New Zealand has some pretty good secret spots, I am not going to lie.
In fact, I’d argue that New Zealand as a whole is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. While I talk about it like everyone and their mother should know where I mean (oh I live in Wanaka, I’m SURE you’ve heard of it) the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
And I like it that way. New Zealand is special to me and to a whole lot of people, and while tourism is growing, in some ways good and in some ways, less good, I think it’s a bit asinine to assume “New Zealand is too good to share,” even though I sometimes feel that way.
I like to think it’s the “right kind of travelers” who read this blog, the kind of people who IF they come to New Zealand, are respectful, interested and curious, and above all, not jerks.
Before I moved to Wanaka, I had never heard of the Catlins. Have you?
Catelyn Stark in Westeros, to be sure, but the Catlins, New Zealand? Nope, definitely not.
My housemate was the first person to reveal the big secret of the Catlins to me, and I think if you asked a lot of South Islanders from Otago and the Lakes District, they’ll say the same thing – the Catlins is their favorite part of New Zealand.
For me, to hear so many kiwis say that is significant, and it speaks volumes about a place. Note taken! I would go there.
Courtesy of my awesome housemate V on her blog
When the opportunity came up to rent a Jucy campervan for a couple of weeks, I knew where I was headed first.
Lucky for me, even though I had high expectations for the Catlins after hearing it lauded so much here in Wanaka, it completely and utterly lived up to its reputation. And more.
There were actually several points during the trip where I thought to myself, yes, I could buy a little artist
house shack here and survive quite happily.
Not as overtly spectacular as other spots in New Zealand, and definitely not so flashy, the Catlins have a lot of layers waiting to be explored. Here is a place you have to dig around for a bit to begin to fall in love with, but fall in love with you will, I promise.
I’ve narrowed it down to five little (and big) things that I loved about the Catlins and what makes me want to go straight back.
If you are looking to rock on and party or have lots of loud and crazy adventure activities thrown in your face 24/7, the Catlins are not for you!
There’s a reason this little chunk of land on the bottom of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets, there are no people there. None. Zip. There were literally days where I would drive for an hour and not see another car. I am not exaggerating. Granted, it was the dead of winter so everything is a bit quiet, but from what I understand in general, the Catlins are not a happening place.
So if you are looking to chill out and for some peace and quiet in a magnificent and beautiful place, head south. Really far south.
Most of the time I had the campsites to myself and all of the “tourist attractions” too. I love that, well depending on my mood. This was the beginning of my two week trip and I had been under a major time crunch before I left and trying to visit friends and have boring meetings before I left, so I was more than happy to have the place to myself. Only around day 9 did I start to lose my marbles from being alone too much, but we’ll talk about that later.
It felt like time stood still in the Catlins, there was never any rush to be anywhere or meet anyone, and because of this I felt like I could thoroughly enjoy my time there.
I suppose it also helps that there is no phone service or 3G to be found anywhere in the Catlins. Hello forced digital detox!
2. Wild landscapes
While the Catlins don’t have the turquoise alpine lakes or massive mountains like many other spots in around the South Island, it is still really stinking gorgeous, in its own way.
Super green with epic cliffs along the coast, there are few spots in New Zealand that can compare with the whole “end of the world” feeling that the Catlins embody. There are remote and rugged spots in New Zealand. And then there’s the Catlins. Population – 100. Penguin, sheep and sea lion population – in the millions.
This is another reason why the Catlins are such a big secret. There aren’t too many side-of-road viewpoints screaming for you to pull over, but there are heaps of short walks and secret spots for you to find that lead to some spectacular places.
I’ve created a list here on Trover with some of my favorite spots in the Catlins that I tried to geotag the best I could. There isn’t a lot of accurate information on Google Maps where these places are, but it’s actually really easy to find once you’re in the area.
In New Zealand, there are yellow name signs everywhere that point to areas of interest and show how many kilometers away you are from the area. Seriously, it’s like following the yellow brick road. Once you notice these signs, you can just pull over anywhere, and it makes exploring really fun.
I think sometimes they like to play jokes on you though and they’ll be a yellow sign with an interesting name that will not really take you anywhere except a dirt road where you’ll get weird looks from farmers. But that’s half the fun!
New Zealand has a lot of waterfalls but they are usually in the mountains. Down in the Catlins, there are several waterfall walks in the woods that are really beautiful. I picked the Purakaunui Falls to visit since it’s such an iconic and almost kitsch image here in New Zealand with locals, not so much with us foreigners.
I had the walk to myself and which it was easy enough, and through really dense forest. This that was actually turned mildly creepy and I might have freaked myself out a little bit by the time I arrived at the waterfall. I think I’ve read too much Tolkien with his talk of mischievous and evil trees, but it’s so true.
The woods and forests in New Zealand feel ancient and almost as if they have personalities. Actually, I’m pretty sure Ents live in the Catlins.
As much as I love white sandy beaches, I love the harsh rugged surf and rocky cliffs that define the South Island coastline. Seals swim in kelp forests and you certainly don’t want to get too close to the edge because you’ll probably fall in. And that water is cold!
Even still, the Catlins is a really popular surf spot in New Zealand because of the big waves, I assume. Hell would freeze over before you catch me getting in that water.
There are also beautiful lighthouses tucked away all along the shore, totally understandable considering how rough the seas are. There is even a shipwreck near Slope Point that becomes visible at high tide.
3. Special moments and the Coffee Diaries continue
No matter where I travel, I am always amazed by the small world moments that pop up here and there.
My first day in the Catlins I headed to a spot called Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the South Island, something I thought would be cool to see and experience, and a logical first stop on my way east along the coast.
Slope Point is one of those “follow the yellow signs” kind of deals in the Catlins. It’s on a dirt road, off a dirt road, off the “main” road in the Catlins. You can’t miss it. From there it’s a 20 minute walk through a sheep pasture (closed in Sept – Nov for the lambing) that’s not marked at all even though it says it is. Basically, you follow the fence line, and continue as it veers left along the coast, and eventually you’ll see a small white lighthouse, and the famous yellow sign.
About 3 minutes into my walk through a farm with mud up to my ankles, while trying my hardest not to slide down the muddy hill on my butt in the wind and rain, and I hear, “are you Young Adventuress?”
I’m not kidding.
Now trying REALLY hard not to fall on my butt, I couldn’t believe it but it turns out it was Kylie and her boyfriend Pat from the Blissful Nomad, fellow American expat Instagrammers in New Zealand. I think small world doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Good thing I showered that day.
At the tail end of their own long campervan journey around New Zealand, we ended up running into each other later on that day down at the point and again at the campsite in Porpoise Bay. Again, the Catlins is a small place, especially in winter. If you did happen to see people around, you were likely to see them again later on.
This was a Starbucks Coffee Diaries moment if I ever saw one.
Parking ourselves at the top of a viewpoint overlooking both Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay, we hung out all night swapping travel stories, campervan tales and general anecdotes of life in New Zealand as Americans. Like why is there no central heat?
Listening to the storm outside, we tried to warm up over mugs of piping hot Starbucks VIA® Latte Caffè Mocha, pretending that we wouldn’t have to go back outside, at least for a little while. Laughing and swapping stories all night, it was just what I needed after 3 days of total solitude on the road.
I love how coffee can bring people together in the most unexpected ways.
The next morning dawned cloudy and chilly, but for once in my life, I was up early enough to watch the sun begin to rise over Porpoise Bay. Wrapped in several layers of clothing, I boiled some water quickly in the back of my van and made a Starbucks VIA® and some oatmeal and parked myself at a picnic table to watch the show.
I wish I was one of those photographers who could like, smell the air and just KNOW, oh yes, this is going to be an awesome sunrise, but sadly I’m not. I am also not a morning person, and greatly dislike being up before the sun, which means I always, just miss a good sunrise. Always.
But not today!
Totally mesmerized, I was able to just sit back, reflect on an awesome evening with new friends, and just enjoy the start of the day. With coffee. Of course.
4. Kinda quirky and a little bit random
As if the Catlins couldn’t be any cooler, it is also a really weird and pretty quirky region of New Zealand. Which, if you begin to think about it, actually makes sense given its isolation and general randomness. It is seriously a treasure trove of bizarre and unexplainable stuff just waiting to be discovered.
I first started to notice this almost as soon as I entered the Catlins, with street names like “Dead Horse Road,” and trees bent horizontally thanks to the overpowering wind blowing from Antarctica.
I was super keen to visit the Lost Gypsy Gallery Bus in Papatowai, most random place ever, but unfortunately is closed in August – one presumes owing to the complete lack of human presence. Understandable.
There are weird colorful shack houses in the most random places by the sea (can’t figure out what they’re for, maybe fishing shelters, is that a thing?) and there is even a sizable great white shark population trolling the seas. Um hello, another reason I wouldn’t be caught dead surfing there. That and the sea lions. Seriously, have you seen how big those things are?
And if there is one reason above all that I love the Catlins, is because of the multiple penguin populations. Everywhere.
God, I love penguins!
Have you heard of the Catlins? Have you ever discovered a similar place on the road?