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The Catlins, New Zealand

The Catlins New Zealand

The Catlins, New Zealand is a region of stunning native forests framed by a dramatic, windswept coastline and a great place to find beauty and solitude. From beaches to waterfalls, here are 8 things to see and do in the Catlins.


8 things to see and do in the Catlins, New Zealand

  1. Nugget Point
  2. Surat Bay
  3. Cannibal Bay
  4. Jacks Bay and Blowhole
  5. Purakaunui Falls
  6. Tautuku Beach
  7. Lake Wilkie
  8. McLean Falls

1# Nugget Point

The Lighthouse at Nugget Point is one of the most photographed scenes in the Catlins and possibly, New Zealand. Nugget Point is a ten minute drive south of Kaka Point. The Lighthouse itself is found at the end of a moderately easy 15 minute walk. While Lighthouse scene dominates – there are plenty of other subjects to photograph. Birds swarm the rocks below and Fur Seals and Sea lions rest on the shores. If you visit at dusk or dawn, you may even get lucky and spot a reclusive yellow-eyed penguin.

The path to the lighthouse is in good condition and accessible to anyone with moderate fitness since some sections are steep somewhat exposed to the drop below. After the Lighthouse, you may like to visit Kaka Point, a sleepy beach village and a nice place to idle away an hour or two. Kaka Point is well stocked with facilities (by Catlins standards) with The Point Cafe, shop and accommodation.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Nugget Point and Light House
Nugget Point Light House. Perhaps one of the most photographed scenes in New Zealand

#2 Surat Bay

Of all the beaches in the Catlins, New Zealand, Surat Bay is a bit special. A wild, lonely, windswept beach – Surat Bay stretches out a few miles and on any given night you might have the whole place to yourself. Surat Bay’s main inhabitants are Seal Lions which are rather big (up to 450kg) and not at all scared of people. Male Sea Lions are easily aggravated if you fail to give them enough space.

Surat Bay is a great place to watch the sunset and getting a good photo should not prove difficult. The sun sets towards the southern end and the retreating tide provides a mirror for the sky. If you want to stay a few days; and you should, Pounawea is a good source of accommodation in the Catlins and features a park for the kids. The bay is a good spot for Kayaking and the folk at Pounawea Motor Camp will be happy to rent you one. Pounawea has some wonderful walking tracks leading you through native forest. One to the North of the settlement (near the old boat – the Portland) and another accessible via the Motor Camp.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Surat Bay Sunset
Surat Bay – lonely and serene.

If sleepy Pounawea is a little busy for your tastes – Newhaven is near pin-drop silent and has immediate access to Surat Bay. Newhaven Caravan Park is one of my all-time favourite stop-overs for its quiet, family-friendly vibe. Newhaven’s lack of light pollution makes Surat Bay an ideal place to try Astrophotography. See 8 steps to taking your first photo of the Milky Way

#3 Cannibal Bay

A few kilometers North of the Catlins capital of Owaka, Cannibal Bay is accessed via unsealed Cannibal Bay Road. Even in comparison with Surat Bay, Cannibal Bay feels isolated and makes for a great walk. At the Northern end of the beach there are some interesting rock formations that make for a good photo opportunity.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Cannibal Bay.
Looking towards the Northern-end of Cannibal Bay
The Catlins New Zealand.  Cannibal Bay Rocks
The rocks at the Northern end of Cannibal Bay.

#4 Jacks Bay and Jack’s Blowhole

6kms from Owaka is Jack’s Bay and its main attraction, Jack’s Blowhole which, when the tides are right, spouts water high in to the air. Despite two visits, I have yet to see the Blowhole in action but perhaps your luck will fare better and even if it doesn’t, the scenery is worth the trouble.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Jacks Bay
Jack’s Bay – nice right?

#5 Purakaunui Falls

Of all the Catlins Waterfalls, Purakaunui Falls is surely the most photographed. Purakaunui Falls is found at the end of a ten minutes long, well laid track though. Despite there is a steep descent to the viewing platform, the falls remains accessible to most. It is a lovely spot and only a 20 minute drive from Owaka so there is no reason why you should not drop by for a walk and a photo. For best results, bring a tripod and shoot with a low shutter speed to give the water a bit of motion blur.

The Catlins New Zealand. Purakaunui Falls, the most photographed of the Catlins Waterfalls.
Purakaunui Falls. I used a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second to blur the falls.

#6 Tautuku Beach

After a bit of a climb, the Papatowai Highway winds its way down to Florence Hill Lookout and a truly stunning view of Tautuku Beach – a great place for a “look where I am” photo. If you want to get some sand on your shoes – follow the highway down the hill and you will soon see signs on your left guiding you to the car park.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Tautuku Beach
Tautuku Beach from Florence Hill Lookout

At the Northern end of Tautuku you will find the Tautaku Walkway, a native bush trail that leads you to a boardwalk over an open plain. A supremely peaceful part of the Catlins

The Catlins New Zealand.  Tautuku Walkway
Tautuku Viewing Platform

#7 Lake Wilkie

The Lake Wilkie track is another drastically easy and beautiful walk through native woods and concludes at Lake Wilkie itself. Lake Wilkie is rather tiny but on a still day serves as a perfect mirror to reflect the sky. If the wind is spoiling the reflection, there are a number of other photo opportunities on hand.

The Catlins New Zealand.  Lake Wilkie
Lake Wilkie was giving me nothing. I grabbed this shot just around the corner.

#8 McLean Falls (Best Waterfall in the Catlins, New Zealand)

Purakaunui Falls enjoys all the attention but of all the Catlins Waterfalls, McLean Falls is the most impressive. The walk begins along a well defined track but grows a little more challenging towards the falls due rockfalls and erosion. Nevertheless – a good pair of shoes and a little determination is all you need to make it to the falls.

The Catlins New Zealand.  McLean Falls is the most impressive of the Catlins Waterfalls
McClean Falls

McLean Falls delivers a bonus waterfall and while modest in comparison is still worth a photo. If you are hoping to stay in the area, the Whistling Frog offers tent pitches, sites and accommodation. The Whistling Frog cafe is rather good too.

The Catlins New Zealand.
A smaller waterfall on the walk up to McLean Falls

What about the Southern Catlins?

Another guide covering the Southern Catlins is one the way.

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