The Catlins in Detail

The Catlins District starts twenty minutes drive southeast of Balclutha. Revered by eco-tourists, the Catlins is a place of awesome natural beauty. Dense forest, deep valleys, towering cliffs and rocky coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries where the great Pacific Ocean bites into the land. This is truly a unique place!
The Catlins District is somewhere to take your time, not to rush on through. So plan to stay at least two or three days and enjoy our very special place!
It is a short drive from Balclutha (off State Highway One), to the growing seaside town of Kaka Point. Here there is a camping ground surrounded by native bush, sheltered from the northwesterly winds. An excellent bush walk, tennis courts and a bowling green are nearby. Motels, Backpackers, other accommodation and a store with licensed restaurant are easy to find. Kaka Point has a lifeguard service during the summer months for swimmers, and is a safe and excellent beach for surfing. There are many other accessible surfing areas on the Catlins coast. There are public toilets adjacent to the Surf Club building on the beachfront.
Further around the coast is the Nuggets Lighthouse, which first began operating in 1870. This spectacular landform is an exceptional viewing point for wildlife such as the NZ Fur Seal, NZ Sea Lion, many species of sea birds, and the occasional Elephant Seal. Nearby is the aptly named Roaring Bay where from the “hide” above the beach you may see rare Yellow Eyed Penguins in the early morning or prior to dusk as they come and go to sea. Dogs are prohibited at this very special wildlife haven.
Enjoy our wonderful wildlife but please do so at a distance!
Inland from Kaka Point, 17 kms distant, is the township of Owaka. Just before arriving at Owaka the road crosses over Tunnel Hill. A short walk leads you into the southern most railway tunnel in New Zealand, excavated by hand in 1891-1892. The Catlins line was a branch off the main trunk railway running from Balclutha through Owaka to the railhead at Tahakopa. The tunnel is 807 feet long and required 2,000 cubic yards of bricks, which were made on a site close by. Take a torch when you explore the tunnel!
A short distance down the road from Tunnel Hill on the left is the turnoff to Cannibal Bay. This is a great beach to observe NZ Sea Lions close up – but no closer than 25 metres! Walk to the end of the beach and over the sand dunes to the magnificent Surat Bay where the sailing ship “Surat” was wrecked on New Years Day in 1874. Sea Lions haul ashore in this bay also and they frequently spend time lazing and sleeping in the sand dunes so take care if you venture off the beach! Surat Bay can also be reached by travelling out on the Owaka to Pounawea road. Cross the bridge 2 kms from Owaka (by the golf course), turn right off the bridge and follow the road to Newhaven.
Please do not take vehicles on Cannibal Bay and disturb the Sea Lions.
Owaka (the place of canoe), is the main service town for farming, forestry, and rapidly growing tourism in the Catlins. There is a range of accommodation options available in and around the township. Backpackers, Motels, Bed and Breakfast, Farmstays, self-contained Cottages, Hotel, and at nearby Pounawea, two excellent Camping Grounds. For eating out there is a diner (with internet facilities), a licensed restaurant, and the Catlins Inn. Services in Owaka include a garage, medical centre, pharmacy, a quilt shop, and a supermarket.  Public toilets are located on the “main street” and at the Information Centre. There is no bank or ATM in the Catlins. The nearest ATM’s and banks are in Balclutha, Gore or Invercargill. Cellphone coverage in the Catlins is patchy for "Telecom" and non existant for "Vodaphone" cellphones!
The Catlins district offers a diverse range of walking and tramping tracks, sea and river fishing, superb photographic opportunities, bird watching, spectacular waterfalls and coastal scenery, boating, and some rare and interesting wildlife. Or you could simply relax, or have a game of bowls, golf, or swim in the heated swimming pool!
When you arrive in Owaka make your first stop the Catlins Information Centre located opposite the Catlins Inn. The Centre is operated by the Clutha District Council with displays and  information on Tourism Service Providers, brochures, and large scale Catlins map and tide times available in the entranceway oppersite the Catlins Inn for after-hours access.
The Information Officer can assist you plan your trip and accommodation as you travel through the Catlins on the Southern Scenic Route. A number of tourist operators conduct guided trips of the Catlins so if you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenery whilst someone else does the driving and provides an invaluable informative commentary, just ask at the Information Centre for details. If you are interested in the local history, a visit to the Catlins Museum is a must.
The closest camping grounds to Owaka are located at Pounawea just 4 kms away. The veteran flat-bottomed scow “Portland”moored in the Owaka River rises and falls on the tides to greet you approaching Pounawea. This is another great holiday spot with good trout fishing in the Catlins River, and for the mouth-watering flounder in the estuary. There are walks, picnic areas, toilets, and a children’s play ground right on the waterfront.
A great facility for large groups is the Keswick Park Camping and Convention Centre at Pounawea. The Pounawea Camping Ground is located adjacent to the scenic reserve and estuary. The estuary offers great bird watching opportunities so look out for the Royal Spoonbills usually seen in this area.
Jacks Bay is 8 kms from Owaka. Follow the Owaka to Pounawea Road and turnoff 1 km from the outskirts of the Owaka township. Jacks Blowhole is reached from the car park at the southern end of Jacks Bay and is a one-hour return walk over farmland. The Blowhole is best viewed at high tide and rough seas. The tunnel is 200 metres from the sea, the hole itself being 55 metres deep. There is nothing else like this in New Zealand. Please respect the access over this and all other private farmland and leave gates as you find them. During lambing (September/October), access is closed.
Looking for a longer tramp in Catlin’s bush?   22kms from Owaka is the Tawanui DOC campsite (clearly signposted off the Southern Scenic Route), and a starting point for the Catlins River Track.   This 5 hour one way track has swing bridges, access to the river to catch that fresh trout for tea, and as a bonus the keen observer will likely see Mohua (Yellowhead), Fantails, Bellbird, and many more native birds. Or you can walk the track from the other end called The Wisp. Transport can be arranged to drop you off at one end and pick you up from the other end on completing the entire track.
In January each year the Owaka Lions Club hosts “Catlins Woodstock” adjacent to the Tawanui Road with bands and music for all ages.
As you travel down the Southern Scenic Route, venture off to take in the beautiful Purakaunui Bay with its awesome cliffs and sweeping sandy beach. This is a popular DOC campsite especially in the summer holidays. Around the coast is Long Point, resting place for the ship Manuka which struck the Point in 1929. This is a great sea fishing area but as always around water, and especially the sea, extreme care is required!
The next stop is a must do!  It is a short bush walk with great birdlife, to see the most photographed water fall in New Zealand, Purakaunui Falls. Linger a while and enjoy the majesty of the falls. From here drive south 100 ms and turn right travelling 4 kms back to the Southern Scenic Route and then on to Matai Falls. There used to be a sizeable township (Caberfeidh), here in years gone, but today little remains but these falls, which resemble a bridal veil. See if you can spot the remains of the Catlins Branch railway as you travel south – much of the track formation remains today.
On leaving Matai Falls drive southwards through rolling countryside to the old sawmilling township of McLennan and onto the popular coastal settlement of Papatowai. For many visitors this is a great central location for their holiday and exploration of the Catlins. At Papatowai you will find an excellent camping ground, Motels, Backpackers and Self Contained Cottages to suit your accommodation needs. The local store sells fuels at both ends of the scale, petrol and diesel for your vehicle, and the bottled variety for the parched!
Papatowai provides great family entertainment with the “Big Dig” and Sports Day on the last day of the year, concluding with the big bang on New Years Eve! Easter is another fun weekend for locals and visitors alike. Public toilets can be found at the car park and picnic area down by the beach.   Around Papatowai there is good fishing for the fly or sea fisherman. There are some great walking tracks in the area ranging from 20 minutes to 3 hours (one way), including one, which takes visitors to a Maori Moa Hunters campsite.
 Florence Hill lookout just south of Papatowai is a must stop to take in spectacular views of Tautuku Bay and Peninsular to the south, and Tahakopa Bay and Long Point to the north. Below the lookout is the magnificent Tautuku Beach, nature walk, extensive native forest, picnic area, toilets, Tautuku Outdoor Education Centre, and the Lenz Reserve Tautuku Lodge complex. The Education Centre and Tautuku Lodge offer excellent accommodation for small or large groups.
Lake Wilkie is a 30-minute return walk and boardwalk around the edge of this delightful feature.   Take your camera on this walk (as with all the other places to visit in the Catlins), for you can get reflections at any time of the year, or, in summer the Southern Rata flowers in the surrounding bush. The nearby Lenz Reserve is an excellent place for nature lovers. Native Wood Pigeons are prolific in this area, whilst adjacent to this private reserve on the other side of the Southern Scenic Route, you can follow the boardwalk out to the Tautuku River estuary and maybe sight the elusive Fernbird.
38 kms south of Owaka you will find the turnoff to Cathedral Caves.  These can only be entered two hours either side low tide. There is a small charge for access, which is part through Maori land.   Remember you must walk down the track through the bush from the carpark (where there are toilets), and along the beach to the caves which will take around 20 minutes. (one way) Check out the sweeping Waipati Beach for wildlife on your way to the caves. A torch is essential to explore the caves lest you step on a Sea Lion, or into a puddle! Heed the advice of the attendant at the caves carpark, it is for your safety!
Barely a kilometre south of the caves turnoff you will see the sign to McLean Falls on your right.   From the carpark and toilets at the end of Rewcastle Road it is a pleasant 40 minute return walk to McLean Falls, said by some to be the most spectacular waterfall in the Catlins.
Retracing your journey on Rewcastle Road rejoin the Southern Scenic Highway through the Chaslands with bush down to the roadside and back onto the sealed road.
Leaving the bush turn left at the major intersection and travel to Waikawa and Curio Bay. The stumps and fallen trees of the worlds finest fossil forest 160 million years old lie uniquely preserved, and exposed on a rock platform at low tide at Curio Bay. Please leave the fossil forest undisturbed for others to enjoy in perpetuity. Yellow Eyed Penguins are often seen in the area around the fossil forest so please do not approach too close to them! Adjacent to this world significant Jurassic identity there is a campsite, toilets and store. Here also is access to Porpoise Bay, a swimming beach where Hectors Dolphin are regular visitors. Please follow the advice given on the information panels about being in the water in close proximity to the dolphins. Other wildlife is likely to be seen in this area. Call into the Dolphin Information Centre at Waikawa for some local knowledge and directions.
Travelling further south, visit Slope Point and Weirs Beach, the southern most point of the South Island. It can get a little windy here at times as evidenced by the local trees!   The last stop on the Southern Scenic Route is to the Waipapa Point lighthouse, and scene of New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster in 1881. 131 souls died when the ship “Tararua” was wrecked on the reef just offshore. Sea Lions may been seen hauled out on the sandy beach nearby.
There is excellent accommodation in the south Catlins area catering for most requirements with Backpackers, Farm Stays, Self-Contained Cottages and Bed and Breakfast.
Your journey through the Catlins began and ends at a lighthouse, between which there is a diversity of wildlife, scenery, accommodation, activity and opportunity for the energetic, and not so energetic. So take the time to enjoy the Catlins.
 
The Catlins, more than just a drive, naturally!
 
Bill Mannix
10 April 2004
(Updated 7-8-05)

 

 

 

 

 


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