Catlins Tours From Invercargill
The Catlins – the name that conjures up images of a corner of New Zealand untainted by the modern world – a place where time has stood still and a visitor may enjoy forest, wildlife and the life-style of a bygone era. This image is a true reflection. Accidents of history have favoured protection of the Catlins and it still retains many accessible wildlife havens in its varied hill and scenic coast.
Visitors to the Catlins should plan to stay at least two or three days to fully explore this very unique area with its wildlife and spectacular natural places. The Catlins is a great place to stay and enjoy, and to get a little off the beaten track!
The famous Southern Scenic Route runs from Dunedin in the North through to Invercargill in the South (passing through the Catlins) and up to Te Anau. It is clearly marked along the highway with frequent signposts. The road is now fully sealed, but is winding and narrow in places, so care must be taken.
Dunedin to Owaka: 115km
Owaka to Invercargill: 130km
Invercargill to Te Anau: 153km
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 range of accommodation,and a restaurant for good southern food.
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!. Enroute from here to Owaka 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.