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Southern Scenic Road Trip: Wildlife Safari Road Trip, The Catlins

The Catlins, what are you waiting for…

  • Wildlife safari, your backyard, it does not come any better than this.
  • Want a raw untamed scenic drive?
  • Want to visit a part of New Zealand encapsulating the great outdoors?

2 - 4 days
1-3 nights

Trip Overview

What to see and where to go

Highlights

  • New Zealand fur seals dominate the beaches
  • Penguins waddle undisturbed to their nests
  • Rugged sharp faced wild coastal landscapes
  • Waterfalls to match the tempestuous nature of the Catlins
  • Little known heritage trails following timber merchants and rugged settlers
Start Dunedin
Finish Invercargill

The Catlins is the region between Balclutha and Invercargill / Bluff.  The climate could be off putting for some visitors with its changeable weather. The day could be a mild summer day folded into a cool mist the next. Who wants cocktails on a balmy beach when visitors have massive sea lions to gawp at.  Pack your swimmers (togs) and a good raincoat.  Take your time to linger and savour southern hospitality. Distances are not far and enjoy a leisurely wander through the southernmost part of New Zealand.

Type of vehicle

The trip is suitable for motorhomes except where specific routes are flagged as narrow and winding

Best time to go

Year round

  • Summer – bring layers as it can be chilly
  • Winter – snow, wind and sleet, it is magical Southern weather, heaven for sea lions, and they wear waterproof layers.

Where are the Catlins?

The area is between Balclutha and Invercargill, overlapping the boundaries of Otago and Southland provinces. It includes the South Island’s southernmost point, Slope Point.

Start Dunedin
Finish Invercargill

Route map

Overview of The Catlins route: part of the Southern Scenic Road Trip

Dunedin to Kaka Point

Dunedin to Sinclair Wetlands to Milton to Balclutha to Kaka Point

Historical Railway Station of Dunedin, New Zealand
Historical Railway Station of Dunedin

Why follow State Highway 1 to Balclutha?  This journey is exploring the side roads. Find out what the original landscape looked like before the cows turned up. Wetlands, peat swamps and misty places are a worthy detour. Then it’s past panoramic views of the Taieri Plains and onto a quirky butcher museum in Milton. Stretch your legs as you view the mighty Clutha from an iconic bridge, Balclutha and finish the day in The Catlins enjoying the sight and sounds of Kaka Point.

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Sinclair wetlands

Otago Sinclair Wetlands signage, New Zealand
Otago Sinclair Wetlands signage

The wetlands are a birding hot spot. Follow the detour off SH1 to explore the little known Sinclair wetlands located between Lake Waihola and Lake Waipori. This is New Zealand’s most inland tidal lake. It is freshwater and is over 20km’s from the coast at Taieri Mouth, with an average depth of less than a metre yet it is tidal. Between the two shallow lakes is a New Zealand treasure, a natural wetland.

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Milton

Milton, New Zealand @michelleoutdoorsnz
Milton @michelleoutdoorsnz

Highlights

  • Gothic church for selfie moment
  • Butcher Museum
  • Tokomairiro museum with its Milton pottery collection
  • Sod cottage, 19th century store and wayside ‘pub’

In a small town located on SH1 the elaborate art deco former post office is now the Tokomairiro Museum. A substantial collection of Milton Pottery, as well as artefacts retrieved from a sailing ship that wrecked near Milton in 1907 are on display.

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Sod cottage

Sod Cottage, Otago, New Zealand @NZPlaces
Sod Cottage @NZPlaces

Just outside Milton is a quaint cottage built in the 1860s as a stopping place for miners heading to the Tuapeka Goldfields. It has been restored by the South Otago Historical Society and was re-opened on 30 May 1970. This sod cottage isn’t quite what it seems, having been substantially re-constructed. But it is on its original site and despite its newish roof and gable-end clapboards it’s a pleasing, rustic recreated sod cottage. Hugh Murray built it in the 1860s for John McIntosh, as a store and as a stopping place for miners heading to the Tuapeka goldfields.

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Awakiki Reserve

Awakiki Bush Scenic Reserve, New Zealand @Catlins itineraries
Awakiki Bush Scenic Reserve @Catlins itineraries

For outdoors buffs set aside time to explore Awakiki Bush Scenic Reserve. Take the opportunity to walk among lowland totara forest that escaped nineteenth century timber milling.  Some stands in the reserve are up to 300 years old. The walk covers farmland, original bush and forest and takes you to the estuary with its change in vegetation. The turnoff to the reserve is just past the Telford Campus (Balclutha).

  • Duration: 30 minute loop walk
  • Grade: Easy
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Balclutha

Balclutha bridge @Martin Hayward
Balclutha bridge @Martin Hayward

Balclutha is a vibrant service centre for the district. The mighty Clutha River dominates the town centre with its well known arched bridge crossing the massive river. The river was originally the river road into the area encouraging farming and offering gold miners access to the interior. Stretch your legs and walk across the bowstring arch bridge. As you depart from Balclutha the Southern Scenic brown roadside signs will be prominently displayed. Follow this route for the Catlins.

Balclutha two things to do on a whistlestop tour of Balclutha.

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Balclutha to Pounawea Bush Reserve

Balclutha, New Zealand @cluthanz
Balclutha @cluthanz

Departing from Kaka Point the journey embraces scenery, wildlife and the wild rugged landscapes of the Catlins. The Catlins is home to the smallest penguin, the smallest dolphin and the most endangered sea lion.  Lots of reasons to spend time observing their natural habitat and experience the joy of sharing moments with New Zealand’s wildlife. Your overnight stay is enhanced with the song of birds heralding the day with a dawn chorus.

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Nugget Point (Kaka Point) lighthouse

Nugget Point Lighthouse, New Zealand @Chris Gin
Nugget Point Lighthouse @Chris Gin

Wildlife and a picturesque lighthouse is a nature lover’s idea of a photo moment.  The lighthouse is stark white and the jagged rocks known as nuggets are easily spotted. Lighthouses and spectacular views are part and parcel of the walk and the area does not disappoint.  On a clear day Stewart Island is visible on the horizon.  The blurred outline of hills smudged against the line between the sea and sky is where you need to look.  The walking track follows the steep cliffs.  The cliff top walk is a well known spot for photographers for its sunrise and sunset views. The short walk is steep in parts.

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Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay Walk

Cannibal Bay Otago sealion territory, early winter, New Zealand
Cannibal Bay Otago sealion territory, early winter

New Zealand sea lions (Whakahao),  It is a 20 minute drive on a gravel road to the small car park. The beach is rugged, barren and a favourite haunt for New Zealand sea lions. Your treat is the sheer rough splendour of sea lions coated in sand making it easy to miss a close by sea lion. Cannibal Bay’s access is on a side gravel road.  The white sand and blue/green water is another picture perfect bay.

For walking enthusiasts at the far end of Cannibal Bay is the track leading to Surat Bay over the sand dunes. Cannibal Bay is a well known surfing beach.  Expect to see hardy wetsuit clad surfers at home in the elements.

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Owaka town exploration

Teapot Land, Owaka, The Catlins, New Zealand
Teapot Land, Owaka, The Catlins

Owaka’s name means ‘place of the canoe’.  Maori waka were once built and repaired on the banks of the Owaka and Catlins River.  The stylised waka sculpture (2015) is a reminder of the past.  The sculpture is located on the main street.  Teapot Land is a miniature theme park focused on, you guessed it, teapots. There is the Earthlore Insect Theme Park managed by an enthusiastic local (check opening times to avoid disappointment). Owaka was first settled in the 1860’s.  The town is an ideal place to have a coffee and check out happenings at the local museum.

Like so many settlements in the Catlins sawmilling and  timber exports were its main industries in earlier times.

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Pounawea Bush Walk

Bush walks at dusk The Catlins, New Zealand
Bush walks at dusk The Catlins

Indulging in an impromptu picnic / meal at Surat Bay overlooking the estuary is fun. Watch the locals gut the fish catch earlier in the day. Paddle in the tidal water or explore the Pounawea Bush Walk. It is outstanding for its bird song. The walk entrance is adjacent to the Pounawea Holiday Camp. Perhaps you have picked up walkers on the Surat Bay track. You will return on the same road into Surat Bay and cross the Catlins River at the junction of Dutton Rd and New Haven Road.

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Pounawea to Waipapa Point Lighthouse

Waipapa Point Lighthouse, New Zealand @Locationsout
Waipapa Point Lighthouse @Locationsout

One of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls will not disappoint. The walk is a temptation to go further as the roar of the waterfalls intensifies as you walk the easy / medium track. Next on the Southern Scenic Route is Lenz Historic Reserve with its ghosts of timber workers and abandoned equipment a mute testimony of the destruction of native forest. Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk is extraordinary and a must do walk for visitors. The walk starts in native bush and slowly the vegetation changes and moves into the wetland vegetation. The informative plaques tell the story of how the landscape is constantly changing. A memorising and very photogenic location.

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Purakaunui Falls

Purakaunui Falls waterfalls, The Catlins lower lookout, New Zealand
Purakaunui Falls waterfalls, The Catlins lower lookout

The most photographed waterfalls in New Zealand. The Purakaunui Falls are very easy to reach as well as the must see waterfalls on this journey. At Catlins Lake, turn off the Southern Scenic Route and continue on Purakaunui Falls Road. This takes you directly to the waterfall car park. From the top viewing platform it is another 7 minutes to the wooden stairs and lower platform. The best views are from the lower platform.  The best time to photograph is autumn with the deciduous tree fall. The waterfalls have even has featured on a postage stamp. The rainforest track is suitable for wheelchair users to the top viewing point.

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Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk

Tautuku Estuary platform in New Zealand
Tautuku Estuary platform

Al short stroll gets you a hidden gem of the estuary where it feels like a secret world of the fernbird habitat. Tautuku Bay is  a sweeping bay surrounded by forest. The short boardwalk winds through wetlands with wonderful views across to Maori Tapu (sacred spiritual) land. A raised flat boardwalk floats you across the peat wetlands.  This is another bird watchers destination. The DOC description is, “The track is partly board-walked and also incorporates a section of the Old Coach Road. It starts in podocarp forest then leads out to the estuary flats. The vibrantly coloured jointed rush/oioi takes on an extra glow at sunrise and sunset.

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Lenz Historic reserve and trails tractor

Lenz Reserve information plaque, New Zealand
Lenz Reserve information plaque

A five minute flat walk to the Fleming River takes you to a former mill settlement to view the logging tractor that was modified to haul logs along the wooden rail tracks. The protective shed over the heritage Trails Tractor has period photographs of exhausted looking people’s images captured for prosperity. The site had a school, homes and businesses now reclaimed by the regenerating bush.

“Trails rail tractor, 1936-1952. A restored rail tractor is displayed at the site of Cook & Sons sawmill. The tram route can be explored but requires tramping skills. Interesting information panels give a very worthwhile insight into sawmilling and its dangers.

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Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove incoming tide sunset
Cathedral Cove incoming tide sunset

Your day will be dominated by the tides with either an early start or a rush to Cathedral Cove coupled with a desire to view a fossilized forest only visible at low tide.Keep an eye out for lookouts such as Florence Hill as are worth pulling over to stretch your legs. The view of the wild coastal landscape is just spectacular.  MacLean Falls is another favourite for waterfall fans with today being the day where the tide is crucial.  You can only visit Cathedral Caves at low tide as these gigantic caves flooded at high tide. You can juggle your time with an exploration of the Waikawa Museum photographic collection.

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Waikawa Museum

Waikawa Museum, New Zealand @Venture Southland
Waikawa Museum @Venture Southland

The original settlement Waikawa was a former whaling station and is now a tiny vestige of what it was.  The Museum is housed in a restored school building.  There is a substantial collection of photographs, memorabilia and adzes from pre-European times.  Artefacts range from farm machinery, whaling, gold mining, saw milling and stone quarrying. There are picnic tables, toilets open when the museum is open. For heritage trail fans this collection is worth a visit.  Check museum opening hours as it is staffed by volunteers.

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Curio Bay

View of the Petrified Forest Beach at Curio Bay in the Catlins, New Zealand
View of the Petrified Forest Beach at Curio Bay in the Catlins

Fossilised wood spotting is dependent on the tide! And you have to look v closely indeed for the fossilised wood. In the southern Catlins lies Curio Bay. This bay is famous for its fossilised forest dating back to the Jurassic Era. At low tide you can peer intently at the wet rock like surroundings to identify fossilised wood.  Initially you might think you are looking at rocks, but on a detailed inspection you can see the grains of the fossilised wood.  This is another low tide excursion to find and identify a spectacular fossilized forest. The petrified Forest is 60 million years old dating back when New Zealand was still part of the massive continent Gondwana.

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Waipapa Point Lighthouse

Waipapa lighthouse, Southland, New Zealand
Waipapa lighthouse, Southland

You are leaving the Southern Scenic Highway to visit Waipapa Point. It is a journey through coastal Southland exposed to consistent wind and salt laden mists. The name Waipapa is shortened from the original Maori name of Waipapapa, meaning shallow waters. This is the site of New Zealand’s worst civilian shipwreck. In 1881 the SS Tararua ran aground on Waipapa Reef and 131 of 151 passengers and crew died. The lighthouse, built after the disaster, stands as a poignant reminder. This is another short stop off on your trip in the Catlins. It takes a couple of minutes to walk from the carpark down to the striking lighthouse perfectly placed at Waipapa point.

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Furtrose

Fortrose, Southland, New Zealand @Great South
Furtrose @Great South

Draw up at the boat ramp overlooking the estuary and look at the information plaques describing the 19th century whaling community. The wholesale slaughter of whales for blubber is sobering. At low tide look carefully for the rotting remains of another shipwreck visible at low tide, then it is Invercargill and the promise to return to the Catlins.

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