There is an unlimited quantity and variety of walking options for nature fans along the southern coastline of the Catlins, and, as all the local walks are close to each other, it’s possible to complete several in a day.
Native forests and bush grow to the water’s edge, so often, delightful birdsong is combined with the perfect soundtrack of the distant breaking waves. If rain is forecast, pack an umbrella as rain here means business and walking in sodden gear takes the shine off the experience.
Umbrellas are also very useful for providing protection for cameras when taking photos and a lot of that will happen in such picturesque forest. The following walks are a good starting point only. Drive slowly and explore all the back roads, discovering many other gems along the journey.
Nugget Point, with its 150-year-old lighthouse, is the symbolic northern landmark of the Catlins. The intimate 10km road from Kaka Point leading to the headland hugs golden sandy bays with ample stopping points and seats made out of odds and ends.
A spectacular 20-minute walk high above the water through wind-sculpted vegetation clinging to the land leads to the point with its panoramic views over the nuggets and the infinity of the southern ocean beyond.
Even on a calm day the power of the ocean is obvious as lines of unbroken swells, curving around the headland, create the strange sensation of being in a boat that is rising and falling with the waves. Uncanny.
Nugget Point is home to fur seals and 40 species of sea bird that visit or reside here. Nearby Roaring Bay has a viewing hide from which to spot the world’s rarest yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho) nesting in the coastal forest.
The best time to view these shy and sensitive creatures is late afternoon when they are returning from the day feeding at sea. Visitors must stay off the beach after 3pm so as to not disturb the weary homeward waddlers.
Surat Bay Wildlife Walk
Surat Bay got its name after the New Year’s Day shipwreck of the Surat here in 1874 – not a great start to the year for the immigrant passengers but luckily no lives were lost. The walk to the bay starts a short drive from Pounawea at Newhaven and reaches the main beach on a track that sidles the edge of the estuary.
If the conditions and tides are good for a longer walk, neighbouring Cannibal Bay can also be accessed over the headland of False Islet at the end of Surat Bay. It is also possible to drive to the more intimate Cannibal Bay and start the walk from there.
Picturesque and small, Lake Wilkie is a remnant of a much larger lake slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding forest. This is a tranquil spot and the 20-minute walk also serves an educational purpose.
Vegetation changes dramatically in the few hundred metres between the lake and the coast and information panels show how waterside plants can reclaim the land and transition to mature forest.
Just a few hundred metres north of this walk is a nature trail that traverses the section of the bush from the road to the beach. Tree specimens are marked along the track and the real joy is the sound of the ocean growing louder as the track emerges onto the expansive Tautuku Bay.
Pounawea Bush & Nature Walk
At low tide this 40-minute round trip is an absolute treasure. The walk starts at the back of the Pounawea Motor Camp and goes through virgin podocarp forest, returning via the open salt marsh and estuary. The thick forest is a living museum of New Zealand’s big old handsome natives, which grow to the water’s edge.
Stepping out onto the salt marsh at the bush edge leads to an entirely different eco-system and a treasure trove for hunting for small shells and other natural minutiae. Birdlife is plentiful too, including migratory bar-tailed godwits (kuaka), which feed in flocks on the mudflats in summer, oystercatchers (trea), royal spoonbill and white-faced herons.
Irihuka (Long Point) Reserve was purchased by the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in 2009 for the conservation of these native penguins and restoration of other seabird species and coastal ecosystems.
Access is via Helena Falls Beach – a few hundred metres up the road is the start of the Long Point Walk, which, with its high elevation, has panoramic views of this part of the Catlins’ coast and headlands. Depending on the conditions this is a good place to be awed by the swells and wind racing straight in from Antarctica and the raw interaction with the land.
Caitlins River & Wisp Loop
Away from the coast this inland track offers a longer walking option following the peaceful Catlins River through an enchanting area of mixed podocarp and silver beech forests. It is also one of last strong-holds of the endangered yellowhead (mohua) with their canary-like call and rapid staccato chatter. The 12km walk takes a good part of the day and as it is one-way, transport is a consideration.
A shorter loop takes in a lovely section of the track with a 90-minute walk from the Franks Stream to the Wallis Stream access points. It’s possible to return the same way or make a loop back to the start by forestry roads. The river walk is accessible via the Tawanui Campground and the Wisp Loop via Chloris Pass Road.
Shanks Bush Reserve Nature Walk
This short loop walk just on the outskirts of Papatowai isn’t so much a walk as an experience. An information sheet guides visitors around the twists and surprises along the way. Crawl along a section with a magnifying glass to take a closer ook at mosses, liverworts and lichen.
Practice using senses other than sight by closing your eyes and feeling your way along a rope – a perfect way to listen with greater clarity to birds and smell the bush too. Visitors will come across other surprises and both adults and kids will have a blast with these thoughtprovoking elements. Corner Papatowai Highway and Tahakopa Valley Road.
Wildlife top tips
In late Feb-March, penguins are moulting and growing new waterproof feathers so they cannot go to sea for 3-4 weeks. During this time they are particularly vulnerable so it’s more important than ever not to disturb them.
Fur seals (Kekeno) are often seen in significant numbers around the coast on rocky shores. They are shyer of humans than of sea lions and can be dangerous if cornered so give them plenty of space.
T he Catlins has a number of special spots that make the region truely unique, but the four showcased here tick many boxes, including offering great vistas for perfect photo opportunities, or just being top-quality places to sit and bask in nature’s glory.
On a perfect weather day, the stillness and tranquility of these places is allenveloping, but even if conditions are less than favourable, there’s still so much to relish in experiencing nature’s raw energy.
Florence Hill Lookout
Just south of Papatowai, Florence Hill Lookout oversees sweeping Tautuku Bay and Tautuku Peninsula in the distance. Ancient forests with trees over 1000 years old grow right down to the bay in this scene, which is the only place left on the east coast where native forest fully covers a catchment from hilltops right to the ocean edge. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this vista presenting a picture of New Zealand before the arrival of humans.
Experience virgin forest rich in birdlife spilling right to the edges of the saltmarsh and estuary in Pounawea.It is home to wading birds such as royal spoonbills and bar-tailed godwits, which return to the sandspit near the mouth of the estuary each year.
Park up on the waterfront, find a spot for a picnic and watch the ever-changing scene with the continual cycle of tidal waters that are part of the daily rhythm of life in this settlement.
Tahakopa Bay Scenic Reserve
A few kilometres along Puaho Road from Papatowai, as the road rises up above the Tahakopa Bay Scenic Reserve, look out for a small wooden platform on the right. This non-signposted construction was presumably built to take in the expansive panorama of the significant wetland reserve with its extensive population of white pine (kahikatea) stretching all the way to the coast. This was also the setting for the conservationthemed children’s book Kangaroo Bill and the Forest Behind the Bay by local writer Diana Noonan.
Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk
This short walk crosses boardwalks over jointed rush (oioi) onto the open Tautuku Estuary, which is surrounded by native forests and is home to several species of wading birds. It’s the favoured habitat of the shy (but noisy) fernbird (matata) and trying to spot this reluctant flier provides the perfect excuse to sit here quietly for a while.
Best place to watch the sunrise - Or sunset
Nugget Point Lighthouse
(carpark is accessible for motorhomes)
Best local fish & chips
in Owaka township
Best view of the ocean
Florence Hill Lookout
over Tautuku Beach
Best place to view the rare yellow - eyed penguins
The Roaring Bay Hide,
most commonly seen at dawn and dusk
F rom quality coffee to gourmet dining, you’ll find plenty of great dining options to choose from around the Catlins. Here are just a few...
The Point Cafe and Bar, Kaka Point
Looking out to the Pacific Ocean, The Point provides a scenic setting for a meal of the freshest blue cod or a seafood platter, best accompanied by a beer brewed just a stone’s throw away at the Catlins Brewery.
Scottish brewer Norm MacLeod has combined Scotland and New Zealand in ales such as Scotch Mist, a tribute to the early Scottish settlers who arrived on these shores. 58 Esplanade, Kaka Point
Lunch and evening menus are available, or just stop by for a hot drink and traditional Southland cheese roll or some highly rated carrot cake. Given the heritage of the area the lumberjack cake in the lineup of baking goodness makes for a nice touch, the recipe sent to the owners by leading New Zealand chef Ruth Pretty.
The original recipe contains Turkish dates, but co-owner Irene Walton has added her own twist by using fig and apple instead. Closed Monday and Tuesday during winter. 3 Saunders Street, Owaka. lumberjackbarandcafe.co.nz
Whistling Frog Resort
Nestled in the heart of the Catlins, The Whistling Frog Resort sits in a convenient location for several of the local gems including McLean Falls, Tautuku Wetlands and Cathedral Caves. The on-site café, open October to May, also serves up a fine gourmet steak and mushroom pie. 9 Rewcastle Road, Papatowai. whistlingfrogresort.com
Where to camp
Facilities may include toilets, wastewater, recycling, dump stations, laundries and showers.
Kaka Point Camping Ground
34 Tarata St, Kaka Point Tel 03 412 8801 • kakapointcamping.co.nz
Kuramea Holiday Park
350 Pounawea Rd, Pounawea Tel 03 419 1110 • kuramealodge.co.nz
Pounawea Motor Camp
1 Park Lane, Pounawea Tel 03 415 8483 • catlins-nz.com
Catlins Newhaven Holiday Park
324 Newhaven Rd, Tel 03 415 8834 • newhavenholiday.com
185 Ahuri Rd, Owaka Tel 027 403 5816 • hillviewcampsite.co.nz
21 Ryley St, Owaka Tel 03 415 8350 • clt-trust.co.nz
Thomas Catlins Lodge and Campground
Cnr Ryley and Clark St, Owaka Tel 03 415 8333 • thomascatlins.co.nz
Whistling Frog Resort
9 Rewcastle Rd, Chaslands Tel 03 415 8338 • whistlingfrog.com
Curio Bay Camping Ground
601 Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd Tel 03 246 8897 • curioscape.co.nz
Wyndham Camping Ground
135 Cardigan Rd, Wyndham Tel 022 420 9304
- Rubbish disposal points are at Papatowai and Kaka Point and recycling is available at Owaka and Tokanui
- Campervan waste disposals/dump stations – Inn Street Owaka, Thomas’s Lodge Owaka, Kaka Point, Tokanui, Whistling Frog Resort and Pounawea Holiday Park
Find out more about the Catlins, and other great New Zealand destinations, in the 2019 issue of The Insider's Guide. And be sure to keep an eye out for the next great issue, on sale in November. Pounawea Motor Camp MCD explore where to camp
Order your copy at shop.thisnzlife.co.nz $19.90 includes NZ delivery