The southeast corner of the South Island is a remarkably beautiful area renowned for its coastal forests, wildlife, beaches and scenery. Mercifully, the Catlins hasn’t been subjected to excessive tourism development. What services exist for tourists—the campgrounds, backpackers, homestays and specialist ‘eco-tourism’ operations are small-scale and low impact, and this feels right for the area.
Kaka Point/Nugget Point
From Balclutha drive south on SH 92 and take the turnoff 6 km from Balclutha to Kaka Point village. A 16-km drive around the coast to Nugget Point. Nugget Point Lighthouse was built in 1869. Fur and elephant seals, New Zealand sea lions, and blue and yellow-eyed penguins are often resident here.
Owaka, Pounawea and Surat Bay
Owaka (15 km from Kaka Point) is the largest settlement in the Catlins. To get to Pounawea, Jacks Blowhole and Surat Bay turn east at Owaka. Walk from Surat Bay backpacker lodge to the outer coast to see sea lions.
Purakaunui Falls/Purakaunui Bay
Just past Catlins Lake, take the signposted road to Purakaunui Falls, passing Purakaunui Bay where there is a lovely beach with camping and picnicking areas.
From the Purakaunui Falls carpark, take the left fork and continue along the unsealed route to Maclennan. At the bridge over the forest fringed estuary formed by the Tahakopa River is a carpark and the start of the ‘Old Coach Road’ walk. This is an easy forest walk (40 minutes return) to the site of an early Polynesian moa-hunter camp.
From Papatowai there’s a 2-km climb up Florence Hill to the wonderful viewpoint overlooking Tautuku Beach, Tautuku Peninsula and forest from the coast to the Maclennan Range.
Cathedral Caves/McLean Falls
Beyond Tautuku Bay, the road crosses a forested range in the Tautuku Scenic Reserve. Twelve kilometres from Papatowai is the access to the limestone Cathedral Caves at Waipati Beach. The access track crosses private land and is opened only when tides allow—and there is a small charge. The Falls are 10 mins drive off the turnoff and a 15-minute walk.
After Chaslands the road passes through a long stretch of native forest, and reaches a T-junction that offers the choice of continuing west along the Southern Scenic Route to Invercargill (80 km), or south to Waikawa, Curio Bay and Fortrose.
From the Haldane T-junction at Haldane you can walk toward Slope Point. Another vantage point for fine ocean and lighthouse views is at Waipapa Point (turn off at Otara). The Southern Scenic Route is joined again at Fortrose (café, fuel).