‘Let the Catlins captivate you’ is the slogan for this area, and captivate us it did. It’s where the rainforest meets the ocean and rare wildlife calls its rugged, remote coastlines home. I’m amazed it stayed off of our New Zeland ‘to-do’ list for so long, but I won’t let you make the same mistake as us! I want to show you all of the amazing places to see in the Catlins so that your road trip along the South Island South East Coast is just as captivating as ours was.
Nugget Point Lighthouse is most iconic part of this road trip through the Catlins
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Where exactly is ‘The Catlins’
The Catlins comprises of the South Eastern strip from Invercargill up to Balclutha. A road trip through the Catlins will take you across two regions, Otago and Southland, where you’ll see the distinct changes in the landscape as you navigate back towards the North. Very few tourists seem to find themselves in New Zealand’s Far South, compared to other regions such as Mount Cook and Milford Sound, but I predict that that’s about to change.
This map is just a quick outline of the distance we covered. We outline more stops in more detail below.
How long should I spend in the Catlins?
We spent a measly 3 days doing our road trip through the Catlins. We saw a lot in this time but it certainly left us wanting more.
If you don’t have long, a couple of days to get you along the coast is a quick enough road trip through the Catlins to see the key spots (we’ll talk about those soon!!) but I honestly feel like it deserves a good 5 days to a week to really get a feel for the area and up your chances of spotting some of its rarest inhabitants.
What wildlife can I see at The Catlins?
Due to its often remote and rugged landscape, the Catlins is home to some of New Zealand’s rarest species and if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot some of them, even a short road trip through the Catlins.
- Yellow-Eyed Penguins
- Little Blue (Fairy) Penguins
- New Zealand Sea Lions
- Hectors Dolphins
- An Assortment of Whales
- Elephant Seals
- Fur Seals
- Rifleman (small bird)
… And many, many more birds!
This road trip through the Catlins is a great opportunity for spotting wildlife
Road Trip Through the Catlins Itinerary
Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this post, shall we? This is, after all, the main reason you’re all sat here reading, right? Here are all of the amazing places to see in the Catlins!
Bluff is a very well known area of the South Island for a very deceptive reason, in my opinion. It’s touted by many tourists as being the most southerly point in New Zealand, a fact that I’ve recently learned is incorrect!
What they ought to be saying is Bluff is the most historic and most southernly Port Town in New Zealand. Only a slight change but incorrect facts narc me a little bit haha.
Now I’ve cleared that up, Bluff is also world-renowned for its famous Bluff Oysters. They’re apparently amongst the best you can find, but I refuse to try anything that’s been described to me as slimy, salty snot, so you’ll have to find that one out for yourself.
For those of you who want to live on the wild side, Bluff is the only place in New Zealand that offers the experience of cage diving with sharks. An activity that has recently been somewhat controversial it’s high on the bucket list for many backpackers and wildlife enthusiasts… Dec included, but you’ll have to wait and see if we decide to do it or not.
Other things to do in Bluff include:
- Walking to the top of Bluff Hill to get 360’c views of the coast and Port Harbour.
- Bluff Maritime Museum
- Get a selfie at Stirling Point
- Green Point Domain + its ship graveyard
- Jump on a boat to Stewart Island
NOTE – Invecargil is your last fuel stop for a while. Fill up before heading any further along the South East Coast.
Want to visit the most southerly point in New Zealand? Then this is the place to be.
An hour from Buff (via Fortrose) and down roughly 15 minutes of very gravely track, Slope Point is the true south of New Zealand. This part of the South Experiences some of the strongest winds in the country, so don’t be surprised when you see trees that have grown almost horizontal to the ground. They’re an impressive sight and for the photographers amongst us, perhaps a reason of their own to visit Slop Point while you’re road tripping the Catlins.
Top tip; There’s a free campsite just around the corner from Slop Point for both Non and Fully Self Contained campers, so if you want to break up your trip here’s a nice little camp to do so.
This is the cutest Bay on the South East Coast is Curio Bay. There are a lot of amazing places to see on a road trip through the Catlins, but this was one of our favourites and we wish we’d factored in more time here. There’s simply too much to see for a flying visit, especially if you want to see wildlife.
The Petrified Forest
Curio Bay’s most unique attraction comes in the form of an ancient fossilised forest. The trees that have been preserved here date back over 18million years and of the few petrified forests left in the world, none have remained in such good condition as Curio Bay’s Petrified Forest.
You’ll need to time your visit around low-tide as for most of the day the forest is buried under the waves. You can either use this website or ask at the information centre for the latest tide times.
Curio Bay Penguin Walk
Best done at dusk or dawn, the Penguin Walk does what it says on the tin. It’s a short walk close to the Petrified Forest that takes you through the nesting grounds of the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Of course, there are no guarantees that you’ll see them, but going at a time when they’re more likely to be active – like sunrise/sunset – certainly ups your chances.
This is completely free but the information centre appreciates donations to help fund their conservation.
You might even see Yellow Eyed Penguins on this road trip through the Catlins
Hectors Dolphins + New Zealand Fur Seals
During your road trip through the Catlins, you have a high chance of seeing Hectors Dolphins, New Zealand Fur Seals and maybe even a New Zealand Sea Lion. I’d say your chances are increased with a visit to Curio Bay.
This place seems to be favoured by a lot of sea life on the South Coast, Hector’s dolphins are both the smallest and the rarest of the dolphin species but you’ll be pleased to know they often call into the bay to catch a wave or two with swimmers and surfers.
As with all wildlife, especially oceanic, you’ll need to activate your patience if you really want to see them. That’s why we recommend spending at least a couple of days around Curio Bay.
Wander off the beaten track to Koropuku Falls, the least known waterfalls within the Catlins. The 40-minute return walk will lead you to the most forgotten waterfall in the area. At just 10m tall, isn’t as majestic as the others but the tranquillity makes this Catlins waterfall worth the stop! It has limited road signs and a very small roadside car park, so keep your eyes open for it!
Road Trip Through the Catlins Itinerary Continued
The next waterfall of the Catlins road trip and possibly the busiest. It’s just a short 20-minute walk to reach this spectacular cluster of falls but there are a fair amount of steps along the way. Once you reach the plunge pool, you’ll be greeted with pounding water flowing over two sections before flowing down a second smaller fall called ‘The Chute’.
The viewing area can get pretty crowded and isn’t fenced off from the edge of the water so watch your footing. We saw too many near misses of people slipping a little too close to the edge for comfort.
At the end of the 3km of gravel road, here’s a pretty big car park for McLean Falls as well as ‘proper’ toilets – not long drops for once!
There are plenty of waterfalls to chase on this road trip through the Catlins
Ok, so we actually skipped this due to bad tide timings (again!) but it really is a must for your road trip through the Catlins.
The Cathedral Caves are made up of two passages that together measure to 200m long. Standing under their 30m high ceilings makes for some incredible pictures. They remind me of Cathedral Cove on the North Island which I think is why we didn’t feel too guilty leaving them off our own Catlins road trip.
Access to the Cathedral Caves is only possible at low tide and there’s a $10 entrance fee. This passes through private property so the gate is closed during high tide to avoid people trying to attempt gaining access while it’s unsafe.
You can find tide times here
NOTE: No dogs or drones are allowed at Cathedral Caves.
Need fuel? Papatawai is the first small town you’ll come to on this road trip through the Catlins. There’s also a small shop here and a couple of campgrounds.
Don’t rush before visiting Papatawai’s most unique attraction – The Lost Gypsy Gallery.
This small gallery is run by a local artist and is full of unique collections of ‘stuff’ and artwork. There’s a small $8 fee to enter the main gallery, but entry into the quirky collection inside the antique style gypsy wagon is free!
This waterfall was slightly less busy than the previous one which was surprising as it’s the one we’d heard the most about. This area was used as a filming location for… you guessed it… Narnia. Wait, was that not what you were expecting. Huh. Well, there’s a wee bit of film trivia for you aye.
Purakanui Falls is tucked away down a 4km gravel road that gets very narrow in places. You might want to rethink this section of the Catlins road trip if you’re in a large motorhome. There’s a pretty big car park along with long drop toilets and a map of surrounding walks.
The 20minute return walk takes you through a pleasant little section of the rainforest before it opens up to the wooden viewing platform.
Want slightly better photos? Head down closer to the water onto the big rocks.
The Purankanui Falls are the most popular on this road trip through the Catlins
Fuel stops are like buses along the Catlins Coast. You’re waiting for one for ages and then two appear together. Owaka is slightly bigger than Papatawai as it also has a small 4Square if you’re in need of a few groceries too.
While you’re passing through, keep your eyes peeled for TeaPot world. Yes, that’s a real thing! It’s not quite like Lego Land, but this private collection-come roadside attraction of TeaPots has been bringing smiles to travellers passing by for years.
We almost skipped over Jacks Bay but I’m so glad we didn’t! This was our first sighting of New Zealand Sea Lions and man they were big’ uns. We also managed to find a Paua shell on the beach but I’m positive it was a fluke.
There’s also Jacks Blow Hole here too but if the weather is in any way nice, or the tide is out, don’t bother. We walked 40minutes up a lot of steps only to come away feeling ‘meh’, all because of bad timing and great weather.
In order for Jacks Blow Hole to be ‘blowing’, the waves need to be fierce and the tide needs to be high.
Surat + Cannibal Bay
If you’re a fan of quiet secluded beaches, epic sunrises and the chance to see wildlife then these two bays are a must.
We camped at New Haven Holiday Park that backs onto Surat Bay and at low tide, you can enjoy a nice walk round to Cannibal Bay or drive 10-minutes up the road. Both Bays are accessed via a gravel road (something that’s a regular occurrence in the Catlins) but once you’re there, sit back and enjoy the golden sands and peacefulness with nobody else around you.
The wildlife you can see here includes Dolphins, New Zealand Fur Seals and New Zealand Sea Lions.
Sea Lions are almost guarenteed on this road trip through the Catlins
Nugget Point is often the furthest South a lot of travellers decide to go, not knowing about the rest of the gems hiding along the Catlins Coast. It’s just a 1.5hour drive from Dunedin and marks the end of this South-East Coast itinerary but you’ll be ending it with a bang.
The water here is breathtaking and with the unique nugget rock formations scattered across it, you’ll come away with some awesome photos. It’s quite busy here, rightly so, so don’t expect to get the place to yourself without getting up at the crack of dawn – and even then you’ll most likely be joined by eager photographers.
Right next door to Nugget Point Lighthouse is Roaring Bay and its Yellow-Eyed Penguin colony. There used to be upwards of 20 breeding pairs of Yellow-Eyes here but during our visit, we spoke to the resident DOC ranger who informed us that there are now only 4.
This obviously means your chances of spotting a penguin here is very limited so you’ll need HEAPS of patience. Unfortunately for us, even after 3 hours (yep. 3 hours) of waiting on the run-up to sunset, we didn’t get to see so much as a tail feather. I’d still try your luck though, at the very least you’ll get to meet one of the rangers who help to protect this rare and elusive creature.
This road trip through the Catlins ends at Nugget Point Lighthouse
Other waterfalls in the Catlins:
There are 6 waterfalls within the Catlins, but we weren’t able to stop and see them all. So these are the unfortunate few that we left off that you might want to visit (or avoid!) while driving through the Catlins.
A short 20-minute return walk to Barr Falls is another hidden gem in the Catlins forests. There’s a small roadside car park and you’re almost guaranteed to have it to yourself.
This is another waterfall in the Catlins that is accessed via a short roadside track (30-minutes return). It is signposted and fairly easy to find from the town of Owaka.
This is the ‘booby prize’ of the Catlins waterfalls. You’ll see a lot of signposts for this waterfall. Don’t do it. I’m not usually a fan of telling people to avoid certain places but honestly, don’t waste your time here. The ironic play on the famous ‘Niagara Falls’ will lead you to believe that it’s a magnificent waterfall with tumbling waters. It isn’t. At best, it’s a small bump in a lazy river.
Know before you go:
Now you have your itinerary, there are a few things you need to know before you head off on your road trip around the Catlins.
Camping at laybys, lookouts and beachsides is strictly prohibited
Dogs are restricted in a lot of areas. Check signs before letting your dog out of the car. Places include Curio Bay, Nugget Point + Parakanui Falls.
Drones are not allowed at Roaring Bay, Nugget Point, Slope Point or Curio Bay. Other places may also have restrictions
There are a lot of unsealed roads around the Catlins. Check with rental companies that they allow ‘off-road’ driving. Slow your speed right down and give cars in front plenty of space
Watch out for cattle on the roads
I hope this has helped you plan your own road trip through the Catlins. There’s certainly plenty of spots to choose from! Feel free to drop us a comment or ask us questions about our route on our Facebook page! There’s plenty more to come from us about the South Island so stay tuned!