A journey that takes you from a small town at the end of the world that thinks its Edinburgh through misty rainforest, past stunning ethereal vistas, deserted beaches, waterfalls, dolphins, sea lions, teapot madness, pristine lakes and wetlands, petrified forests takes deep breath shipwrecks, gondolas, glow worms, mountain tops and the deepest coldest lakes – there’s a reason why the Southern Scenic Route has been voted one of the worlds’ top drives. An unspoilt, greens-were-never-so-green-blues-never-so-blue ride to the southern-most point of New Zealand and on to the country’s adventure playground including the Milford Sounds, one of the 8th wonders of the world. Dramatic, rugged, whether you are looking for relaxed solitude or days packed with biking, walking, skiing and surfing, the SSR is the best of the southern wild and an important part of any New Zealand adventure. Expect a memorable holiday in this magnificent part of the world, with many places to camp and stay, things to do and see.
Starting in Dunedin, or Otepoti, a tartan town founded in 1848 by a boatload of Presbyterians who left Scotland because there weren’t enough rules. Many of the streets are named after those in Edinburgh but laid out in a very different way. While there you can sip a wee dram and pay a visit to the statue of Robbie Burns in the Octagon and Dunedin’s architecture is really something special so, whilst wandering in and out of the shops filled with fabulous fashion and food, make sure to look up and check out the pillars, porticos and pilasters of the city’s Greco-Roman/Victorian mashup, (the building housing the town’s strip club is modelled on the Parthenon).
Drive 30 mins out of the CBD to Port Chalmers, and stop at the Portsider for a pint of Emersons Pilsner and a steak the size of your head and toast the ghost.
Crossing the mighty Clutha River, fast, deep and full of salmon, stock up on groceries, fuel and lip gloss, you’re heading into a retail-less wilderness. This is the best place in the country to try the ‘sushi of the south’: cheese rolls. These enormous rolls are toasted and slathered in melting butter, and down here they are made with a secret ingredient: onion soup mix. Trust us, they’re delicious.
After you’ve eaten your fill, jump in the car for a 20 minute drive to Kaka Point. A small sea side village named for the kākā bird - whose call is “ka-aa”. It’s a quiet place most of the year so let the bird song silence the monkey chatter in your brain, sit beside the sea for a while and get back to the essential joys of life.
Just along from Kaka point on the northern end of the Caitlins coast, lies Nugget Point or Toka-ta, meaning “the rocks standing up out of water”. This is a glorious place to see the sun rise. Visit the lighthouse built in 1869 overlooking the ‘nuggets,’ elephantine rocks that seem to have been thrown in the sea by a giant toddler having a tantrum. Imagine the isolated lives of the lighthouse keeper and his family, spending years at a stretch here, at a time when circumnavigating the rocky undulates of this coast was fraught with peril. The sea a ship-eater chomping the cliffs. There are two short 20 minutes walks and from here you can observe the wildlife: fur seals, gannets, sooty shearwaters, elephant seals and shags, or if you walk towards Roaring Bay you’ll come to the “hide” where you may be able to see the rare yellow eyed penguins - in the early morning or prior to dusk. Please note dogs are not allowed here in order to protect these cute little guys.
We’re now heading to Cannibal Bay, but before you head to the coast, stop at Tunnel Hill. Take the short 30-minute return walk to view a tunnel excavated, by hand, over two years from 1893-5 for the Balclutha to Tahkopa railway. Get halfway in and experience absolutely inky black can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. Torches highly recommended.
Cannibal Bay. Geologist Dr James Hector gave this place it’s spooky name, after human bones were found in the sand dunes. Don’t worry, you’re safe from being gnawed on, unless you happen to be filled with cheese, lightly toasted and covered in butter. From here, drive back towards Owaka and from there head to the coast to reach Surat Bay. A long sandy beach where the sailing vessel ‘Surat’ wrecked in 1874, rumour has it, due to the captain having made the most of the rum rations. You can still see some of the wreckage at low tide and there are sea lions galore. This is their hood, the marram grass bears their refrigerator-sized indents, but please keep your distance - at least 25 metres.
Owaka. The southern centre of the Catlins is a good place to stop and post a jealousy-inducing Facebook update, (phone service in the Caitlins is a tad patchy). An old school small country town with a history of mining, sawmilling and whaling. Visit the Catlins History Museum to learn about the hard-knock lives of the settlers in the 1860s, tough, resourceful buggers with muscles on their muscles. Owaka also has galleries, the Catlins Soap Company and … drumroll please…Teapot Land, a strange grassy knoll covered in hundreds of teapots and garden ornaments laid out in an arrangement so bonkers the Mad Hatter would consider it over-the-top, and totally worth a look for this reason. Donations are appreciated. (They probably don’t need any more teapots, though.)
Pounawea. The place to go for bird watching and estuary walks, Pounawea, meaning ‘meeting of the waters’ sits between the estuaries of the Catlins and Owaka rivers. It is a great spot for fishing, kayaking and picnicking and there’s a lovely walk along the “elbow” track. There is a motorcamp, (Pounewa Motorcamp) situated on the estuary so you can park up or pitch a tent, and watch the sunset - cue romantic sighing from your beloved.
16 minutes drive brings you to Jacks Blowhole. Like nearby Jack’s Island, named after the Maori chief Tuhawaiki, paramount chief of the south and King of the Bluff. Also known as Bloody Jack, he was a thoroughly nice chap, until he wasn’t. It’s an hour return walk through farmland to the deep blowhole, 200 metres inland from the sea. Best times to view the blowhole are when it’s high tide, or when there’s a rough sea.
Purakanui Falls. Situated down a road which is gravel for the last 2 kilometres (welcome to rural roads a la New Zealand, hold onto the armrest and your takeaway coffee). Enjoy an easy 30-minute return rainforest walk to a cascading three-tiered 20 metre waterfall - New Zealand’s most photographed - and with good reason, it’s picture postcard pretty, (like something painted on the lid of a biscuit tin), and easily accessed by the entire family.
Head south again for about 20 minutes and you’ll reach Papatowai Estuary and Papatowai Settlement. Take the 40-minute return walk along the Old Coach Road to an historic Moa hunting camp at the river mouth where for about 100 years, up until around 1300AD, the first people to settle New Zealand caught the big, flightless and now sadly extinct Moa. And for those wanting to explore a little more there is also a 3 hour walk (one way) through the reserve.
And then…Oh man! Whatever you do, DO NOT miss a chance to visit the lost Gypsy Gizmo Gallery, a magical must-see collection of handmade invento-rama straight from the mind of gadget maker Blair, who just might be a genius. The bus gallery is a free taster for the modestly-priced Winding Thoughts Theatre, a crazy collection of the maddest creations quite possibly anywhere on Earth. Closed Wednesdays.
Tautuku Beach and Estuary. A spectacular sweeping bay backed by a wall of forest, it’s a local favourite for surfing, swimming and walking. Esther’s cave is located at the rocky end of the beach, accessible at low tide. Tautuku peninsula, seen from across Tautuku Bay, is the site of the 1839-1845 whaling station and a former port for timber and flax exports and the mighty wooden viaducts are a great photo opportunity. The ‘cribs’ (holiday homes) that can be seen across the bay were once the houses of the whalers and are on private property.
However, Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk is a peaceful 20-minute return walk along a boardwalk meandering out onto the estuary among the stunning jointed reeds which make a ‘wooo’ sound when the wind blows across them. And if you’re really lucky you’ll spot the very rare Fernbird in its natural habitat.
Cathedral Caves is another glorious low tide attraction, etched by the sea over centuries. Its entrance towers 30 metres above the beach, like a coastal Notre Dame. Gates open approx. 2 hours before low tide and close approx. 2 hours after. Start walking down to the caves well before, so you don’t miss out on a jaw-dropping example of the astonishing power of the sea, its timeless patience and creative destruction. Entry fees may apply.
Jump back in your car for a quick 10minute and travel up Rewcastle Road to the tallest, most spectacular waterfall in the Catlins, McLeans Falls, a 45-minute return forest and river walk and the glow worm tour is fairy-tastic.
This is also where you’ll find the famous Whistling Frog Café Bar and Resort, named for the little brown, tiger-eyed frog that peeps and chirps from the leaves of the trees as you pass on bush walks. Time to push pause and imbibe a refreshing pint of McClean Falls ale accompanied by award-winning tucker. Try a plate of blue cod so freshly caught, it still thinks its swimming.
Porpoise Bay. A long, safe beach ideal for learners, Porpoise Bay is home to the Catlins Surf School and, in the summer, the world’s smallest dolphin - the Hectors Dolphin - make up for their size by being complete show-offs, catching the waves you are trying so hard to catch, while laughing at you in Dolphinese. These very rare little guys have sensitive skin so please don’t touch them or go anywhere near if you are wearing sunblock or insect repellent, and when entering the water do so from at least 50 m away from them (there are information boards with all the guidelines for swimming here and around these precious little dolphins.) Above the bay is the Curio Bay Camp Ground, an incredible spot to drive right up to, pitch your tent, sleep like a log and wake early to witness sun rising over the ocean. The facilities are fairly basic, but the outlook is million dollar.
On the other side of the campground, a stones throw away, lies Curio Bay. This is where the outgoing tide reveals a Jurassic forest – one of only three such accessible fossil forests in the world. Walk back in time, from lush green living forest to its 170-million-year-old predecessor, hopscotch your way across the trunks of giant trees laid down to sleep in stone, this is also a great place to see sea lions and the rare but distinctive hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin coming ashore at dusk.
Slope Point. The southern-most point of the South Island and the last bit of tarmac before you fall off the planet. On a clear day you can even see Stewart Island. Take a 20-minute walk across farmland to a sign showing your distance from the Equator and the South Pole. If the wind’s up (and the horizontal macrocarpa trees suggest this might be a regular occurrence) you’ll feel a bit like Shackleton, all polar explorer and mush-the-sled-dogs. The walking track crosses farmland and is closed from 1st September to 1st November for lambing.
Waipapa Point. Dramatically guarding the entrance to Foveaux Strait, this coastline, home to a sea lion colony, witnessed New Zealand’s worst civilian shipping disaster. The wreck of the SS Tararua in 1881 ran aground on the rocks on a dark and stormy night. 131 lives were lost. Pay your respects to some of its victims buried in the small graveyard in a paddock a short walk from the lighthouse (Tararua Acre) and picture the farmer’s son’s doomed terrible ride on horseback through the night to sound the alarm and summon help, ultimately too late.
An hour and a half’s drive northwest lies Invercargill. On the wide expanse of the southern plains, big sky Invercargill is considered the capital of Southland and it’s here at nearby Oreti beach, a glorious, long strip of sand where they filmed the Fastest Indian and hold an annual race to replicate the races along the sand. Consequently you can understand that Southlanders are a little obsessed with motorbikes, ever since Burt Munro set the land speed record (that still stands today) on his trusty old Indian Scout Motorbike. You can visit the bike at E. Hayes and Sons Motorworks. In addition Invercargill now boasts the impressive Bill Richardson Transport World, which is the largest private collection of its type in the world. It is home to around 300 vehicles, a wearable arts collection, children’s play zones, The Grille Café and themed bathrooms fast becoming as famous as the vehicles.
And if you want to see a real-life dinosaur leap into the car and drive to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest pyramid, the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, nestled in Queens Park. Along with its great exhibitions, it is the home of the successful Tuatara breeding programme, a bit like Jurassic Park but much less likely to squash your jeep.
Once you’ve had your fill of Tuataras and motorbikes, it’s time to head north west to Fiordland National Park. It will take you about 2 and ½ hours to drive to Te Anau, the, gateway to Fiordland National Park. Bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite put together, the 14 fiords carved thousands of years ago by massive glaciers were misnamed “sounds” by English settlers homesick for Wordsworth. Fiordland’s story is a watery one, a landscape gouged by the claws of time, river deep and mountain high, ice, lakes, crystal clear streams, thundering waterfalls, growling and thumping breakers biting the coastline. The rainfall here is sudden and phenomenal. Yet the weather clears just as fast and after a heavy downpour the lush forest is coloured a rainbow of green.
Lake Hauroko or “windy lady” is the deepest in New Zealand. And whilst Teal Bay, is home to 20,000 extremely friendly sandflies, a great solution is to jump on the Wairaurahiri Wilderness Jet for a sandfly-defying journey down the Wairaurahiri River, 27 kilometres of rocky, roiling rapids ridden source-to-sea past rainforest so prehistoric you expect a dinosaur to poke its head above it any moment.
The river meets its destination not far from remote Waitutu Lodge set amongst dense podocarp forest and just a five minute walk from the wild south coast. Booking is recommended for the Lodge and you’ll need your sleeping bag and food but there are cooking facilities and hot showers so it’s a wonderful place to base yourself for an adventure in this wonderful raw land. (You can’t drive to the Lodge so to get there, take the jet, or a chopper (for an amazing view of the forest) - or for the adventurous you can drive to Rarakau Station, on Papatotara Rd, leave your car in the carpark and then walk to Port Craig, (6 hours) stay overnight at the old school or Hump Ridge Village, then it’s 5 hours walk to Waitutu Lodge.)
Also within the glorious forests of Southland stands Percy Burn, the biggest wooden viaduct in the Southern Hemisphere. The viaduct was built to carry the Port Craig tramway and is a relic of 300 men who made something from nothing and met challenges with resourcefulness and humour. The mill, with its eye on chopping 15 million metres of timber, went bankrupt before it could. Also forgiven is the 150 years of whaling, with the return of southern right whales to Te Waewae Bay beneath Okaka Lodge - which is the start of the three-day Humpridge Track.
Don’t forget to fill up with petrol in Te Anau before taking a stunning alpine drive to Milford Sound, a minimum of 2 hrs but allow plenty of time as this is a steep and windy highway with numerous viewing points and chances to get out of the car and drink in the spectacular scenery and the sheer scale of the landscape. A cruise on Milford Sound is an absolute must-do and is the best way to appreciate the magical combination of mountain peaks, ink-dark water and forest-clad cliffs.
And don't worry if it's raining. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world and rains 182 days per year but when the rains come loads of extra waterfalls start cascading down the mighty peaks, turning everything into a natural water theme park.
Milford Track. One of New Zealand’s nine great walks, experience the stunning grandeur of Fiordland national park and be awed by its natural wonders: sheer ice-carved valleys, mountain passes, glacier-fed rivers, peaceful forests and cascading waterfalls. You need to be fit, it’s a four-to-five-day walk, 53.5km long carrying all you need, starting at Glade Wharf at the head of lake Te Anau, ending at Sandfly Point, a short boat ride from Milford Sound. The season runs from October to April and bookings are essential as only 90 people can start the track each day. You’re definitely going to need a wine after this.
2 hours, 15 minutes North East from Te Anau is Queenstown - where it’s always wine o’clock. The adventure playground of New Zealand, Queenstown is a place to get loose and adopt a Vegas attitude. The options to eat, drink and have a ball are innumerable, ski, board, hike, cruise on the lake, jet boat the shotover the list just keeps going. For a start, enjoy $10 hangover-cure breakfasts at Red Rocks café before hiring a mountain bike from Vertigo bikes - (hireage includes a bike, a pass to QTN bike park, helmet, tool kit, pump and trail map) - and doing one of the gondola trails, beginner through to expert. Or simply ride on the gondola, feasting on breath-taking views of the lake and mountains. The other must do option is to drive up Coronet Peak, take in the views and think about how far you’ve come, and how much you don’t want to go home.
For something a little quieter, head to Moke Lake. Turn off the Glenorchy Road 6kms west of Queenstown into Moke Lake Road and follow the gravel road for 7kms and you’ll find, a gorgeous peaceful camping area next to a small lake with wicked views of the mountains surrounding. Do the Moke Lake loop track, a popular walking track through grasslands that goes right around the lake.