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Imagine hillsides draped in native rainforest: tall rimu and kamahi trees, and red flowering rata, sloping down to quiet sandy bays. Penguins waddling to their burrows at sunset, tiny dolphins frolicing in the waves, and sealions basking on the beaches alongside. 

This is the Catlins. Tucked down on New Zealand’s southern coast, well off the beaten track, it’s one of the country’s most beautiful hidden areas. Overlooked by many visitors to the country, it’s a wonderful place to spend at least a couple of days. Here’s what to do while you’re there.  

Getting There

When you’re heading to the Catlins, it’s time to leave behind the hustle and bustle of State Highway One, in favour of the eastern part of the far more beautiful Southern Scenic Route. 

When driving from the north, leave the main road behind in Balclutha, following the signs for Owaka to head into the top part of the Catlins. If you’re driving from Queenstown or Invercargill, keep an eye out for signs pointing toward Fortrose or Waikawa at the southwestern edge instead. 

Once you’re on the Southern Scenic Route, it’s time to relax as traffic becomes as sparse as the phone coverage. Sit back and enjoy the drive along a road full of panoramic views, dense forests, windswept beaches, and quirky attractions from start to finish.

What to See and Do in the Catlins

Let’s be honest: it rains a lot in the Catlins, at any time of year. While I’ve had a few glorious sunny days there, I’ve also found myself driving and walking through pouring rain more times than I care to remember.

That abundant rain is a blessing, though, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time. It gifts the Catlins with lush forest and a remarkable number of spectacular waterfalls. If sheltered bushwalks to magnificent falls are your thing, you’re in for an absolute treat.

I’ve mentioned a few of my favourites here, both well-known and those less visited, but there are many others to choose from as well. Be sure to mark them all on your map before setting out.

Matai and Horseshoe Falls

Matai Falls, Catlins, New Zealand

Location: between Owaka and Papatowai

Park up in the large roadside carpark, and take an easy ten-minute walk through native bush along the Matai stream. There, you’ll find a wooden viewing platform cleverly built into the side of the bank that’s the perfect spot for admiring the 10m-high Matai Falls, and a great place to get your camera out.

Some people stop there, but if the river’s running high, it’s definitely worth carrying on 50m or so up the steep trail to where the stream fans out and drops into the divided Horseshoe Falls.

Once you’ve got your fill of photos and decide it’s time to return to the car, you can go back the way you came, or take the long way home along the old Catlins Railway track. 

This hour-long walk along the cuttings and embankments of the old line offers stunning views, quiet forests, and plenty of historical information. Wear your walking shoes and throw some food and water in your bag, so you can take advantage of the picnic table along the way.

Purakaunui Falls

Purakaunui Falls, Catlins

Location: 17km south of Owaka, near Purakaunui

You couldn’t ask for a more picture-perfect scene than the Purakaunui Falls as they cascade over rocky tiers into the quiet river below. 

Tall trees, lush ferns, and sweet birdsong complete the scene around these iconic falls, and it’s all available via a short, wheelchair-friendly track that runs from the picnic area and car park to the upper viewing platform. 

If you’re happy to raise the heart rate a little, though, it’s well worth making the steep 10-minute climb down to the lower viewing platform (it’ll take you longer to climb back up again afterwards!) The views are much better, which is why this is where so many photographers have taken their classic Purakaunui images over the years. You’ll see the falls on Instagram, in books and calendars, and even on a New Zealand postage stamp!

Koropuku Falls

Location: 24km west of Papatowi

If you’d rather find an off-the-beaten-track waterfall, look out for a tiny signpost on the roadside roughly halfway between Tokanui and Papatowai indicating the Koropuku Falls. There’s only space for two or three cars to park on the side of the road here, an indication of how few people visit.

Don’t wear your town shoes for this walk — you’ll have to scramble over a few boulders and likely through a bit of mud to reach this beautiful curtain waterfall tumbling between lush native ferns. 

There are no picnic tables, toilets, or viewing platforms on offer, just a 15-minute bushwalk and a serene, picture-postcard waterfall at the end. Those photographers lucky enough to know about the Koropuku Falls rate them some of the best in the Catlins.

McLean Falls

McLean Falls, Catlins

Location: Rewcastle Rd. Turn off the main road 11km southwest of Papatowai

While Koropuku may be off most people’s radar, the well-signposted way to the magnificent McLean Falls is hard to miss. There’s a large carpark, and another relatively easy bushwalk (15-20 minutes each way) that takes you to the mossy rocks and 22m drop of these cascade waterfalls, and the second falls on the river below.

Again, if you’re up for a scramble, there are some unmarked, unofficial tracks up to the top of the falls. If you’re fit, the view from the top is amazing. 

Waipohatu Falls

Location: Waikawa Forest, near Tokanui

Another waterfall that’s not high on most tourists’ radar is Waipohatu, which is really two waterfalls accessed via the Waipohatu Waterfalls track. The 6km loop trail is classified as a moderate difficulty walk (some fitness required, and it’s often overgrown in parts), and dogs are allowed so long as they stay on the leash. 

People generally finish the longer walk in about three hours, and it’s well worth doing if you can. If you don’t have that much time or energy, though, you can get to the falls via a much easier bushwalk (the Forest Walk) from the nearby picnic area.

Niagara Falls

Location: Niagara, on the way to Waikawa

Named by a surveyor with a sense of humour, Niagara Falls in the Catlins bears exactly no resemblance to the rather more well-known version in the Americas, or indeed any of the other waterfalls on this list. I’ve seen bigger rapids in my bathtub.

Even so, it’s a good way to spend a couple of minutes and get an amusing photo, and there’s a cafe nearby that does decent food and coffee in a lovely outdoor setting. Is it worth going miles out of your way to see the falls? No, but if you’re heading to Waikawa or Curio Bay anyway, make the one-minute detour, take a photo, and grab a drink at the cafe before you go.

Walk to the Lighthouse at Nugget Point

Nugget Point, Catlins

If you’ve ever seen a photo of somewhere in the Catlins, chances are it was from or of the lighthouse at Nugget Point. Named after the cluster of small rocky islands just offshore, Nugget Point on a clear day is absolutely stunning. I’ve been lucky enough to visit on just such a day — and unlucky enough to go back on a day so foggy I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

Assuming you get good weather, this is one spot that needs to be firmly placed on your Catlins itinerary. Unless you’re staying at Kaka Point, it’s a little out of the way at the end of a dead-end road, but the drive along the coast to get there is spectacular. Kaka Point itself is lovely, and it’s worth grabbing an ice cream and enjoying the chilled-out beach vibes of the place on the way there or back.

Leave your car in the large carpark at the end of the road, then take the obvious walking trail 900m up to the top of the cliff and the lighthouse. Dating back to 1870, the lighthouse is now fully automated, and makes for an iconic photo opportunity.

You’re highly likely to see plenty of bird and animal life on the rocks, in the ocean, and swirling in the air above you. Keep an eye out for sea lions and seals, dolphins, penguins, gulls and shearwaters, and more. Even though you’ll work a bit of a sweat up, it’s worth taking a jacket: the wind gets pretty strong on the exposed cliff.

If you haven’t got your fill of penguins and sea lions, look for the sign pointing to Roaring Bay a few hundred metres back down the road as you leave. Park up, head down the steep trail to a hide/observatory, and wait quietly for a while: there’s a good chance you’ll get a close-up view of the local wildlife, especially towards the end of the day.

Hang Out With the Sea Lions

It’s a surreal experience to walk along a sandy beach and suddenly realise that the rock you saw in the distance is actually a sleeping sea lion. 

All along the Catlins coast, you’ll find beaches that offer you that chance. There’s no predicting when the sea lions will surface, but they’re often seen at Surat Bay, Cannibal Bay, Purakanui, Kaka Point, Waipapa Point Lighthouse, and other beaches along the coast.

I took the above photo at Surat Bay, after spying them half-heartedly fighting with each other through the window of my accommodation! Half a dozen others were dotted along the rest of the beach as well, so they weren’t hard to find on that particular day.

Sea lions are deceptively large: frighteningly so, in fact, when they suddenly pull themselves upright after they’ve been lazing in the sand. You should always treat them with caution, with two basic rules to remember:

Rule number one: never, ever get between a sea lion and the sea, because it can cause them to panic and attack you as they try to get to the water. You’d be amazed how fast a sea lion can move when it feels threatened.

Rule number two: don’t be tempted to get a selfie with a sea lion for the same reason. Take your photos from a good distance, and savour the wonder of seeing such a magnificent, if somewhat smelly, creature in the wild.

Explore the Majestic Cathedral Caves

Cathedral Caves, Catlins

Named because they make you think of soaring cathedrals, these 30-metre high caves sit right on the beach and can only be seen at low tide. Be sure to check the tide charts before visiting: access is only possible from 90 minutes before low tide until an hour afterward. 

From spring (October) to early winter (June), you can walk a kilometre from the carpark through the forest and down a steep, winding path to beautiful Waipati Beach. From there, turn left and walk a short distance along the beach to the majestic Cathedral Caves

Keep an eye on the kids — they’ve been known to fall in the puddles left by the tide — and either take your shoes off, or use footwear that you don’t mind getting wet as you wander to and through the caves. Don’t be shy about whistling and singing inside: the echoes are fantastic!

The path to the caves crosses Maori land, and there’s an access fee to cover maintenance and parking. Expect to pay $10 per adult and $2 per child. You can pay by cash or card.

If you’d like to stay nearby to make the most of this part of the Catlins, the best place to stay is The Whistling Frog

This holiday park has plenty of lovely chalets, cabins and motel units, and sites for caravans, campervans, and tents. There’s award-winning food at the restaurant, and the nearby Country Store at Papatowai has groceries, gifts, fuel, and more.

If you’re travelling as a group, it’s also worth checking out Hilltop Accommodation, just north of Papatowai. A few of us stayed here for a couple of nights on a previous trip, and loved its cozy vibes and glorious sunset views over the surrounding countryside.

Get Reflective at Lake Wilkie

Lake Wilkie, Catlins

Just down the road from Cathedral Caves, Lake Wilkie is often overlooked by visitors to the area. That’s a shame, as it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time, especially if you’re waiting for the tides to be in your favour, but even if you’re not.

Park up in the small carpark and take the trail ten minutes or so through the bush. Largely flat, it winds around one side of the small lake before finishing up at a viewing area. Mostly sheltered from the wind, you should get a picture-postcard shot of the surrounding trees, clouds, and sky reflected in the still waters.

Walk Through an Old Railway Tunnel

Tunnel Hill, Catlins

Back in the day, this part of the country was heavily logged. To make things easier for the timber companies, a railway branch line was built in sections between 1879 and 1915. Like many railway lines of the time, minor geographic impediments like hills weren’t going to stand in the way of progress.

The line was largely closed by 1971, but one of the old tunnels has been preserved and turned into a short walking track, the Tunnel Hill Walk, that gives you a chance to appreciate the engineering prowess of a bygone era.

Park up in the relatively-large carpark and follow the trail for a few minutes to the start of the brick tunnel. It runs for about 250m, and although you can see light from both ends as you walk through, you’ll want at least the torch on your phone to see what you’re walking through: it’s properly dark in the middle of the tunnel, and the ground gets a bit wet underfoot.

Once you get to the end of the tunnel, the track peters out: it’s private farmland from there on. Time to turn around and do it all again!

Visit the Southernmost Point of the South Island

Slope Point, Catlins

If you’re not heading to Stewart Island on this trip, Slope Point is as close as you can get to Antarctica — and on most days, it feels like it! Accessed via a sometimes-muddy track through a farmer’s field, this desolate spot has a weather-worn sign showing you’re closer to the South Pole than the equator, and makes for a good photo opportunity as you gaze out at the endless Southern Ocean.

A handy tip borne of experience: even if it is warm and sunny when you park your car, take a jacket with you: the ever-present wind will drop the temperature by several degrees when you’re standing on the edge of the land. There’s a reason all the trees in the area are bent almost sideways!

Check Out the Remains of an Old Steamship

Shipwreck remains at Fortrose, Catlins

Right on the western edge of the Catlins, the small settlement of Fortrose is a good place to grab a coffee or something to eat on your way into or out of the area. If you happen to be driving past at the right time of day, though, there’s another reason to turn off the main road: the wreck of the steamship Ino.

Time and tides have buried or destroyed much of the wreck since the Ino ran around in 1886, but parts of the rusting hull of the vessel are still clearly visible when water drains from the muddy estuary at low tide. You need to be pretty close to the low tide mark, though: much more than an hour either side, and you’ll see a lot less (or nothing at all).

If the water level is low enough, put a pair of walking or gumboots on and head out onto the soft sand for a closer look.

As spectacular as all the beaches and waterfalls are, the Catlins also offers several other options if you want more than stunning scenery and abwildlife.

Ride Horses With Local Farmers

Catlins Horseriding, aka Te Taunga Adventures, has horses to suit all ages and experience levels, with everything from pony rides for the kids to overnight trekking adventures across sheep and beef farms. The longer rides take in the varied scenery from forests to beaches, and offers more of the Catlins’ stunning views that you can’t get from the road. 

Because Te Taunga is a small family business, they advise you to book your ride in advance. Otherwise, you’re likely to find the horses turned out in the paddock and all the guides out working on the farm when you show up!

Explore the Area’s History at Owaka Museum

The Catlins has a rich and well documented Maori and European history. First came the Maori to explore, hunt, and gather seafood. They gradually gave way to whalers and sealers, who, in turn, gave way to the settlers, forestry, and farming ventures that dominate the region today. 

The modern museum in Owaka has gathered a wide variety of information and artefacts from the surrounding area that covers the full range of human history in the area. You’ll see shipwrecks and railways, textiles and newspapers, and Maori taonga (treasures) from the famous Lockerbie Collection. 

Fun for Kids and Adults Alike at Earthlore

This beautiful 10-acre wildlife garden and nature tours business just outside Owaka is all about reconnecting adults and children with nature. It’s filled with kid-friendly activities that are just as much fun for parents, too. 

Try the guided walk through Bug City, where you help “Inspector Insector” solve a puzzling insect mystery. And there’s a whole food forest, which also happens to be a Frisbee Golf site. Then, how could you resist a puppet show called “The Great Orlando’s Magical Flea Circus”?

Add in the donkeys, sheep, a gypsy caravan, and dressing up, and the kids are in seventh heaven. 

Earthlore is more than garden fun, however. Their “give back” tours offer the chance for visitors to get hands-on with conservation. You could be doing anything from helping to create a rare penguin habitat to having a night-time adventure monitoring critically-endangered bats. It all depends on which project is top of the list when you book.

The Unique Art of the Lost Gypsy

No summertime trip to the Catlins is complete without stopping at Blair Somerville’s unique art experience in the tiny town of Papatowai.

Like many of us, Blair loves tinkering — taking things apart, then putting the pieces back together in weird and wonderful ways. In fact, he loves it so much that he’s made it his day job. All winter, Blair explores machines and movement in his workshop, then every summer, he opens his gallery to share his intriguing creations with the world.

If you’re someone who just has to know what happens when you push that button or tug a lever, Blair’s Winding Thoughts Theatre is your must-see place, with over 120 buttons that trigger lights, sound, and action. 

This is one “museum” where touching is a MUST! I stopped in for a quick coffee on the way past, and ended up staying far longer than expected as I checked out all of Blair’s strange and fascinating creations.

The things in and around the bus at the front of the property are free to explore, and you can buy various random bits and pieces there as well. The theatre itself costs $8.

Teapotland. Yes, Teapotland

As you drive down Owaka’s main street, keep an eye out for hundreds of teapots. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

An enterprising local has turned their obsession into an attraction, and their front yard into a gallery. Park up on the side of the road and take a wander around Teapotland‘s eclectic collection of teapots from around the world. Don’t expect much in the way of organisation or explanation, but that’s not really the point: this is an oddball local attraction, not a museum!

Unless you’re an absolute teapot obsessive, tt only takes a few minutes to walk around and look at everything on offer. There’s no charge for doing so, but if you enjoy the experience, be sure to drop a few coins in the donation box as you leave.

If coffee’s more your thing than tea, note that there’s a particularly good coffee shop nearby, on the other side of the road. The trading hours for Tahatika Coffee Traders are a bit hit and miss, but if it happens to be open when you’re there, you won’t regret stopping by!

See a Petrified Forest (and More) at Curio Bay

Curio Bay, Catlins

Many people would say that if you could only visit one place in the Catlins, it should be Curio Bay. At the southern end of the Scenic Highway, it’s like the Catlins in miniature, with a few unique features thrown in for good measure.

First, there’s the sea; safe and beautiful, Porpoise Bay is perfect for people of all ages to go swimming, bodysurfing, and kayaking. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Hector’s dolphins while you’re there. Only a few thousand of these rare dolphins are left in New Zealand’s waters, and 20 of them often come here to play in the surf. 

Then there’s the famous Petrified Forest. A whole swathe of ancient trees turned to stone over the aeons, and is now visible from the cliff tops at low tide. It’s worth making the 10-minute trek down to the water’s edge to see the fossils up close.

Not far away is the penguin viewing platform. Curio Bay is home to the rare Hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, and the more common blue penguins nest in burrows around the shore. I spotted one tucked up among the rocks on a previous trip: like all wild animals, give them plenty of space if you do happen to stumble across one.

There’s also the popular Gateway Experience, an interactive centre designed to showcase the unique aspects of the area, and the Living Forest, an easy 20-minute nature trail that shows what the petrified forest may have looked like all those millennia ago. Full of native ferns, trees, and birdlife, it’s a lovely way to finish up your time at Curio Bay.

If you’ve allowed yourself just two days for this part of your New Zealand adventure, these are 19 of the best things to do on the beautiful Catlins coast that should keep you well and truly occupied.

In reality, though, they’re only the tip of the iceberg in this remarkable area. If you want to make the most of the coast and relax for a week or even longer, you’ll find many more fascinating forest walks, art galleries, beaches, and wildlife to explore and fall in love with.

Come prepared for wild weather — while you might be lucky and get a week of glorious sunshine, it’s pretty likely to rain at least some of the time. While the weather may be unpredictable, though, the Catlins’ laidback, friendly vibe is always on offer.

Tips for Visiting the Catlins

View over farmland in the Catlins, at the  end of the day
  • Phone coverage is spotty, no matter which mobile company you’re with. Be sure to download offline maps to your phone (here’s how to do it with Google Maps) if you’re using it for navigation.
  • While the main road (the Southern Scenic Route) is paved and well-maintained, expect to do at least some driving on unsealed roads. Many if not most of the minor roads are gravel for at least some of their length, as is the road to the Cathedral Caves carpark. Take it slow, especially if you’re not used to this kind of surface.
  • Give yourself at least a couple of days to explore the Catlins, and more if you have the time. I typically stay two nights, exploring in sections: when coming from the north, I explore the top part on the first day, the attraction-filled middle section on the next day, and the bottom part on the way out the following day.
  • I mentioned it above, but it’s worth repeating: if you’re planning to visit Cathedral Caves, be sure to check the tide times, then plan the rest of your day around them. The entrance gates are only open for a short period either side of low tide.
  • Food options are limited, especially outside Owaka. I was particularly impressed with the Lumberjack Cafe on the main street in Owaka, to the point where I had both evening meals there on my last trip. Be sure to book in advance: there aren’t all that many tables, and the word has got out about the quality of the food.
  • Not sure where to stay in the Catlins? Accommodation options are dotted throughout the area, so you have a reasonable choice about where to base yourself. It’s worth staying at least somewhat central (ie, roughly between Owaka and Chaslands) to avoid too much backtracking. As well as the options mentioned in the Cathedral Caves section above, I most recently stayed at the Surat Bay Lodge, a backpackers with private rooms and dorms. Essentially right on the beach, I saw sea lions from my bedroom window more than once. It’s simple, comfortable, and good value, with a coffee cart on site for your morning (or afternoon) brew, and an easy drive into Owaka for meals and supplies as needed.

All images via author except the remains of the Ino, which was taken by Lauren.

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