Travel tales

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

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Browsing the Atlas
    July 26, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I love these pictures! The nuggets are so claming, for some reason. I hope to see this for myself someday.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Thanks, it was a lovely area, I’m so glad we made the diversion!

  • Reply
    ComplexSymmetry
    July 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    One metre high “Niagara Falls”. The man that named them that is, frankly, awesome.
    Great pictures too 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Brilliant isn’t it, they’d even built the ‘Niagara Falls Cafe’ next to it. Wonder if they get any visitors who think they’re at the other one!

  • Reply
    Anita Mac
    July 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Looks like it was worth the trip! Love discovering something that wasn’t originally on the plan!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:28 am

      It was – good to be a bit spontaneous sometime!

  • Reply
    Karen Johnson
    July 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    What an interesting place!

  • Reply
    missmadaboutravel
    July 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    That is beautiful!!!!! Never heard about the Catlins, but I’ll def check them out when I can visit NZ 😉

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:23 am

      There are so any great places in NZ that they seem to get forgotten but are well worth the visit!

  • Reply
    Travelbunny
    July 26, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Your trip to the Catlins sounds wonderful – lovely shots too. I’d love to visit NZ one day and your blog is adding to the urge!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:24 am

      I’m trying to do my bit of New Zealand tourism!

  • Reply
    Erik Smith (@eriksmithdotcom)
    July 27, 2012 at 2:39 am

    So Funny… I just posted my Catlins post today!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 27, 2012 at 9:19 am

      How funny, we’re obviously mentally travelling the same route around NZ! I’ll go and check out your take on it too.

  • Reply
    Lucy Dodsworth
    July 27, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Thanks for reblogging.

  • Reply
    marinachetner
    July 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    The blue of the water in the second image is divine!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 31, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Almost Caribbean colour isn’t it? (though I imagine the temperatures are slightly different!)

  • Reply
    f-stop mama
    July 28, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Thanks for taking the detour and sharing. Love the remoteness of this place. Beautiful pictures!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 31, 2012 at 10:32 am

      Thanks, it really did feel so remote even though we were only a few hundred km from big cities like Dunedin and Queenstown. Lovely to escape from everything for a while though.

  • Reply
    Christina
    November 10, 2012 at 12:12 am

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

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      November 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm

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

  • Reply
    John
    June 9, 2014 at 5:27 pm

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

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 9, 2014 at 9:11 pm

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

  • Reply
    Rachel
    January 14, 2016 at 8:43 am

    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!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      January 14, 2016 at 1:38 pm

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

  • Reply
    Cindy's Travel Diaries
    June 2, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Amazing pictures ! Can’t wait to go there in July 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 2, 2017 at 12:57 pm

      Hope you have a great trip!

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