The Catlins: Why It Needs To Be On Your South Island Road Trip Itinerary

Honestly, we haven’t really heard of Catlins region until we were at Dunedin.

The Catlins is the most southerly region of the New Zealand’s South Island and is a paradise for nature and outdoor lovers. As part of the Southern Scenic Route (journey between Queenstown and Dunedin), The Catlins is a region which we feel is very underrated.

Here are 16 stunning and off-track places we hope to convince you why Catlins is worth adding to your South Island itinerary!

Nugget Point Lighthouse

The Nugget Point Lighthouse is the most breathtaking lighthouse we both agreed on. It was built in 1869 and sits on the point which overlooks a few outcroppings sea-worn rocks that resemble “gold nuggets”.

Walking time: 20-minutes return

Roaring Bay Penguins & Seals Observatory

Just down from the entrance to the car park for Nugget Point were signs noting a place called Roaring Bay Beach. Yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted from the hide when they come ashore in the evening just after sunset. We were in the viewing hide till dark but no luck on glimpsing any penguins.

Walking time: 10-minutes return

Tunnel Hill

This track is a walk through a historic reserve down to a 19th century 246-meters long tunnel excavated by hands of 70 men to link Balclutha and Owaka for railway construction. A torchlight is recommended to fully appreciated the intricate brick work in the tunnel’s construction. 

Walking time: 20-minutes return

Surat Bay

Surat Bay got its name from the ship “Surat” that wrecked in the bay in 1874. Here, you will find a large colony of the world’s rarest Sea Lion interacting or sleeping on the beach. Do stay out of sight and don’t get too close as they can be quite aggressive.

Walking time: 30-minutes return

Jack’s Blowhole

What makes Jack’s Blowhole so special is that it is located more than 200-meters away from the sea and yet the seawater has somehow made its way through the cliff, and spouts out of the hole. Truthfully, i think the walk is more rewarding than the blowhole.

Walking time: 1-hour return

Purakaunui Falls

The Purakaunui Falls are one of the most photographed falls and have even featured on a postage stamp! Located in the heart of the Catlins Forest Park, the waterfall is just a 10-minutes easy walk through the lush rainforest.

Walking time: 20-minutes return

Florence Hill Lookout

Florence Hill Lookout is one of very few spots where you can pull over and bask in the view from a height. The view overlook Tautuku Bay – wide, horseshoe shaped bay features white sand and wavy blue water and is backed by wind-bent trees.

Lake Wilkie

This stunning reflective lake is small but it would be a shame to miss it. Lake Wilkie was formed after the most recent ice age about 13,000 years ago when water became trapped in a depression between ancient sand dunes and a cliff.

Walking time: 30-minutes return

Cathedral Cave

One of the largest water caves in the world, Cathedral cave can only be accessed a few hours a day during low tide. The Cathedral Caves Walk is managed by a group of landowners of Kāi Tahu descent and a small fee (NZ$10/adult) is required for entry.

We missed this attraction as we were unaware of the opening time.

Walking time: 1-hour return

McLean Falls

The Catlins highest waterfall at 22-meters high, McLean Falls consists of various tiers and pools, surrounded by lush forest. If you have time for only one waterfall, I would recommend this one over the rest of the falls.

Walking time: 40-minutes return

Niagara Falls (NZ)

Unlike the huge Niagara Falls at the border of the USA and Canada, the New Zealand Niagara falls is probably the smallest fall in the world (if it’s even counted as one).

Porpoise Bay / Curio Bay

Porpoise Bay is known for being a place where friendly and rare Hector’s dolphins play. During the right season, you may be lucky to find yourselves surrounded by the little dolphins while swimming or surfing.

A short distance away, the sea exposes a 180-million years old forest petrified in stone at Curio Bay. At low tide, you can see imprints of fallen trees and ferns which look like rocks instead. Also keep an eye out for the small population of endangered yellow-eyed penguins that nest nearby during sunrise or sunset.

Walking time: Both places are short walk from carpark

Slope Point

Slope Point is the southernmost place in the South Island – there is nothing more than a sign, wind-swept trees and beautiful views. If you are not planning to go to Stewart Island, this is probably the furthermost south you’ll ever go!

Walking time: 20-minutes return

Waipapa Point Lighthouse

The historic lighthouse was built in memorial of the worst shipping disasters and its worst civilian shipwreck – the wreck of the passenger steamer Tararua on rocky reefs off of Waipapa Point in 1881. This is also one of the last two wooden lighthouses built in New Zealand.

Walking time: 10-minutes return

Cliffs at Fortrose

The bay’s main attraction is the shipwreck of the Ino Steamship that can only be seen during low tide. For those who appreciate stomach-flatteringly steep lookout points, the Fortrose Cliffs are a worthy photo opportunity.

Accommodation

  • Kaka Point AA Camping Grounds (NZ$17.50/adult)
  • Papatowai DOC Campsite (NZ$8/adult)

Additional Useful Information

  • Limited network coverageBe aware that you might not get reception in a lot of areas in the Catlins. Use maps.me to navigate around the region, otherwise most attractions are easily pointed out with brown signboards.
  • Check low tidesPlaces such as Cathedral Caves, Curio Bay’s Petrified forest and Fortrose shipwreck can only be visited/seen during low tides.
  • Fill up your fuelThere are petrol stations at Owaka, Papatowai and Tokanui but fuel is cheaper outside of Catlins.
  • Buy enough groceryIf you’re planning to spend 2-days in Catlins like us, get enough food as there are no supermarket along the way. The last place you can get grocery is New World Balclutha or Four Square Owaka.
  • Accommodation is a bit limited, so it’s best to plan where and when you’ll stop. Camping at laybys, lookouts and beachsides are strictly prohibited.
  • Dogs are prohibited in most of the areas to protect the wildlife such as penguins and baby sea lions. Do check signs before letting your dog out of the car.

Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!

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Aloha! I'm Bunzy, a curious dreamer who is passionate about roaming around the world getting lost, experiencing new cultures and meeting the locals. My superpower is to be able to sleep anywhere, anyhow!

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