The Catlins is an incredibly beautiful area on the Southern Coast of South Island in New Zealand. It offers stunning scenery along the coastline that is filled with natural wonders and unique wildlife for your viewing pleasure. It is best explored while en route between Dunedin and Invercargill.
I think we were incredibly lucky with our wildlife viewing and would like to give a shout out to Don from Bottom Bus Tours for knowing all the good spots.
There are several places to stop off while you navigate your way through the Catlins, so no two experiences will be the same. Although we know that there may have been other places to stop, we had a day that was on and off with the rain so that affected where we stopped that day.
Still, despite the rain, we had an amazing time with all of our stops and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this same route to others.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Country Guide)
The Catlins – New Zealand Trip Planning Guide
History of the Catlins
The Catlins has always been sparsely populated, due to their rugged nature and southern location. Maori’s were the first humans to settle here, but they only arrived in the region in the 14th century, as settlers began to spread out to the remoter corners of New Zealand.
The Maori set up nomadic hunting camps along the coast, and it’s thought that the Catlins could have been home to the last population of Moa, the legendary flightless bird of huge proportions that was hunted to extinction.
Captain Cook was the first European sailor to chart the coast here when he arrived on the Endeavour during his epic voyages of the late 18th century, and many of the English place names you hear today were given to prominent points by the crew.
Whalers began to set up stations in the 19th century, and in later years, sawmilling in the vast forests led to a population boom, which proved to be short-lived, and the area has, in fact, become less populated than it was at the start of the 20th century.
For travelers though, that leaves plenty of untouched wilderness left to explore.
Location of the Catlins in New Zealand
Most people that visit New Zealand will not visit and have never heard of the Catlins. It is one of the countries’ best-kept secrets. As such, it isn’t hard to find. I think most people miss it because it is on the opposite side of the South Island from Queenstown.
It is very popular for people to leave Queenstown and move up through the center of the South Island, visiting places like Lake Tekapo, en route to Christchurch and then up the coast from there.
This means you won’t find tourists hoards here, making it an absolute gem. That said, the Catlins National Park is essentially located between the towns of Invercargill and Dunedin.
A popular way to visit this area is to start in Queenstown and then travel down to Dunedin, where you can spend a few days before driving through the Catlins and then onto Invercargill. You would then end your trip back to Queenstown.
How to Get to the Catlins
The Catlins defines a small region in the far south-east of New Zealand’s South Island, comprising some of the most southerly and remote parts of the country.
Roughly put, the Catlins comprises the beautiful area of coastline, forests and small, rural communities that are found between Balcutha in the north and Invercargill in the far south, and gets its name from the Catlins Forest Park that’s situated between the two.
You can easily drive between the two towns on Highway 1 in just under two hours, but this direct route would see you missing out on all the coastal spots and great places to visit in the area, and you could quite quickly find yourself spending days exploring the area, if not longer if you have the time.
Many people will choose to include the Catlins on a driving itinerary out of Dunedin, the largest city on the southeastern coastline, which is a two and a half hour journey from Invercargill along the main road.
If you are pressed for time, then you can even drive through the best of the Catlins on a day trip, using Dunedin as your base of exploration. Dunedin has the best transport connections, and if you are flying in, this is the best place to begin a trip to the south-east.
Being very underpopulated, and in many places, quite remote – that’s part of the attraction of the area, and the reason why the scenery has remained so untouched – the Catlins can be very difficult to see without your own means of transport, or without joining a guided tour.
The only feasible public transport option is The Bottom Bus, so-called because it takes visitors through the bottom end of New Zealand. The bus runs irregularly between Dunedin and Invercargill, allowing you to hop on and hop off when it’s around, at the best spots in the Catlins.
Depending on the schedule though, you may end having to spend a night or two in each destination, before the next one comes along, so prepare to be flexible!
Self-drive tours are definitely the way forward if you can, with easy, quiet roads to drive and plenty of places to stop off at. You can rent a car or campervan in Dunedin, or travel down here from further afield if you are spending more time exploring the rest of New Zealand too.
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When to Visit the Catlins
Like the rest of New Zealand’s South Island, the best time to visit the Catlins is during summer, when the weather is at its best. With a temperate climate due to its very southerly location, you can expect mild summers, which are pleasant for hiking and exploring.
Winters can be rather cold, but if you don’t mind enduring a bit of bad weather and plenty of rain, then you can still enjoy the rugged landscapes.
The Catlins is still very much untouched when it comes to tourism, in comparison to other more famous New Zealand destinations anyway, and being remote, any time of the year – even in peak season – you are going to be able to enjoy many of the sights with few other visitors around.
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Wildlife in The Catlins
Due to its isolated character, small human population and relative underdevelopment, the Catlins have been somewhat of a last refuge for many of New Zealand’s endangered species, and many tourists are traveling here for the opportunity to see many unique animals in the wild.
Along the coast and in many of the bays you can spot dolphins and whales in the water, while the rocks are home to large populations of seals, from many different species.
Penguins are another common sight here, and the Catlins is an important nesting ground for the rare and endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin, a wonderful animal to see.
If you are visiting at the right time of year, you may also catch a glimpse of a Fiordland penguin, like the one pictured above. We visited in February and March and were lucky enough to see these guys twice.
We also saw the tiny blue penguin when we were in Kaikoura, up the coast. If you are searching for penguins, the Catlins and other eastern parts of the south island is a good place to start.
Best Places to Visit in the Catlins, New Zealand
There are some excellent places to visit in the Catlins, but part of the beauty of the area is stumbling upon spectacular views and unbelievable natural sights as you explore the remote corners of the south.
To give you a starting point for your journey though, here are our favorite spots to visit in the Catlins.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point Lighthouse could easily be the most iconic lighthouse in New Zealand, and the chances are that you may have seen a photograph of it, without even realizing it. As far as dramatic lighthouses go, this one is up there with the most dramatic of all, and its a photographer’s dream in the early morning light.
The lighthouse is perched atop a high and rocky clifftop, and it’s a testament to the many ships that have fallen foul of the rugged coastline of the Catlins. It’s still functioning, a well-maintained beacon that dates back to the late 19th century.
There’s a short walking track along the cliffs that opens out to utterly breathtaking views of the Nugget Point Lighthouse.
Cannibal Bay Sea Lions
Just to the south of Nugget Point, you can find the wide and beautiful Cannibal Bay, that these days is a much more attractive a place to visit than the name might suggest.
Presumably, that name was given by Europeans at some point in reference to the perceived practice of Maori cannibalism, or perhaps sailors were shipwrecked here and forced to the worst. Despite this ominous title, the bay has one of the pristine beaches in the south, but perhaps because of the title, there are only ever a few other people here.
What you can usually find in great numbers though, are a large population of sea lions that you may see frolicking in the bay. They also tend to congregate just along the coast, at the next beach along, which is named Surat Bay. This bay got its name from a shipwreck.
The Catlins are quite literally full of waterfalls, many of them spectacular, but if you have time to see just one, then make sure you call in at McClean Falls.
The McClean Falls are part of the wild Catlins Forest Park. After walking through the dense forest, you will emerge upon the towering sight of the waterfall, where the water crashes down from the rocks, falling into several different tiers before hitting the large plunge pool at the base.
Of course, when you are visiting The Catlins, you always make time for more than just one waterfall, and next on your list should be the beautiful Purakaunui Falls.
Here, you walk through the green, verdant forest before arriving at several viewing platforms which offer a great panoramic of the crashing water. There are three tiers, and although it’s not the tallest waterfall in New Zealand, it is certainly one of the most photogenic.
The Cathedral Caves are a must-visit when in The Catlins, as these sea caves are some of the longest in the world.
The highest cave reaches 30 meters, and the longest is almost 200 meters in length. When the tide is right – check the timings before heading in! – you can walk off the beach and right into the eery darkness of these natural cathedrals.
On a coastline with many bays, one of the most popular amongst locals and travelers alike is Curio Bay. As well as enjoying sweeping vistas from the top of the cliffs, the coast here is the site of a fossilized forest, and you’ll encounter millennia-old tree trunks amongst the rocks.
You’re also likely to spot some of the rare Yellow-eyed Penguins that call Curio Bay home, alongside seals, whales, and dolphins.
Slope Point has the distinction of being the most southerly point in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a dramatic place to visit, and you can gaze out across the ocean knowing that from here, there is little else but crashing waves – aside from a few small islands – before Antarctica.
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