Have you ever road-tripped to the Catlins? Located in the wild southeast corner of New Zealand’s South Island, Alex Samuels shares the what, where, why and how.
Remote and exposed, the Catlins Forest Park is a place loaded with dramatic scenery. Step towards the coast and you’ll find gigantic seals fighting on the beach, caves looming overhead, and (if you’re lucky) penguins wandering around. Further inland you’ll see waterfalls rushing around the trees, glow worms clinging to rocks, and trails that lead to who knows where.
There is seemingly so much to explore, it could take a couple of weeks to cover all of what the Catlins has to offer! However, weather patterns in the area can change in a heartbeat. Being so close to the sea, the area is sometimes buffeted with strong gusts of wind and rain. Despite the temperamental weather, the winds and rain will often blow away for a few days at a time, leaving a sunny window to explore the coastline and forests unhindered.
Driving in the Area
The road through the Catlins is known as the Southern Scenic Route. Small shacks can be spotted throughout the landscape and the trees stand permanently crooked from the winds alongside the road. The roads are paved well and provide easy enough driving for any vehicle type (aside from the occasional roadblock of course).
Something to note while driving in the area is that there aren’t that many petrol stations. They often lie far apart and aren’t always easily noticed (beautiful landscapes be darned). So, keep this in mind before going and make sure to fill up your gas tank before paying the region a visit.
Activities and Adventures in the Catlins
Standing at a height of 22m, McLean Falls is one of the best waterfalls in the southern regions of New Zealand. The cascade waterfall is split between an upper and lower set of falls and is surrounded by dark green mossy rocks. The entire scene epitomizes what the Catlins has to offer.
To reach the trailhead, turn off the Chaslands Highway onto Rewcastle Road and continue for 3km to reach the car park. The trail is well maintained and clearly marked amongst the forest shrubbery. Along the track, you’ll hear many of the native birds chirping out into the forest air and flying from branch to branch. Expect to take 15-20 minutes to reach the falls and 30-40 minutes round trip.
Tip: Rise early if the weather forecast predicts sun, sometimes leftover mist from the night before creates sun rays as it hangs low amongst the branches.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
The Nugget Point Lighthouse in the Catlins is one of the oldest lighthouses in the country. Providing panoramic views of the ocean below, the site is also famous for viewing the milky way on clear nights. The area got its name from Captain Cook due to the distinct rocks jutting out of the ocean below that more closely resemble nuggets of gold than ocean rock.
It’s a quick walk out to the lighthouse from the car park. If you keep your eyes peeled and look down below during the walk, you can spot the fur seals slumbering on the rocks! If you’ve got a good eye, you might even be able to spot other species such as elephant seals and sea lions. The Nugget Point viewpoint is one of the only places in the world where you can see these varieties all in the same area!
As noted before, the lighthouse is a famous spot for viewing the stars late into the night. If that’s something that you want to make a part of your experience, make sure to show up a little early to catch the sunset! Bring a blanket and settle in for the next few hours and watch the stars twinkle on.
Curio Bay Area
One of the coolest attractions in the Catlins is the fossilized forest that lies beneath the water in Curio Bay. During lower tides, the water washes out to reveal large chunks of trees leftover from the Jurassic era. Make sure to peek closely to view the wood-like textures that wind their way through the rocks.
If the old fossilized forest doesn’t leave you impressed, the bay is also home to penguins! In the early evening they can be spotted swimming and walking up onto the beach. Masses of them gather to enjoy a few calm moments before turning in for the night. If possible, bring a set of binoculars or a telephoto camera lens to view their unique yellow eyes up close.
Expect a quick 5-minute walk from the car park down to the beach.
At low tide near Waipati Beach, massive caves are revealed along the coast. Towering overhead, the caves provide the perfect framing to see the ocean beyond.
The caves can only be viewed during the lowest tides, during all other times they are well flooded and beneath water level. Most of the time this means that you’ll need to plan a bit ahead and check up on a tide chart. As a tip, you should be able to see them about 15 minutes before leading up to low tide and up to an hour and a half after.
The path down to the caves from the car park is on the steeper side, so make sure to wear appropriate footwear to descend down onto the beach. Expect to take 15 minutes to reach the beach and make sure to pay the admission fee of $10 before heading down.
The Catlins coastline has few pickings in terms of accommodation options for travellers. The area is home to only a few different hostels, lodges, and hotels. However, they are still there! If you book a few days in advance you should have no problem finding a comfortable place to stay or a campsite with reliable facilities.
Surat Bay Lodge
Located next to the gorgeous Surat bay, this hostel/lodge offers free wifi, coffee, tea, and more. Looking out from many of the windows you’ll be able to view sea lions, seals, and loads of bird wildlife. The team is a friendly cohort of people (24hr reception) who do a great job of providing ample amounts of information about the nearby attractions and activities.
Most of the Catlins region struggles to have good cell reception and the same can be said in the Surat Bay Lodge area. Thankfully, as mentioned before, they do provide a strong wifi connection and a landline in case you need to make important calls. There is also a common room for meeting other travellers, washing/drying, a fully equipped kitchen, and a great BBQ for cooking up some hot meals. Expect to pay $31 for a mixed dorm room and up to $98 for a twin private.
Lazy Dolphin Lodge
Almost right on the beach in Curio Bay sits the Lazy Dolphin Lodge. Boasting mostly about its location, the lodge is only a few minutes away from the fossilized forest in the bay and the penguin viewing platforms. The lodge offers accommodation for up to 15 people, with rooms catering for whole families, backpackers, and even retreats if need be.
Most of the time the common areas around the lodge are rather quiet. In part due to the small capacity and general nature of the more “family” vibe the hostel emits. So, if you’re feeling more like spending a quiet night away from everything else, the Lazy Dolphin could be your best bet. Expect to pay $45 for a 4 single bed room and up to $90 for a double room. The lodge is equipped with washing/drying services for a small fee, BBQ, free parking, and high-speed internet.
Campervan and camping
Camping outside or sleeping in a campervan is one of the best ways to experience the Catlins while you’re visiting. Many sites in the area offer scenic settings and close access to the main activities. There are both freedom camping areas and powered campgrounds, many of which are set on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you want to get into the thick of things while exploring the Catlins region, definitely consider bringing your van and/or camping gear with you!
Near Slope Point, closer to the outer rim of the Catlins forest park, and right on the beach, sits Weir Beach Reserve. This free camping area is a grassy paddock that allows both self-contained and non self-contained campervans to stay overnight. It’s a basic campsite equipped with only a bathroom, non-drinkable water (unless boiled), and a sink for washing dishware. Overall a very quiet place with quick access to the beach and level spots to set up camp.
A short drive down the road from the Weir campground is the Curioscape Campground and Cafe. Situated right next to the bay’s cliffs, the site has some absolutely stunning views of the ocean and landscape. On top of that, it even has its own website that’s dedicated to informing potential visitors on what the place has to offer. You can book experiences and tours, dine at its cafe, and choose to either stay at a powered or unpowered camping area.
The beach next door is also well known as a popular swimming beach due to the frequent visits by the Hector dolphins in the bay. This generally leads to relatively more crowded campsites, with people often up and about all day long. If you’re on the hunt for more of a social experience and access to amenities such as the cafe, power, showers (only $1 for every 5 minutes!), and quality cooking areas then this campsite is the best way to go! Expect to pay from $35 for 2 people at an unpowered site and $40 at a powered site for 2 people.
Another quality campsite in the area is the Papatowai campsite. Nestled right into the bush along the coast, this site is best known for its quick access to the beach and estuary in Papatowai. All vehicle types are allowed here and there are 116 unpowered tent sites in total. The ranger dedicated to helping the area is very friendly and often can provide information on the campsite and surrounding area. There is also a small shop on site that has a fuel station to top up at if need be. The site includes a kitchen area, tables, stations for cooking, and many of the camping areas have trees (ideal for windy conditions). Expect to pay $8 per person a night.