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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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, more than just a drive, naturally!
10 April 2004