The Catlins – Guide for Backpackers
Things to do and sights to see in the Catlins.
Tucked away in the bottom corner of the South Island is a place of amazing rock formations and a mecca for marine wildlife. The Catlins is a coastal region starting from Kaka Point in the north and ends at Fortrose further south.
Among coastal caves and ‘nuggets’ of rock is a piece of ancient history in the fossilised forest of Curio Bay. Backpackers, penguins, seals and dolphins all share a love for the Catlins Coast.
Inland, there are many bushwalks to enjoy. We especially recommend seeing the waterfalls of Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls and Matai Falls.
For more insights on the Catlins, check out 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins.
Things you cant miss in the Catlins
- Visit the quirky sights of Owaka
- Take a bushwalk or chill on the beach at Kaka Point
- See the spectacular view of Nugget Point
- Delve into Cathedral Caves
- See the remnants of history at Curio Bay
- Take a walk to the three picturesque waterfalls in the area
- Spot some super cute marine life, such as penguins, seals and dolphins
Get more inspiration from 10 Incredible Things to Do in The Catlins.
As the largest settlement in the Catlins, Owaka is a great place to make your base or take a break while visiting the Catlins.
As Owaka in Maori means ‘place of the canoe,’ it is only fitting to have a museum and information centre in the shape of a canoe.
Owaka has a couple of quirky attractions including Teapot World: a dedication to all things tea. If you are super lucky, you’ll find a coffee pot too… Don’t forget Dollyworld, which holds a huge display of dolls and stuffed toys.
The most northern part of the Catlins, Kaka Point is a small settlement with a cafe/bar and some accommodation. Take the 30min Kaka Point Bush Walk to see some native birds such as the tui. There is also a stretch of sandy beaches that are safe for swimming and surfing.
Kaka Point is also a good base for a trip to Nugget Point which is just 10 minutes down a scenic and winding gravel road.
Down the road from Kaka Point is Nugget Point – named for the pointed steep headland overlooking rocks sticking out of the sea resembling gold nuggets.
One of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses sits on the edge of the headland, which is a quick walk from the road. This edge of New Zealand provides some stunning photographs and attracts plenty of wildlife too.
Named by Dr T.M. Hocken in 1896 for their resemblance to the cathedrals in Europe, the Catherdral Caves are a mix of tall (30m) pointed and arched caves that can be accessed at low tide. If you shout in the caves, you get cool reverberating sounds shouting back at you over and over again.
To get to the caves you need to access Waipati Beach on a private road (this requires a small entrance fee). Gates are only open to the access road during the low tide hours.
For more walks around the Catlins, check out 10 Hikes in the Catlins and Clutha District.
Curio Bay is the home of a unique sight: a whole fossilised forest from the Jurassic era. It dates back to when New Zealand was part of the same landmass as Australia, Antarctica, Africa, India, Arabia and South America called Gondwanaland.
Tree stumps and trunks can easily be made out from the viewing platform at low tide.
Plus, keep an eye out for the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguins. You are most likely to see them at dawn and dusk. See 5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins for advice.
WaterFalls in the Catlins
The Catlins has some very photogenic waterfalls, the most popular of which is the Purakaunui Falls. The walk to the falls starts at the southern end of the Catlins River Bridge. The short trail takes you to a top viewing platform then a steep descent to the lower platform.
In the Table Hill Scenic Reserve is Matai Falls, accessed easily from the Southern Scenic Route 18km from Owaka. It is a marvellous sight to see the water spilling over mossy green rock and surrounded by native forest.
McLean Falls is made up of different components: a tall waterfall falling onto smaller shelves. They are located south of the Cathedral Caves. It is a 40min return walk to view the falls.
You can see some more falls here: 12 Most Wonderful Waterfalls in New Zealand.
Wildlife in the Catlins
Looking out from Nugget Point, it is common to see gannets and yellow-eyed penguins. On the rocks below there is a large colony of New Zealand fur seals. Between December and February elephant seals also stop by at the nuggets.
Roaring Bay, a 10min drive from Kaka Point, is a place to see yellow-eyed penguins. Make sure you visit in the late afternoon or early morning for the best chance of seeing them.
Penguins can also be seen from late-afternoon at Curio Bay. Or a short walk from Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay which attracts Hector’s dolphins during summer.
If you have more time in the Catlins…
- Take a walk over fields to the viewing platform of Jacks Blowhole
- Can’t get enough information about the Catlins? Check out Waikawa Museum and Information Centre
- Go for a walk: there are heaps of coastal and bushwalks in the area. Check them out on 10 Hikes in the Catlins and Clutha District
- Go for a bike ride: there are heaps of bike trails too. Check them out in Mountain Biking in the Catlins and Clutha District
- Do a spot of fishing on the Puerua Stream, Owaka River, Catlins Lake, Catlins River, Tahakopa River and Waikawa – see The Complete Guide to Fishing in the Catlins
- Find more awesome things to do in 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins.
Where to stay in the catlins?
- Slope Point Backpackers, Slope Point
- Surat Bay Lodge, New Haven
- The Split Level, Owaka
- Beautiful Catlins Backpackers/ River Ridge Retreat, North Catlins
- Hilltop Accommodation, Papatowai
- Lazy Dolphin Lodge, Curio Bay
- Thomas’s Catlins Lodge and Camp, Owaka
More more accommodation options in The Catlins, check out Camping in The Catlins.
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