The Complete Guide to the Catlins on New Zealand's South Island

lighthouse at the end of a green headland with blue sea and sky behind

 Lina Sariff / Getty Images

In the southeastern corner of New Zealand's South Island is an area of rugged coastline, native forest, waterfalls, birds, and wildlife known as the Catlins. Spanning southern Otago and northeastern Southland provinces, the Catlins is often overlooked by both domestic and international travelers. If you don't mind cooler weather, though, this beautiful corner of the country is a worthwhile detour from Dunedin.

History of the Catlins

Maori belonging to the Waitaha, Ngati Mamoe, and Ngai Tahu iwi live in the Catlins today, and have for hundreds of years. Their ancestors hunted and gathered birds, seals, and seafood from the forested hills and coastline.

The first Europeans to land in and settle the Catlins were sealers and whalers in the 1840s, followed by sawmill workers from the 1860s. Until the 1880s, transportation of goods and people was by boat, and many ships were wrecked along the coast. From the 1880s, rail lines linked the Catlins to other parts of Otago, but the lack of major roads kept the Catlins a very isolated area until at least the 1960s.

Early European settlement had damaged a lot of the natural landscape through the cutting down of native trees, though large areas of untouched native forest south of the town of Owaka has more recently been turned into state parks and nature reserves.

What to See & Do

This beautiful region offers spectacular scenery and landscapes, wildlife spotting, and plenty of outdoor recreation. Here are the best things to see and do there.

Tour the Cathedral Caves: The Cathedral Caves are on the northern end of Waipati Beach (and shouldn't be confused with an equally beautiful natural spot, Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel). The Cathedral Caves are one of the longest sea cave systems in the world, at 650 feet deep and 100 feet high. There are two caves, which have been created by the force of the waves over thousands of years. Get to the caves via a walking track through the bush, but only at low tide or within an hour before or after low tide. Fantails, tuis, oyster-catchers, and other native birds live around here. Access to the caves crosses private land, so it's necessary to pay a small entrance fee (cash only). The caves are usually closed from June to late October.

See the Waterfalls: Waterfall chasers are in luck in the Catlins. Purakaunui Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall in the Catlins Forest Park that sits on the Otago-Southland border. The 65-foot-high falls are reached via a track through beech and podocarp forests. Nearby McLean Falls are in another part of the Catlins Forest Park, and are equally worth the effort of getting to. Other waterfalls in the Catlins are Matai Falls and Koropuku Falls.

Visit Nugget Point: The Catlins coastline saw many fatal shipwrecks throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the dramatic lighthouse at Nugget Point was built in 1869 to warn ships away from the shore. Now the Nugget Point Lighthouse near Kaka Point is located in the Nugget Point Totara Scenic Reserve. From the nearby parking lot, walk along an easy uphill track to the lighthouse, which is 249 feet above sea level and offers panoramic views out to sea. Fur seals and elephant seals (from December to February) hang out on the rocks beneath the lighthouse, so keep an eye out for them far below. The walk from the parking lot takes about 20 minutes.

Spot Penguins: The rugged headlands of the Catlins coast are prime yellow-eyed penguin breeding ground. The birds nest in shrubs and in tangles of roots, and the best places to go for a chance of seeing them is at Curio Bay, Long Point, and the Nugget Point Totara Scenic Reserve (Roaring Bay beach in particular). Look out for the birds from hides in the bush. Dusk and dawn are the best times to get a glimpse, and stay off the beaches when they are around.

See Fossils at Curio Bay: Tree fossils at Curio Bay date from the Jurassic period, meaning they're about 170 million years old! The fossils can be observed from a viewing platform that's a short walk from the parking lot, and are most visible during low tide. There's also a nearby living forest that you can walk through to get an idea of what the fossilized trees would have looked like a very, very long time ago. Yellow-eyed penguins can also be found here.

Go for a Walk to Jack's Blowhole: At Jack's Bay, a few miles south of Owaka, is a 180-foot-deep blowhole, which is particularly dramatic at high tide, when the force of the water causes a gushing spout. It's also a good place to watch the sunset. From the parking lot, the return walk to the blowhole takes about an hour.

Time Your Visit for Flora and Fauna: Flower lovers shouldn't miss Lake Wilkie in the summer. At this spot just south of the Tautuku Outdoor Education Centre, flowering red rata attract tuis and bellbirds in the summer months. Part of the path to the lake is suitable for wheelchair users.

How to Get to the Catlins

The Catlins straddle south-eastern Otago and north-eastern Southland, so the area is accessible from the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill. International travelers are more likely to be coming from the north, so it makes sense to travel via the Catlins when going from Dunedin to Invercargill and/or Stewart Island. Dunedin is 70 miles to the north (about a 90-minute drive), while Invercargill is 80 miles to the west (about two hours).

Driving is by far the easiest way to get to the Catlins, as doing so gives you the flexibility of stopping wherever you like en route. Also, the bus services to and around the Catlins are sporadic and generally only run in the summer.

Where to Stay

If you just plan to check out one or two highlights, the Catlins can be visited on day trips from Dunedin or Invercargill. To be able to see a bit more, the small settlements of Owaka, Kaka Point, Waikawa, Tokanui, and Fortrose offer some accommodation options, as well as camping. Note that while there are plenty of campgrounds for tents and vans, "freedom camping" outside of designated areas in public is prohibited.

What to Expect

The southern South Island is famously cool, blustery, and wet. Don't expect hot temperatures or prime beach weather, even in the summer. The Catlins experience weather patterns from the sub-Antarctic seas south of New Zealand. Bring warm and waterproof layers, and you'll be well prepared to enjoy the outdoors.

While nearby Dunedin and Fiordland get a lot of international visitors, few make it as far south as the Catlins, or further afield to Invercargill and Stewart Island. All the more reason to go!

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