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The Catlins: New Zealand’s deep south

Catlins in New Zealand's South Island

The Catlins were never part of my original New Zealand itinerary. Deep in the far depths of the South Island, this coastal area is as far south as you can get on the mainland, with not much between you and the Antarctic. Its remoteness and reputation for harsh weather – lots of rain and winds which feel like the Antarctic is a lot closer than 4800km away – put most visitors off, me included. But after spending a couple of days in Dunedin, the weather forecast showed most of the South Island was swamped by clouds, but a lucky break with the weather meant the Catlins were the sunniest place on the island. So instead of heading back north as planned, we took a detour and headed on down to New Zealand’s deep south.

Nuggets in the Catlins

The Nuggets rock formation

The Catlins is the name given to the area between Invercargill and Balclutha, a wild landscape of rough coastline, battered by winds and lined with shipwrecks. It’s home to plenty of wildlife, but not so many people – although the Catlins covers an area the size of Luxembourg, there are only about 1200 people living here. As we followed the Southern Scenic Route southwards, towns were few and far between – as were other cars. What visitors there are tend to run through the route in a day, but with the sun shining we took it slowly over two days. The road mainly runs inland but there were plenty of diversions down narrow gravel tracks to viewpoints, beaches and waterfalls – from the huge three-tiered Purakaunui Falls to the metre-high Niagara Falls (named by a surveyor with a sarcastic sense of humour) – to distract us.

Catlins waterfalls

Two of many waterfalls in the Catlins

One of our first stops was at Nugget Point. This headland is surrounded by rocky outcrops which have been eroded from the mainland and stick up out of the water, hence ‘the nuggets’. A lighthouse stands at the edge of the coast, now automated but it’s not hard to imagine how bleak and remote it would have been being a lighthouse keeper out here on a rough day. Though you’re never entirely alone in the Catlins. All along the coastline you see whales, dolphins, seal lions, seals and hundreds of types of birds, including rare yellow-eyed penguins (too elusive for me to spot unfortunately).

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Further west is Curio Bay, where if you time it right and get there at low tide, you can see a petrified forest along the shore. A volcanic eruption in the Jurassic period 180 million years ago covered the trees here and over time they were turned to stone. Years later it was exposed by the tides and is now one of the world’s finest fossil forests. It’s strange to see tree stumps sticking up, imprints of ferns and what looks like a tree trunk lying down complete with wood grain, but is really solid stone.

Curio Bay petrified forest

The petrified forest at Curio Bay

Not far from Curio Bay was Catlins Beach House, our stop for the night. There’s not much in the way of accommodation around here, but we came across this timber beach house with a fantastic location right on the beach front. More like a house rental than a hostel, one of the other two rooms was occupied by an elderly geologist and his 90-year-old girlfriend who were touring the area. She escaped off to bed while he told us some amazing stories of his Indiana Jones-style travels round the world in the 60s. It was probably my most laid-back accommodation experience – the door was left open and we never met the owner, he just rang up to ask how many of us were staying that night and asked us to leave the money when we left in the morning – but that seemed to suit the Catlins perfectly.

Sea lions

Mother and cub sea lions catching some sun on a Catlins beach

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The Catlins: Exploring New Zealand’s deep south – On the Luce travel blog

Zi @craving.adventure

Wednesday 15th of July 2020

I love the Catlins! They're among my favourite corners of New Zealand (and I'd like to think I've explored almost every corner). The nature is stunning, waterfalls are plentiful, the wildlife is amazing and swimming with dolphins in Curio Bay was definitely the highlight of it all!

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 23rd of July 2020

It's a great part of the world isn't it – would love to get back there again someday!

Cindy's Travel Diaries

Friday 2nd of June 2017

Amazing pictures ! Can't wait to go there in July :)

Lucy

Friday 2nd of June 2017

Hope you have a great trip!

Rachel

Thursday 14th of January 2016

I loved camping down in the Catlins, definitely one of my favourite bits of NZ. This post brought back some very happy memories, thanks Lucy!

Lucy

Thursday 14th of January 2016

Loved the Catlins! It's one of those areas that I couldn't believe wasn't better know, such beautiful landscapes.

John

Monday 9th of June 2014

Great blog about the Catlins, I reblogged on my page as your photographs are so much better than mine!

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 9th of June 2014

Thanks for reblogging! Glad you like the pictures and good to bring back some great memories, it's such a beautiful part of NZ.

Christina

Saturday 10th of November 2012

Love the Catlins, esp. Curio Bay. Surfed there for the first time, perfect waves for the beginner!

Lucy Dodsworth

Sunday 11th of November 2012

Was it freezing? It was definitely cool when I was there but the water did look beautiful!