8 amazing and free activities to do in the Catlins, New Zealand!

Updated: Jan 30

Our first week on the road included a few days in the beautiful Catlins and we thought we would share our top eight (and free!!) experiences with you all!


The Catlins Forest Park is about 7 hours from Christchurch and just 2.5 from Dunedin (and only 1.5 hours to the first main attraction - Nugget Point Lighthouse). We were surprised to find the area so peaceful and quiet – the few days we were there we hardly saw a soul. There’s also barely any cell phone reception, which only adds to the serenity. I have to say the whole place well and truly exceeded our expectations. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets every day, waterfalls galore, wildlife a plenty and beautiful, quiet, quiet beaches. We were blown away by the diverse beauty staring us straight in the face each day. If you’re wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we’d seriously suggest the Catlins.


P.S before I get right into the top eight – I would like to dedicate this blog (if you can even dedicate a blog!?) to you Dad – I know you really want to explore the Catlins, and I really hope you get to. Ok here goes – top eight coming right up!


1. Koropuku Falls

A beautiful waterfall, made even more beautiful by its backstory (which you can read about here). The Falls are still very much a hidden gem, and it only takes you a quick 10-15 minute walk to get there. We recommend visiting in the early afternoon as the sunlight peeping over top of the falls truly makes you feel like you’re in some enchanting movie. With fairies. Definitely fairies. If you’re up for it pack your togs too – we thought the water here was much warmer than the other falls in the area!! The track can also get a wee bit muddy (although it is lined with panga logs) – we recommend wearing water shoes so you don’t slip.


2. Nugget Point Lighthouse- sunrise and sunset

Truly iconic, and one of the first locations we wrote down when we were making a list of South Island spots we wanted to see. We sat here one evening, watching a reverse sunset, and decided it was so bloody good, we had to come back the next morning for sunrise. So which is better?


The rising sun lines up pretty well – right between the lighthouse and nuggets and as a bonus, it’s also much quieter! (At sunrise, there were only 2-5 other people at the lighthouse and they were both shooting the nuggets). Goodness without the context that is quite an odd sentence isn’t it. Shooting the nuggets? You picturing some epic country sheriff strolling into McDonalds and shooting up all the chicken nuggs? Yeah me either.


With sunset, the sun actually goes down opposite the lighthouse, but if you can nab a cloudy day, a reverse sunset is pretty lovely as the setting sun lights up the nuggets (whereas they are more silhouetted at sunrise). So after a lengthy discussion and debate, we actually couldn’t decide which we preferred – James loved the sunset and I loved the sunrise. What do you prefer? Let us know! Or even better, let us know what you think of the phrase ‘shooting the nuggets’.

(Sunrise on left, sunset on right)


We also decided these are quite possibly our second favourite nuggets. (Maccas wedding day nuggets still have first place – only just though).


3. Waipohatu falls and the DOC free campground

These waterfalls felt a bit more ‘untouched’ to us and we seriously felt like we hit the campground jackpot when we arrived and saw the free camp sitting in front of us. There are about five or so designated sites here - all with benches and little fire-pits and those situated on the right hand side are beside the running stream. When we arrived, a lovely lady was there whipper-snippering (or is it whipper snipping?) the grass and kindly did our campsite first so we could get unpacked and settled. Have you ever stopped and realised how lucky we are to have these people taking care of all our beautiful spots? I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I have. Or if I have, I certainly haven’t enough. You can also walk to the waterfalls from the campground - it only takes about an hour or so (each way) and surprisingly, it’s quicker starting there than at the carpark. There are two sets of falls – about five minutes apart from each other – the upper Waipohatu Falls (Pouriwai Falls) and the lower Waipohatu Falls (Punehu Falls).


If you plan on camping here, come early – we saw a group rock up around 7pm and there was only one site left. But it’s so good you’ll want to come early anyway! Also - pack your mosquito repellent – camping next to a stream does have one shortfall.


4. Purakaunui Falls

One of the most photographed waterfalls in New Zealand, and it’s easy to see why. However, because of this fact, James and I prepared ourselves for the large crowds - only to miraculously find ourselves having the falls to ourselves for over an hour. Just as we were leaving (our feet were beyond cold haha) another couple arrived. We have to get used to the NZ version of a ‘crowd’. Purakaunui Falls were seriously enchanting though – a cascading three tiered waterfall, you could easily spend an hour here just sitting and admiring them. We recommend coming in the early morning (8-9am) so like us you can have the magic to yourself.


5. Sunset at Florence Hill

If you’re exploring the Catlins area, you’ll likely find yourself driving past a pull off called ‘Florence Hill’. Pull in and hop out – the view is spectacular. We stopped here several times during the day - it’s really just a lovely place to take a minute out of your day and stop. We loved it so much, we decided to come back and watch the sun go down, and we were so pleased we did. You could just as easily watch the sunrise here too – as the sun will rise over the ocean. Note - it can get a wee bit busy during the day (and by busy I mean there may be three or so other cars there!).


6. McLean Falls

We also heard this was a really popular fall, but again, had the place to ourselves the whole time we were there. Maybe people are just avoiding us? Probably heard James was Australian ha. The walk to the falls only takes about 20 minutes (each way) and is really pretty – taking you though native forest and with several sets of wooden steps and little bridges. To me, I thought the waterfall seemed like two separate falls pieced together. The top has a beautiful 22m drop waterfall and the bottom has a tonne of horizontal cascading tiers. Another good waterfall to visit early in the morning (7-8am-ish) so you can have the place to yourself. Just as were leaving McLean Falls (around 9am) it was just starting to get pretty busy (five or so cars).


7. Cannibal Bay

For us, this was an unexpected gem. We had initially planned on visiting Surat Bay but as we arrived, we realised it was pretty small and there was a whole tourist bus already parked up (ahh so that’s where all the people were!!). So without a second thought, we jumped back in Vinnie and decided to give Cannibal Bay a go instead. The landscapes here are so beautiful, you actually don’t mind doing a bit of extra driving as you always end up seeing something new and incredible. Or at the very least, another 200,000 sheep.


Cannibal Bay was awesome for two reasons – firstly, we could drive Vinnie onto the beach! Needless to say we were happy as hats having him out there with us. And secondly, it’s home to a few sunbathing sea-lions (the beach is one of their haul-outs). We spent the day here, exploring the mini rock-pools, admiring the sea lions (from a distance!) and just relaxing, reading our books. Unlike Surat Bay, Cannibal Bay was really quiet – probably only five other couples came and went while we spent the afternoon there. If you get some nice weather – this is definitely the place to be! Also – Cannibal Bay got its name due to the human remains once found there. I don’t believe there was actually any cannibalism involved.


Edit – I’ve just read that you’re not meant to take vehicles onto Cannibal Bay (we had checked with a local before driving Vinnie on and he assured us it was ‘all good’) so please bear this in mind if you’re visiting.


8. Matai Falls

There are actually two sets of waterfalls here – Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls (about two minutes apart). Both were still beautiful, but to us, not quite as special as Koropuku and Purakanui. The short walk only takes about 5-10 minutes, and there are a few benches at the start of the falls so a nice place to stop and have lunch. We went around 11am and it was quite busy (about six or so cars).


What’s your favourite spot in the Catlins? :) Let us know! (or help us settle the sunrise/set debate at Nugget Point Lighthouse!)


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