You won’t see the Catlins on your typical tourist lists of must-see places in New Zealand. This is probably because it is a bit out of the way. The Catlins is nestled in the southeastern part of the South Island of New Zealand. This should not deter you because if you make it, you will find a rustic and rugged landscape filled with green rolling hills, pristine, yet empty, beaches, and a lot of New Zealand wildlife. Also, there won’t be a lot of people around so you will feel like you found something special that most people don’t see. I only found out about the Catlins after we had confirmed most our New Zealand itinerary. Though spending a night wasn’t possible, we had a window to see the region on our drive from Dunedin to Queenstown. It made our drive a little longer, but it was totally worth it. This post details what we decided to see and some tips for planning a day trip to the Catlins.
Nugget Point is an iconic site in the Otago peninsula. The site has two key features. The first are the ‘nuggets’, which are eroded rocks sticking out like gold nuggets in the ocean. The second is the lighthouse, which was constructed in 1869 to warn small boats about the potentially dangerous nuggets. Nugget Point also gives you a great glimpse of the beautiful Catlins coastline.
Nugget Point is located in the northern part of the Catlins region. It’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Dunedin. On your way to Nugget Point portions of the road are unsealed after you pass Kaka Point. Once you arrive at Nugget Point, there is a parking area where you can leave your car. There are also bathrooms, which were interesting. The toilets are over a deep hole in the ground, which you become very aware of once you enter. They’re not really scary, just a bit different. From the parking lot, it’s about a 15-20-minute walk to the lighthouse. The path is gravel and easily visible. Parts of the path are somewhat exposed to the steep cliffs so use some caution.
Nugget Point was probably my favorite site that we saw in the Catlins. It was quite sunny so we got great views of the coastlines and even saw some seals playing in the water. Photos definitely don’t do the ‘nuggets’ justice as they are pretty amazing to see in person. We definitely weren’t underwhelmed. One thing to note about Nugget Point is that it is windy! Be sure to hold on to your belongings and dress for windy weather.
If you have been travelling or researching a trip to the South Island, you will find that there is not a shortage of waterfalls. There’s even a website devoted to them (see here)! The Purakaunui Falls are a three-tiered cascading waterfall with about a 20-meter drop. What makes the Purakaunui Falls a bit special is that they are found away from the alpine region, which is the home of most South Island waterfalls. Also, the Purakaunui Falls is considered to be the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand.
If you’re coming from Nugget Point, the Purakanui Falls is about an hour drive south. The road is sealed for the most part and there are a number of signs indicating how to get to the Falls. When we were driving, there wasn’t a huge sign saying ‘You’re at the Purakaunui Falls!” so don’t worry if you’re a little confused upon arrival. Our GPS said we had arrived and there was a parking lot, so we parked and looked around. After seeing a typical Department of Conservation sign just across the road, we knew we were in the right place. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the Falls from the entrance. The walk is pretty easy and there are steps for the slopes. Once you arrive at the Falls, there is a wooden viewing deck. We met some people along the way, but there definitely wasn’t massive crowds of people.
If you’re used to giant waterfalls, then you might be a bit underwhelmed by the Purakaunui Falls. While the Falls were pretty, I was more impressed with the walk. When you’re driving to the Falls you see a lot of farmland and patches of trees. The parking lot is surrounded by a bit of forest, but things feel quite open. Then, when you start the walk to the Falls, the environment drastically changes into a striking, native podocarp and beech forest. It feels like you’ve entered a completely new and somewhat hidden new world.
The Puraunauki Falls and Walk are a famous attraction in the Catlins. I don’t think the site and length of the walk suffice as the sole destination of your trip to the Catlins; however, it is a worth including as one of your stops in the Catlins.
Curios Bay is known for two things: 1) a petrified forest that’s over 160 million years old and 2) penguins. The Jurassic Period petrified forest was alive when New Zealand was part of a larger land mass known as Gondwanaland. What now remains are stone-like remnants of these Jurassic trees. The forest is best viewed at low tide. As an archaeobotanist, the petrified forest was fascinating. I totally nerded out trying to see if I could identify some wood anatomical features!
For many people, the highlight of Curio Bay is seeing its colony of the rare yellow-eyed penguin. We were a bit too early to spot any penguins and most guides recommend coming 2 hours before sunset, which is when they would be coming ashore.
If you’re driving from Purakuanui Falls, it takes about an hour to get to Curio Bay. When you are approaching the area, you can either turn right for Curio Bay or left for Porpoise Bay. When you turn left, there will be a parking lot on your left. From the parking, a short 100-meter boardwalk will take you to the entrance of Curio Bay.
While we didn’t see any penguins, the petrified forest was worth the trip (at least for me). It was quite enjoyable to stroll around. The water can come rushing in a bit quickly, especially if the weather turns quickly so exercise a bit of caution. Depending on your interests, Curio Bay can be a great stop.
Right next to Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay. The main attraction here is a pod of dolphins that have made this bay their home. You can also catch other wildlife like penguins and seals.
You could walk to Porpoise Bay from Curio Bay, which would take about 20-30 minutes one-way. If you opt to drive, make sure you check in at the office near the parking area. Porpoise Bay is popular camping ground so the supervisors need to keep track of who is there. We simply parked and checked in (we didn’t need to pay anything) and had a look around.
The weather was turning and a windy, rainstorm was approaching. We didn’t see any wildlife, but we had the beach to ourselves for a quick roam. If you’re already in the area to see Curio Bay, Porpoise Bay is worth a look too. Its sandy beaches are a nice contrast from Curio Bay’s petrified and rocky shores.
Southern Scenic Route
The Catlins is part of the Southern Scenic Route. In New Zealand, there are a number of mapped out scenic drives. The Southern Scenic route is a peninsular route from Dunedin to Queenstown. The Catlins is part of this route and driving through the area is worth the trip alone. The route is a mix of views of the southeastern shores, rolling green hills, and rugged forests. There are a few stopping areas to get out and take in the views; however, there are not as many as other routes. Take in the views if you can and just enjoy the ride for the rest of the time.
A Few Tips
Since the Catlins are not as heavily visited as other parts of New Zealand, here are some tips to help you plan your day trip:
(1) Pack Food: There are some foods options along the route, but not too many. Make sure to pack some snacks (or lunch) and plenty of water for your day trip.
(2) Winding Roads: At times during the route, the roads can get a bit winding. If you’re prone to a bit of motion sickness, be aware of this and plan accordingly. I get motion sickness and I was fine for the most part. Stopping to see sites and the scenery at designated viewing areas helped break up the trip and the motion sickness. The beautiful scenery didn’t hurt either.
(3) Changing Weather: The weather changes really quickly. You can have pouring rain one moment and a then sunny skies a moment later. If you’re planning to get out and see some sites, be sure to pack additional clothing. I would suggest the following: a rain jacket, hiking/walking shoes, flip-flops/sandals, extra socks, and an extra outfit in case you get soaked in a rainstorm.
(4) Lack of Cell Phone Reception: Be aware that you might not get reception in a lot of areas in the Catlins.
(5) Go!: If you can make it happen, you should definitely go see the Catlins. At the very least, a day trip is definitely possible to see some of the sites the areas has to offer.