Camping in the Catlins – Newhaven & the sea lions of Surat Bay

The Catlins is a truly magical corner of New Zealand where many amazing natural wonders lie just off the highway.

One of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets, the Catlins is a sleepy corner in the very deep south. At least it might look sleepy from the road, for despite being largely agricultural, sparsely populated and spartan in the services department, the Catlins is a bright and lively region boasting a surprising array of natural wonders. If you fancy virgin forest, hidden waterfalls, spectacular coastal scenery and abundant wildlife, the Catlins might just be your ticket.

A driving tour can be made via the Southern Scenic Route which links Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown. At least a couple of days will be needed to knock off the big sights along the largely coastal Catlins section.

Our favourite place to stop is Surat Bay near the tiny town Owaka, about an hour’s drive south of Dunedin. Named after the migrant ship Surat wrecked here in 1874, the splendid setting affords one of New Zealand’s best short beach walks to the smaller Cannibal Bay. It’s also home to the unforgettable New Zealand sea lion.

Not to be confused with the svelte and pointy-nosed fur seal, this creature – also known as Hooker’s sea lion – is super-sized, with the big boys topping the scales at almost half a tonne. Hunted close to extinction before being protected in 1893, they started breeding again on the mainland in the 1990s. Several dozen now reside around the Catlins Coast.

Surat Bay is next to a fascinating estuary where the Owaka and Catlins rivers meet. A couple of tiny settlements overlook the swirly, glistening waters. Pounawea, on the western edge of the estuary, is home to a clutch of holiday homes and a nature reserve. Over the bridge on the eastern side, Newhaven – with its permanent population of around 12, sits prettily alongside the Surat Bay trailhead.

Newhaven Holiday Park is a small but sweet spot with well equipped facilities, utterly quiet save for the sound of the foamy white breakers crashing over the bar. Owners Lyndon and Jacqui Clark took over the park from Lyndon’s father, who established it in 2005.

‘It’s the best thing we ever did’, says Lyndon, who proudly explains to us that the children keep active and busy, helping out with camp duties such as lawn mowing, gardening, cleaning and office work.

The heart of the holiday park is a cluster of five board-and-batten cottages: three self-contained units and two cabins. Nestled alongside them is a communal amenities block with a comfortable lounge and kitchen. A short stride away towards the estuary’s edge are nine powered sites and space for tents, most of which enjoy views.

As well as Surat Bay, there is plenty to do within easy reach of Newhaven. Five minute’s drive away, Pounawea Scenic Reserve boasts several short walks through virgin bush and out to the salt marsh where you may spot herons or spoonbills noodling around.

One of New Zealand’s most spectacular headlands – The Nuggets – is around twenty minutes’ drive to the north. An easy walk leads to the lighthouse and the grandstand view out to the rocky islets dressed in thick, rubbery kelp and adorned with fur seals and the occasional sea lion or elephant seal. Another short walk from the Nuggets car park leads to Roaring Bay where rare yellow-eyed penguins may be seen, and the nearby settlement of Kaka Point has cafes and a surfy vibe.

Fifteen minutes drive to the south of Owaka is the thunderous 550-metre chasm known as Jack’s Blowhole. The story goes that it was discovered in 1875 by a farmer looking for stock – he’s lucky he didn’t fall in! View it at high tide on a good blowy day to hear it bellow at its mighty best.

The Catlins has many picturesque waterfalls, such as those at Purakaunui, 20 minutes’ drive of Owaka and reached by a pleasant 10-minute walk through a beech forest reserve. Cascading 20 metres over three distinct tiers into their slippery pool, they are all the more impressive after (or during!) rain. Other notable cascades along the Scenic Route are McLean Falls and Matai Falls.

Another coastal spectacle is Cathedral Caves, reached via a 30-minute walk through Waipati Beach Scenic Reserve 45 minutes south of Owaka (access is gained through private land; a small charge applies; gates open two hours either side of low tide).  Formed by pounding waves, this series of sea caves has ceilings up to 30 metres high and magnificent acoustics.

A good hours’ drive south to Invercargill, Captain Brian of Catlins Marine Encounters offers a rare opportunity to get out on the waves. His excellent small-boat tours take in the rich history of Waikawa Harbour and zip across to nearby Porpoise Bay where critically endangered Hector’s dolphins may occasionally be seen frolicking in the waves. Fishing trips and tours along the coast are also on offer.

Just around the corner and accessible by car, Curio Bay is justifiably famous for its 160-million-year-old fossilised forest, which lies fallen at the shoreline, exposed by the erosion of wave action, and revealed to us at low tide. We find the incredible swirling kelp around it just as curious!

Of all the scenic routes we’ve travelled in New Zealand, none can touch the Catlins for the number of diverse natural wonders found so close to the highway. This is one drive you will want to take as slowly as your itinerary will allow.