Several years ago, I visited the Catlins as a guest of Clutha Development Trust and wrote a story for the New Zealand Herald. It wasn’t a place I had really thought about going to, as it’s not talked about much as a destination, but it’s a gem.
Now, as we wait for our borders to reopen, take this opportunity to explore New Zealand. Pre Covid-19 we had 3.8 million visitors annually, paying good money to explore our beautiful country… you should explore it too.
Allow yourself at least three days to do this little roadie. Depending on where you are in the country, fly to Dunedin. The drive-time to Owaka in the Catlins is about an hour and a half.
This is what I did, and I hope it’ll inspire you to discover a little piece of our paradise.
We arrived in Owaka and were given the large hello as we stepped into the Catlins Cafe, seeking reprieve from the bitter wind. Owner, Steve Clarke bellowed from the kitchen, ‘Take a seat by the fire. I’ll be with you in a minute.’ If you think New Zealanders are friendly, people from the South take this to a whole new level.
The well-worn couches around the fire were inviting. The fireside table was strewn with newspaper, brochures on things to do in the area and well-thumbed volumes of personal Catlin’s stories written by the locals.
Owaka, the hub of this tight community is on the southeastern corner of the South Island and has a population of about 250 people. It’s an untouched part of New Zealand with wildlife, walks, beaches, blowholes and caves.
Steve explained how people used to drive the scenic route from Dunedin to Invercargill. He said they had little appreciation of what there was to do, but it’s actually a destination in itself.
After a generous portion of fresh battered South Island blue cod and chips, we set off to catch the low tide. We were hoping to see some of the wildlife and a couple of the coastal phenomena before nightfall.
Our first stop was Nugget Point Lighthouse, a wildlife reserve, Ka Tokata, meaning “rocks standing up out of the water.” Before the lighthouse was lit in 1870, Nugget Point was a treacherous outcrop for ships. Now it’s home to a breeding colony of fur seals, many of which were basking in the late afternoon sun.
As well as Nugget Point, the Catlins has several other natural wonders including the Cathedral Caves at Waipati Beach.
Racing the tide, we got to the cave access road, and the gate was still open. For safety reasons, it’s closed at high tide and when the sea is rough.
A 20-minute walk through the virgin bush to the coast was our first taste of the Catlins rainforest and our ears were ringing from birdsong.
From the bush, we stepped onto Waipati Beach so white the glare had us reaching for our sunglasses. The tide was turning so we hurriedly walked to the entrance of the caves but couldn’t enter. The waves made it too dangerous to negotiate, but at least we had seen the 30-metre cathedral entrance.
With the light fading, we headed up the road to Catlins Holiday Park for the night. This little oasis had everything we needed, but the hidden gem was the Whistling Frog Cafe and Bar.
Early the next morning, owner Paul Bridson knocked on our door and offered to take us up to the McLeans Falls. Paul had settled in the Catlins in the late 1990s after 25 years in California’s Silicon Valley. He said the Catlins are only just being discovered.
We walked through the forest to the falls. With an annual rainfall of more than 2000 millimetre, the air was super-charged. It smelled fresh and earthy and was easy on the lungs as it’s dense with moisture.
Jack’s Blowhole, about 10 km from Owaka, is another attraction that should not be missed. Crossing private farmland to the blowhole, it’s gigantic – 55 metres deep and 200 metres from the sea. It is nothing short of spectacular. Heavy swells from the southern ocean create an impressive display. Waves are compressed through the underground tunnel and explode into the blowhole, creating a deafening sound.
Our next stop was at Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay home to Hector’s dolphins, yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals and sea lions.
The Hector’s dolphin is one of the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world with a population of just over 7000. These dolphins are found only in New Zealand mainly around the South Island. Curio Bay is unique because in the summer the dolphins are visible as they feed in the shallow water on arrow squid, red cod, stargazers and crabs.
Curio Bay also has the fossilised remains of an ancient forest. The fossil forest can be explored at low tide or seen from a viewing platform. This is one of the most extensive and least disturbed examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world. It stretches about 20 km from Curio Bay south-west to Slope Point.
Our next night, before heading back to Dunedin was at Greenwood Farmstay. We were warmly welcomed by farmers Helen-May and Alan Burgess. Before a sumptuous meal, Alan took us over the farm to the 200m-high cliffs where parts of the Narnia films were shot.
The Catlins is one of New Zealand’s most untouched destinations. It is special and deserves unhurried time to embrace its hospitality and beauty, so allow yourself plenty of time to explore.
When you get to Owaka, don’t leave without a meal of Blue Cod from the Catlins Café and a visit to the Owaka Information Centre. They will provide you with maps, directions on all the great things to do in the Catlins, as well as information on the great walking tracks including Lake Wilkie, Tunnel Hill and the Catlins River Walk.
While you’re in the Information Centre, pop next door to the Owaka Museum and learn more about the area’s history, including the sawmilling, a major Catlins industry and several shipwrecks.
Further information: See catlins.org.nz.
Looking for other New Zealand travel ideas – Explore New Zealand post lockdown – Abel Tasman Coastal Track