tiny hint of the walk is recognised by a small (unofficial) parking area. Care is needed if you’re going to stop here. The 40-minute return walk leads to yet another of the Catlins beautiful waterfalls. The track requires an intermediate level of agility and fitness.
Toward the end of the Chaslands Highway you’ll cross into Southland and head for Waikawa. This little town is riddled in history including agriculture, shipwrecks, gold mining and milling. The local museum is a trove of curios and information.
Celebrating the ecological value and history of the Catlins, Tumu Toka Curioscape is located among remains of a 180 million-year-old petrified forest and gives insights into local geology, flora & fauna including regional history and stories. Curio Bay campsite is located aside Porpoise Bay, an excellent surfing and swimming beach often frequented by dolphins, (hence its name). There’s plenty of powered and non-powered sites to camp on here and a seasonal surf school for those wanting to learn the sport. Tumu Toka Curioscape also boasts a modern café & restaurant welcoming guests to dine for lunch and evening meals.
Continuing South from Curio Bay the road traverses several coastal wetlands skirting Haldane Bay and continues on through the Haldane area. Keep your eyes peeled for the signpost to Slope Point. Slope Point is the southernmost point on New Zealand’s South Island despite many believing the accolade belongs to the tiny township of Bluff. Located on private land the road to Slope Point winds through lush farm land so please be mindful of livestock. Weather beaten macrocarpa hedge rows grow sideways in the howling southerly - a glimpse of the challenge’s farmers face working in this unique area. Take a jacket, even in summer the Antarctic winds can be bone chilling. The famous ‘Slope Point’ signpost is a 20-minute walk from the car park.
The next attraction you ‘must see’ on your journey south is Waipapa Point Lighthouse. Again, the road diverts from the main route, however, the short diversion is worthwhile. The road was once unsealed but now sports a smooth coat of bitumen. While the lighthouse cannot be entered, it remains to be an automated working beacon flashing five times every 20 seconds during the hours of darkness boasting a light range of nine nautical miles (16 kilometres). Waipapa Point Lighthouse was erected in response to the tragic wreck of the passenger ship ‘Tararua’ in 1881, when 151 lives were lost. Well formed tracks lead to the lighthouse and rocky foreshore which is frequented by seals and sea lions. A small cemetery known as the ‘Tararua Acre’ is the final resting place of 55 people who perished when the Tararua struck Otara Reef, destined for Melbourne via Bluff.
There’s more history to be discovered at Fortrose, 10 kilometres south of Waipapa Point. Fortrose is recognised as one of Southland’s earliest European settlements. Records date back to 1834 when a whaling station was established there. If you visit at low tide the 1886 wreck of the ‘Ino’ is visible.
If you are travelling from Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins, just read this article from the bottom to the top.
You’ll find more to discover in the Catlins area here. Enjoy!
Images; Tautuku Bay- Southproud.co.nz, Hoiho - Penguin Place, McLean Falls - Great South, Cathedral Caves - Cathedral Caves.
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