Gentle times in the Catlins

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The Catlins is a fascinating blend of lonely, lovely nature, early settlement history, free-roaming and sometimes seen wildlife which is now attracting more New Zealanders to its sights and experiences.

The Catlins is the area between Balclutha and Invercargill running along the southeast coast. It’s the alternative to the main highway running west from Balclutha to Gore and then south to Invercargill.

This area, something of a tourist backwater in pre-Covid times, is enjoying a surge in travellers as Kiwis discover or rediscover their own country.

Along our way my wife and I climbed hills, took in waterfalls, admired wetlands, searched for sealions, stood starry-eyed at the Niagara Falls and ate several meals of blue cod, each one as good as the last.


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For me the Catlins have family connections that extend beyond the physical beauty of the place, the sense of serene isolation, the lovely and lonely beaches, the quirky history, and the fascinating stories of the early settlers. It’s a gentle journey.

Settlers were in the Catlins from the 1830s onwards opening up the land, building set-tlements, turning river mouths into ports, farming, fishing, and logging. Fortrose, for example, was established as a whaling station in 1834.

Two more examples of this early settlement are the port at Port Molyneux on the road from Owaka to the Nugget Point lighthouse and the Catlins Branch Line, a single track railway built between 1879 and 1915 mainly to expedite the transport of timber. 

The line eventually ran inland from Balclutha 68 kms and supported 12 trains a week carrying timber, freight and passengers. The line closed in 1971. Hikers can now take a couple of days to walk the old track.

The port began as a whaling station about 1839 and functioned until flooding silted the harbour, changing the course of the river. By 1879 the new railway eliminated the need for the town. 

Now there is nothing left except some story boards at the top of the hill above where the port used to be. These tell the story of the early settlers, the school they built, the life they led and the hardships they faced in a bleak and unforgiving climate. 


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One of the rail tunnels on the Catlins Branch Line called the McDonald’s Saddle is accessible from the main road. It’s a rather eerie experience walking through it in near darkness with the daylight at the end of the tunnel acting as your guide. (Torches are recommended but aren’t essential.) 

Owaka is the entrance to the Catlins and is its largest town. A third of the population of this sparsely populated area live here. Locals fuel up, get their groceries there and socialise at the single pub and several cafés and restaurants, but the nearest bank is in Balclutha.

One outstanding feature of the town is Graham Renwick’s quirky collection of teapots known as Teapot Land. Definitely world famous in New Zealand, he started the collection after an accident ended his career as a chef, and it just went from there he says. He has over a thousand teapots on display.

Down the road at Nugget Point there’s a bracing walk out to the lighthouse, long since automated, but the real highlight is the rounded rocks immediately out to sea. These look like nuggets and visually are quite spectacular. 

Our first night was in a modest cottage at Kepplestone by the sea, a small but friendly community on the coast, where we walked along the beach in search of the penguins and sealions said to be there.


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The next night we were at the Whistling Frog, probably the largest and certainly the best known of the various accommodation options in the area, partly because it is more or less in the centre and is also just down the road from the McLean Falls which have been pulling tourists into the Catlins for over a hundred years. 

The Whistling Frog has a good café and bar and the restaurant does dinner, which is helpful because after Owaka there are no shops to buy food.

Slope Point, the southernmost point of the South Island, is also one of the windiest. Park on the road and walk about a kilometre across a farmer’s field to the weather beacon. Take your photo with the AA sign giving distances to faraway points and then walk into the wind uphill back to your vehicle. 

Curio Bay, probably the last large beach in the Catlins, is a lovely spot in the sun-shine but was less attractive when we were there with drizzly rain and jersey-wearing temperatures.

For dinner that night we drove back to Waikawa and enjoyed dinner at Blue Cod Blues, a takeaway caravan run by a couple of enterprising local women. 


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We sat in the car out of the rain feeling like naughty teenagers eating blue cod and chips out of a bag while a family gathered around a small table in what had been the bus shelter sharing the same kai as us.

A little further along the road is the Niagara Falls. Yes there is a waterfall, but it is not in any way comparable even to the better-known waterfalls in the area let alone the enormous and famous falls in upstate New York. The “fall” here might be a few centimetres at its most flush.

My mother, now long dead, was born in Fortrose in 1910, but there’s little left of the Fortrose of her day. Once a very busy port exporting wool, grain and timber, its prosperity ended when the railway line was opened in 1899. 

Now it’s a bend in the road to Invercargill with a café and a petrol pump, a few houses and at low tide the remains of one of many shipwrecks along this coast can be seen.

In 2005 we went through the Catlins in a single day but this time we took four days and explored the whole coast taking in most of the recommended sights and experiences.

We walked out to the Tautuku Estuary, along a bush path and then across the wooden boardwalk and into the tranquil wetlands where the raindrops glistened on a spider’s web and even the sound of silence was serenely quiet.

There’s a beach further along the way with a lovely camping ground and a long walk out to the waves when the tide is out. A young girl with a rod, perhaps a Christmas present, is trying to cast into the river. She’s not catching a thing but she and her sisters are having fun playing in and out of the pools left by the receding tide.  


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We walked to the Matai Falls, McLean Falls, and wonderfully cascading Pūrākanui Falls, checked out the old Waipapa Point lighthouse and called in at Surat Bay where DoC says, “In most conditions at Surat Bay, you will find a large colony of New Zealand sea lions inter-acting or sleeping on the beach”. Perhaps, but not on the day we were there.

The Catlins are a destination for those who like the gentle outdoors, although there are plenty of hikes for the go-hards. I believe there is wildlife to be seen, even if we didn’t see much of it. 

Rarely have I left a destination feeling that I didn’t spend enough time there, but that was just my feeling after four days in the Catlins. 


Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine. 
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