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.