The isolated beauty of the Catlins

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The Catlins is one of those parts of New Zealand that, due to its location, never seems to get the attention it deserves. Tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the country, bypassed by the main highway, it’s not really on the way to anywhere much at all.

There’s one sealed road that snakes between the few little towns, but other than that there’s a lot of gravel – not ideal for visitors in hire cars and campervans, wary of accidents or chipped paintwork. Fortunately I was driving my friend’s 20 year old Subaru, the perfect combination of four-wheel drive and a paint job that only a panelbeater could love.

We had three nights in this remote area, a place of deserted beaches and rushing water, dense forest and howling wind… and barely a cell or wifi signal to be found anywhere.

Seagull on beach

Leaving behind the (ahem) bustling metropolis of Balclutha, the small town where I spent the first few years of my life, we headed down the optimistically-named Owaka Highway. Spits of rain bounced off the windscreen, nearby trees bending in the ever-present wind. Even the seagulls looked chilly on the deserted beaches – and this was in the middle of summer.


The rain clouds soon blew out to sea, however, leaving bright sunshine to provide a little warmth as we picked our way along the sand. Large clumps of seaweed bobbed in the shallows or lay wrapped around the jagged rocks, left stranded by the departing tide.

Nugget Point

One of the few parts of the Catlins that does receive tourist traffic is Nugget Point, a windswept headland complete with lighthouse and many small ‘nuggets’ of rock just offshore. A coach tour had arrived just before we did, dozens of European visitors making appreciative noises as they snapped blurry photos on their iPads.

iPad camera

We stayed a few minutes, but with only a light jacket and pair of over-sized sunglasses for warmth, one of us soon decided that it was time to get out of the gale and find somewhere more sheltered to do our sightseeing.

Cold Lauren

We stopped briefly at Roaring Bay, a spot where rare yellow-eyed penguins regularly come ashore after feeding. Not on this day, however – they, like us, were probably looking for somewhere out of the wind.

Roaring Bay

With the afternoon drawing on, we eventually pulled ourselves away from the rugged shoreline and towards our home for the night. We ended up at the Hilltop, which I’d highly recommend for couples or small groups – two self-contained houses at the top of the hill, warm and cozy and with incredible views in a part of the world that isn’t exactly short of them. We could happily have stayed here for weeks…

Seat with a view

Last of the evening sun

Eventually dragging ourselves out of the house the following morning, we first headed to Tunnel Hill. Once the southernmost rail tunnel in the country, excavated by hand through the hillside, it’s now a dark, damp overgrown 250m walk in the dark. We had torches – unlike the family that we met on our way back. They’re probably still recovering from the trauma now…


We played around at the other end for a while, trying out all kinds of poses….

From the darkness of the tunnel we emerged back into the light, following a gravel track a kilometre or two down to Cannibal Bay. This stretch of sand is famous for New Zealand sea lions, and we weren’t disappointed – there must have been at least twenty of them lazing in the dunes, cooling off at the water’s edge or keeping a watchful eye on their young.

Sea lions

Sea lion

Even though they look quite cute and docile when lying on the sand, male sea lions are large and can be rather belligerent – there’s a good reason why you’re not supposed to approach within 20 metres of them, and it’s not just because of their bad breath. Yes, even when they’re waving you over to say hello…

Waving sea lion

We wandered from one end of the beach to the other, the sea breeze providing a welcome respite from the hot sun. Yet again we had been blessed with good weather, in a part of the country that isn’t exactly renowned for it.

Only half-way through our time in the Catlins, we were all amazed at how much we’d seen and done in little over a day. Not that we were coming close to exhausting all that was on offer, mind you – still to come on our itinerary was a majestic waterfall, petrified forests, towering caves and one seriously pretty lake.

All of that in Wednesday’s post! 😉

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