One of the highlights of the Southern Scenic Route, the Catlins is a wild rugged area of coastline south of Dunedin unblemished by large towns, industry or even many people. Known for its stunning coastal vistas, magnificent waterfalls, verdant native forest and outstanding wildlife, it is well worth the short drive from Dunedin. Plan to spend a night or two to really absorb the unspoilt environment and remote setting. Kaka Point is only an hour’s drive from Dunedin Airport car rental pickup, or head south after a day or two in the city.
Maori came to the area around 1350AD, although they often only came on seasonal visits to coincide with food-gathering seasons. Stories tell of giant hairy monsters called Maeroero that guarded the forested valleys of the Catlins. They were greatly feared by the Maori people.
European settlers began arriving in the early 1800s, mainly as whalers and sealers. Later timber milling was an important economic resource, although one that was very destructive to the forests. The Catlins are now a highly valued ecotourism destination – their largely untouched environment showing what New Zealand was like before the Europeans arrived.
There is also a plethora of wildlife including NZ fur seals, seabirds, the rare yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho), sea lions and southern elephant seals. The forest is filled with native bird life, some endangered, and the river estuaries are home to wading birds such as herons, oyster catchers and pied stilts.
In the early days of European settlement the only access to the Catlins was by sea as the rugged coastline and heavily forested hills made road access impossible. Small towns grew around the river mouths – places like Kaka Point, Owaka and Papatowai – and these are now the best places to find accommodation and stock up with supplies. Mid-summer can be a busy time so book your accommodation ahead. There are good motels, B&Bs and campsites dotted along the drive.
Places of interest include Cathedral Caves, the Petrified Forest, Nugget Point, Purakaunui Falls and Curio Bay. There are good safe walking tracks along the Old Coach Road at Waikawa, Slope Point, Pounawea Bush, the coastal route from Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay, Jack’s Blowhole and Lake Wilkie, plus many others. Make sure your Hertz Dunedin Airport Rental Caris allowed to go on unpaved roads before heading off the beaten track.