There are a million things to do in the Catlins… or you can simply do nothing but disconnect from life for a bit. The Catlins was a family holiday destination while I was growing up; I was blessed to live only an hours drive from here. Some of my favourite childhood memories are from holidays here- clambering over rockpools, walks in the forest (running up ahead, hiding behind trees, jumping out at my siblings to give them a fright), reading books or playing board games with my family.
As part of my ‘Great South Island Road Trip‘ series, I present to you, the Catlins.
I’m so lucky to have grown up with knowledge of NZ local flora and fauna- being able to identify Rimu or Totara trees, not being scared by huhu beetles, knowing that if you poke a sea anemone, it’ll harmlessly try to grab your finger. The blissful memories of looking for crabs under rocks, Dad showing me all manner of plant and sea life (the benefit of having a biology teacher as a father) and the freedom that comes with staying in such an isolated place.
Yup, I was lucky. But you can be lucky too- it now has tarseal roads and access is easy. There are even shops there (there were never shops when I was a kid).
Things you need to know about the Catlins
- If you like isolation, it’s easy to find it. Cellphone reception can be spotty.
- There aren’t many shops or restaurants, so if you plan to stay there, take all the food you’ll need. There’s a 4Square in Owaka (expensive and limited in choices) or a New World in Balclutha.
- Take sunscreen, mosquito repellant, rain jacket, warm clothes, camera
- Take a book. Or two. And some good snacks.
Places to stay
I generally stay in Papatowai. There is a campground there, a motel, and a number of holiday homes for rent. There are also a few Air BnBs to choose from. There are lots of options dotted around the Catlins but I like Papatowai- there is a shop there, petrol, and it’s a short walk to the beach.
There are also donkeys- well, there have been donkeys there for as long as I can remember. It’s always a highlight, saying hello to these friendly creatures.
Things to do in the Catlins
I’m just going to list all the things I know you can do in the Catlins. It’s not exhaustive because I don’t know everything (disclaimer: I do know everything, ask my boyfriend) but this will keep you occupied for a week.
I generally visit here on the way south, on the way to Papatowai.
The walk here takes you from the carpark to the lighthouse, where you can look at the ‘nugget’ rocks in the sea below. I’ve also seen seals and dolphins frolicking in the water below. It’s a beautiful view and worth the detour from the main road.
5km before Owaka, you’ll find Tunnel Hill. It’s a short bush walk to this unused railway tunnel. A good pit-stop on the way to stretch the legs and get some fresh air. Traditionally, if you’re under the age of ten, it’s an ideal spot to yell loudly to hear echoes (and burn off some energy before the last bit of the drive).
Papatowai Beach This is one of my favourite places. Walk from the town to the beach and you can go right, which leads to tidal pools that you can pick through at low tide. This is one of my favourite things to do in the Catlins- simply wander along the beach, in no particular hurry, and investigate all the marine life as you go. There’s a bushwalk from where the sand ends and the rocks begin which leads back to the road too.
If you turn left, at low tide you can walk up the beach estuary, admiring the Rata trees, watching the crabs scuttle into their holes. This leads to the bridge by the main road and you can wander back up the main road.
Old Coach Road is a track that starts just over the bridge, on the sea side. It loops around the estuary, taking you by an old Maori/ moa hunter archaeological site. It’s named after the fact it was the route coaches took coming from Tahakopa Bay many years ago.
The Lost Gypsy is an unusual collection of ‘art’ works which you’ll find in the Papatowai township. Climb aboard the bus and marvel at the unique automata creations, pop into his theatre and explore the weird and wonderful.
These caves are only accessible at low tide between October and May so you have to plan well. Also, the mosquitoes are DEVASTATING, so wear your repellant. There’s a short walk from the parking lot to access the beach. Take a torch, and I think there is an entry fee of $5 each. These caves are huge, and you’ll hear bats squeaking, as well as see birds flying around that nest in the area.
Tautuku is the bay around from Papatowai. It’s a gloriously ignored bay, with hardly anyone ever. You can walk along the beach for hours and enjoy the fact that you appear to be the only person in the world. It’s a pleasant feeling. It’s the place where the forest butts up against the sand dunes, and then there’s a long white stretch of pristine beach, leading to the wild waves of the South Pacific Ocean.
There’s a bushwalk from the Education Centre to the beach, but it’s easiest to drive down the access road and park in the parking lot. There is an adventure course here too- when you turn off the main road to the left to access the beach, park and you’ll find a stile on the left hand side of the road. Over the years this has become quite decrepit and I don’t know if this is still there. It was terrifying as a child, that rope swing was a nightmare.
Waterfalls and walks
Lake Wilkie is a short drive past Tautuku, on the left. It’s an easy walk down to a boardwalk over the lake. It’s a great spot for bird watching, and the lake is beautiful and reflects the forest.
Purakanui Falls is a picture-perfect waterfall that is very Instagrammable. A lovely bushwalk takes you to this.
McLean Falls is another lovely walk and waterfall combination.
If you drive far south, you’ll find Waikawa. There’s an interesting museum to poke around in, and the best fish and chip caravan ever. I think it only does lunches, so get your midday meal in style and enjoy!
Slope Point is the southernmost point of the South Island. There’s a walk there across some farmland, and you’ll get to this signpost. I often sit near the edge of the cliffs and watch the waves of the sea hammer the cliffs below. Even on a calm day, it’s rough. You’ll also see some unusual trees here- the prevailing wind here is the Southerly, and the trees have acquiesed to the wind.
Curio Bay is indeed a curiosity. It’s a beach that is actually a 180 million-year-old petrified forest. The last few times I’ve been here, most of the area is fenced off as this beach is used for nesting by penguins, but also people are horrible and they take ‘souvenirs’ of rocks.
Porpoise Bay is, as per the description, a bay. It’s great for surfing and swimming (albeit cold) and you might find dolphins.
Wildlife you’ll (hopefully) see in the Catlins
The Catlins is jammed full of amazing NZ natives.
Penguins are a common inhabitant of most beaches in the area. Keep your distance from them please, especially if they are nesting or moulting. Don’t come between them and the sea. You may find little blue penguins, or the yellow eyed penguin ‘hoiho’.
Hector’s dolphin/papakanua are one of the smallest and rarest dolphins. They will come in close to shore to feed, so it’s possible to see them from the beach.
Fur seals/ sea lions are commonly found in the Catlins region. They’ll be flopping around on the beach, sunbathing. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see seal pups playing- so cute!
New Zealand native birds are common in the Catlins. You’ll hear the whoosh-whoosh of the Kereru (wood pigeon), a festively plump bird with a white chest. The bellbird is a dull green, small bird, with a delightful song. The tui is easily identified by the white fluff under its beak. The fantail- ever a cheeky favourite- has a tail that resembles a fan, and will cheerfully follow you down a bush walk.
So there you have it: my list of things to do in the Catlins. It’s an amazing place to visit – don’t rush your time here, as part of the joy of the place is the peaceful relaxation.