It’s named after a whaling captain called Edward Cattlin, who gave the Catlins river its name. In 1840, he purchased a large area of land along the river from the famous Māori chief Hone Tuhawaiki – known as Bloody Jack to European settlers.
The Catlins is a vast area of rainforest, hills, waterfalls and coastline spanning from just south of Invercargill to Balcultha, which is just south of Dunedin. Archeological evidence suggests that humans lived there as long ago as 1350AD.
The Catlins is an area of New Zealand that I feel is very underrated. Many tourists miss out the region entirely; their routes normally cut across from Dunedin to Fiordland and the Sounds. Most people we spoke to had never heard of it, and it doesn’t make the Lonely Planet guide’s Top 20 for New Zealand. Losing yourself in nature is ever-appealing to me, and there is something about the Catlins’ lush rainforest and sharp landscapes allow you to cut yourself off from the outside world.
Here’s ten reasons the Catlins should be on your New Zealand itinerary.
The vistas in the Catlins are some of the most dramatic I’ve seen in New Zealand. The saturation on the colours seems to be hiked up; you won’t need to edit the photos you take here! The blue horizon – where the seemingly endless sea meets the sky – contrasts with rugged coastline, pristine beaches, rolling hills and dense rainforests, making a picture-perfect vista. Then you’ve got the sounds of crashing waves and the strong winds almost blowing you over. The Catlins is an attack on your senses – in the best way!
In the Catlins there are numerous opportunities to see seals, sea-lions, penguins and dolphins. The best part? These beautiful creatures aren’t kept in cages for tourists to gawk at; rather they are wild animals roaming their native territory. And if course, it’s completely free to see them, although donations are always welcomed. The best places to see seals and sea lions are at Nugget Point and Waipapa Point, while you might spot an endangered yellow-eyed penguin (Hoiho) a few hours before sunset at Roaring Bay or Curio Bay. Endangered Hector’s dolphins often make appearances at Porpoise Bay in summer.
Additionally, native birds such as the fantail/pīwakawaka, tomtit/miromiro, tūi and kererū/New Zealand pigeon can be seen and heard throughout the area – be sure to keep an ear out while you’re in the bush! And if you aren’t lucky enough to spot the wild animals, you’ll certainly see the New Zealand farmyard favourites – cows and sheep!
The S.S. Tararua struck the reef near Waipapa Point on 29th April 1881 and took 20 hours to sink. Of the 151 people onboard (including the crew), only 20 people survived, and it is still classed as New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster to date. Over 130 years later, the shipwreck is still visible at low tide near Fortrose (it’s signposted). Shortly after the dreadful accident, a lighthouse was built at Waipapa Point which began operating in 1884.
A previous ship sank at Surat Bay on 1st January 1874 – it struck a reef at Chasland’s Mistake, but fortunately there was no loss of life. The lighthouse at Nugget Point was built in 1870. Unfortunately James and I didn’t see either shipwreck because we missed the low tide!
180 million years ago, there was a lush rainforest on the land at Curio Bay, from when New Zealand was part of Gondwanaland (the supercontinent). Today it looks like a rocky beach from afar, but if you look closely, you’ll notice the “petrified” tree stumps and fallen wooden trunks, which were swept away all those years ago by numerous floods. They were fossilised by silica in the ash-filled floodwaters. The sea has since worn away the soil, to expose these fossilised trees.
A few hours before sunset, it’s possible to see yellow-eyed penguins here, returning to their nests to feed their chicks after a day’s fishing. Note: Never stand between a penguin and the nests; it may be scared and return to the sea, leaving the chicks hungry. Never approach the nests and always keep 20m distance from a penguin.
There are numerous places to go fishing in the Catlins, with brown trout and sea-run brown trout the most common fish. Check the Catlins website for more information. Remember to always obey the signs on where fishing is permitted; if you aren’t sure, check with DOC or at the closest iSite (Invercargill or Balclutha) before you leave.
Surfing is popular along the coastline at Porpoise Bay, Papatowai and Kaka Point, so bring your board and go! Remember that the weather in New Zealand is unpredictable and can change suddenly; waves are often very rough.
The imposing Cathedral Caves are probably the most popular attraction in the Catlins, aptly named because of their resemblance to European cathedrals. They are up to 30 metres tall, and you’ll hear reverberating sounds if you whistle or sing.
The caves can only be accessed a few hours per day, whilst the tide is out, as they are situated on the beach. Unfortunately they were temporarily closed when we visited the Catlins in early November as the sand along the beach had caved in and was unsafe to walk on.
There are plenty of tramps to suit all abilities in the Catlins, from 30 minute walks with disabled access, to the Catlins River Walk & Wisp Loop Track, a two-day trek through the bush. Unfortunately the two-day tramp was closed for logging while we were there, however we really enjoyed the 3-hour Waipohatu walk, where you are able to see a stunning waterfall.
Other short walks we enjoyed are:
Has anyone here seen the children’s film called Ferngully? I keep saying to James that New Zealand bush is like Ferngully but he hasn’t got a clue what I’m on about. Anyway, the bush walks in the Catlins are lush, green, filled with ferns and mosses and all sorts of trees, from the small kowhai to the towering Rimu. Often you’ll walk beside a stream and notice tiny creeks or waterfalls crossing your path. You’ll hear the sounds of native birds and animals in the bush, and see the rays of sunlight creeping their way through the tree canopy. Honestly, I have never been somewhere that I have felt so at one with nature; it’s like something out of a film. They feel magical, like in Ferngully; the only thing is that you can’t see is the fairies!
New Zealand knows how to do a good waterfall. The waterfalls in New Zealand are bigger, clearer, and just downright prettier than anywhere else I’ve seen them. And I don’t know how, but the waterfalls are EVEN BETTER in the Catlins.
To name but a few, there’s the huge, beautiful McLean Falls, the stunning, layered Purakaunui Falls (which are amongst the most photographed waterfalls in the world), and the ironically named Niagara Falls.
Slope Point is modest, with just a sign to advise the distance to the South Pole and the Equator (it’s closer to the South Pole). The landscapes here are really something – the rugged coastline meets the huge crashing waves, and the wind will almost blow you off your feet. When you park up, you’ll notice the windswept trees across the farmland – bizarre. It’s gorgeous, and the next stop is Antarctica!
There’s no phone signal in the Catlins and very few shops, cafés or petrol stations. But there’s also very few tourists as many tour buses don’t include the region in their itinerary. This is what I like the best about the Catlins: it’s a place to escape the real world, be at one with nature, and to take some time to just chill out. You don’t need to cram all of the attractions into a short, strict itinerary – spend a few days, get up later, drive slower, go down the intriguing unmarked roads and feel as though you’re the first person to be exploring such a beautiful area.
So you’ve decided you’re going to visit the Catlins – great! Undoubtedly the best way to see the region is by car or campervan. It’s very easy to navigate; the main road is part of the Southern Scenic Route (SH92) highway, and the attractions are clearly signposted off this road so you won’t need a Sat-Nav. Pick up a free map at the nearest iSite (Invercargill or Balclutha) which details the roads. Some roads are “unsealed” which is New Zealand’s way of describing bumpy, gravel roads, but you should be able to access all of them with a normal vehicle. The only public transport is limited to the Bottom Bus which departs from Dunedin 3 times a week.
There are a number of motels, lodges and cottages in the Catlins, as well as backpacker hostels, holiday parks and DoC and free campsites. As we’re on a budget, James and I only stayed in cheap campsites; we recommend the council-run campsite in Waikawa (free) and Papatowai DOC campsite ($6 per person per night). From Invercargill, try Lignite Pit Stop Café & Campsite, which is about 30mins drive to Fortrose ($5 per person per night). In Gore, we liked the Golf Club campsite ($8 per vehicle per night).
Be sure to visit an iSite before you embark on your adventure – the closest ones are in Balclutha or Invercargill. Here you can pick up free maps and leaflets (we liked the purple Catlins leaflet, the Southern Scenic Route leaflet, & there’s also some useful info in the Southland & Fiordland A-Z visitor guide). Also remember to check the tide times if you plan on visiting Fortrose’s shipwreck, Curio Bay’s Petrified Forest or the Cathedral Caves – you’ll want to plan your itinerary around this!
Also bear in mind that the last ATM is at Owaka, and fill up with fuel before you leave; although there are petrol stations at Owaka, Papatowai and Tokanui, the fuel is cheaper outside the Catlins. Since there’s no network coverage in the Catlins, you may wish to let someone know where you’ll be going if you’re planning on staying a few days.
You can visit the Catlins website here: www.catlins.org.nz.
I have to say, the Catlins is possibly my favourite area of New Zealand (so far at least!) It really has everything you need, and is a wonderful place to escape for a few days. I personally recommend spending at least a couple of days in the Catlins, though you could easily stay longer to do all of the walks.
Thanks for reading and happy travels!