The Catlins in the south of the South Island is one of the least populated regions of New Zealand. Holidaymakers will find secluded bays, untouched nature and complete relaxation along the spectacular cliffs.
The Catlins is an extremely scenic area in the very south of New Zealand 's South Island and is one of the most breathtaking landscapes on the Southern Scenic Road. Along the rugged coastline between Waipapa Point and Nugget Point, there are hardly any people, but plenty of endangered bird species, sea lions, penguins and fur seals. The beautiful coastal landscape is one of our top 10 sights in New Zealand.
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PICTURES: The Catlins
Visit to the Catlins - Welcome to an Ecotourism Paradise
The hidden jewel of the South Island stretches over 90 kilometres along the coastline and reaches about 50km inland. Its largest settlement, Owaka, has only about 400 inhabitants and only small spur roads lead through the area.
Because of their remoteness, the Catlins are increasingly being discovered for ecotourism. Secluded bays, rugged cliffs and capes, waterfalls, caves and sandy beaches are attracting more and more tourists to the unspoiled nature of the Catlins. State Highway 1 merely skirts the road, but to discover the full beauty of the region, it is recommended to take the Southern Scenic Route, which runs from Fiordland to Dunedin.
Sights of the Catlins
Between Kaka Point and Fortrose stretches a scenic symphony of dense rainforests, hidden lakes and rushing waterfalls, enclosed by a rugged coastline with spectacular ocean views. Gorgeous sunsets and stunning starry skies console the harsh climate of the windswept coast.
Curio Bay in the south of New Zealand is one of the top attractions in the Catlins and is visited by around 100,000 tourists every year. Besides its scenic appeal, Curio Bay is best known for its petrified forest and its colony of yellow-eyed penguins. Information about Curio Bay is available at the information centre in nearby Waikawa.
Petrified trees of Curio Bay
The ancient tree trunks on the beach at Curio Bay come from primeval conifers similar to today's kauri trees and Norfolk firs. They were buried by ash and volcanic mud 180 million years ago and preserved by silicon until today. Whether its formation is due to a volcanic eruption or volcanic rain is unclear.
Tip: The petrified trees of Curio Bay are best seen at low tide. Information about the tides is available at the Waikawa Information Centre.
The row of petrified trees stretches from Curio Bay to Slope Point over a length of about 20 kilometres. This makes them among the largest and best-preserved petrified forests in the world.
A similar phenomenon can be found, for example, in the petrified forest in the northwest of Namibia, or in the Ischigualasto Nature Park in Argentina. The fascinating tree trunks still look like wood today, but are made of solid stone. In some places, even the leaves of ferns have been preserved in fossilised form.
In order to preserve the fossilised trees from the Jurassic period for a long time to come, the trunks must not be damaged. A viewing platform about 5min from the car park gives the best overview of this remnant of the dinosaur age.
Yellow-eyed Penguins of Curio Bay
Next to the tree fossils, a colony of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins has settled. Around 1600 breeding pairs are making every effort to preserve the endangered species here. The chance of seeing the penguins is greatest in the late afternoon, when they return to their nests from their hunting expeditions from the sea.
Together with nearby Porpoise Bay, Curio Bay is also one of the habitats of the black and white Hector's dolphins and the highly endangered southern right whale, which can be seen off the coast, especially in the summer months (October to March).
PICTURES: Curio Bay, Catlins
The picturesque Cape Nugget Point is crowned 76m above the sea by a snow-white lighthouse and marks the northern end of the Catlins. From the foot of the Nugget Point lighthouse, the view falls on some pointed rocks in the water. The cape gets its name from these so-called "nuggets".
Another cape is marked further west by Waipapa lighthouse, but this is only 21m above sea level.
Trip to Nugget Point
The road to Nugget Point starts in the settlement of Kaka Point and is easily passable by car. The last part of the road, however, climbs steeply and can only be done on foot. The walking path leads to the top of the cape, which is marked by a snow-white lighthouse.
Arriving at the foot of the lighthouse, it becomes clear why Nugget Point is part of the Southern Scenic Route. The nuggets scattered in the shimmering turquoise sea in front of the leafy rocks on the mainland, above which seabirds circle, are clearly among the most beautiful postcard motifs in New Zealand.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
The snow-white lighthouse at Nugget Point was built in 1869 and still towers 76 metres above the sea. On 4 July 1870, its beacon was lit for the first time, making the dangerous coastline safer for ships heading to the Clutha River from then on. Its oil lamp was replaced by a 1000-watt bulb in 1949.
In 1960, the previously diesel-powered Nugget Point lighthouse was connected to New Zealand 's central electricity grid. Since 1989, its light has been computer-controlled. From the car park, the lighthouse can be reached on foot within five minutes.
Nature Reserve at Nugget Point
The magnificent scenery around Nugget Point is not only attractive to human visitors. A large colony of fur seals has settled on the numerous rocks at Nugget Point and has to share its marine food supply with numerous seabirds, such as gannets and spoonbills.
Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point, is home to a small group of yellow-eyed penguins that can be observed from a shelter.
Tip: The best time of day for wildlife viewing at Nugget Point is either in the morning or evening. Binoculars or a strong telephoto will serve you well.
The habitat of the animal inhabitants is protected within a radius of around 47 hectares. The Department of Conservation of New Zealand is committed to extending the protected area to the underwater world as well, since the coastal waters off New Zealand are among the migration areas of humpback whales, orcas and southern capers. Dolphins can also be spotted from the shore time and again.
So far, however, the surrounding communities, which still live from fishing, have been able to assert themselves against the marine protected area.
PICTURES: Nugget Point, Catlins
Only about 4km as the crow flies, but 45 minutes by car from Nugget Point is the picturesque Cannibal Bay. The idyllic bay is fringed by green hills and populated primarily by wildlife. Sea lions snooze in the sun while oystercatchers forage in the light-coloured sand.
Cannibal Bay, by the way, does not get its name from man-eating natives, but from a surveyor who once found human remains here.
PICTURES: Cannibal Bay, Catlins
Southwest of Cannibal Bay across Catlins Lake, Jack's Blowhole is found in the next bay, Jack's Bay. A sign from the Southern Scenic Road and markers lead to the 55m deep crevice in the rock that acts as a cannon barrel for the surf 200m from the sea.
In addition to the fountains of seawater and the spectacular roar and gurgle, Jack's Blowhole also offers breathtaking views over the Catlins coastline.
In many places, the cliffs of the Catlins rise around 150m directly out of the sea. Many rivers that flow into the ocean in the south of New Zealand plunge down over this rock face.
Probably the most famous waterfall in the Catlins, however, is the Purakaunui Falls inland, about 17km southwest of Owaka. Long used as the Catlins' flagship, the Purakaunui Falls was even featured on a New Zealand postage stamp in 1976.
Walk to Purakaunui Waterfall
Purakaunui Falls is the main attraction of the Purakaunui Falls Scenic Reserve. The dirt Purakaunui Falls Road branches off from the main road between Owaka and Invercargill and leads to a small car park. Toilets and picnic areas are the only tourist facilities available.
At the car park, a path starts directly to the waterfall. The 10-minute hike through dense rainforest is one of the tourist destinations on the Southern Scenic Road, just like Purakaunui Falls.
The entire path is lined with a fairytale forest of yew and silver beech, whose tree trunks are overgrown with mosses, lichens and ferns. You can hear the roar from afar: 5km before it flows into the sea, the Purakaunui River cascades 20 metres over the rocks. The rushing masses of water can be admired from two viewing platforms at close range.
At the end of the path is the upper viewing platform, from which a relatively steep path leads to the lower viewing platform. The descent pays off, because from below the waterfall, framed by bright green bushes, appears even more picturesque.
PICTURES: Purakaunui Falls, Catlins
At low tide, access to the Cathedral Caves is open for two hours at the north end of Waipati Beach. At 30 metres high, they are among the 30 largest coastal caves in the world. A small fee is charged for the approximately 30-minute access, to which a path leads from the car park onto private land. Information about the tides is available at any information centre.
Catlins also has the omnipresent breeze to thank for its high waves, which attract numerous surfers. Swimming and bathing are hardly possible in the idyllic bays of the Catlins due to the usually stormy surf, but big wave surfing is almost the order of the day here. In 2003, the Catlins were the talk of the surfing industry when a surfer from Dunedin mastered an eleven-metre-high wave here.