Fiordland, Southland & The Catlins
World Heritage listed Fiordland appears to have been created when the gods in charge of sculpting the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on Earth were in a wonderfully benevolent mood. Nature in all her majesty on a grand scale is showcased here - snow-capped soaring mountains, mysteriously atmospheric lakes, plummeting waterfalls by the thousands and ocean-flooded valleys known as fjords – such as the iconic Milford Sound - from which the area takes its name. Every superlative thrown at this fantastic land is richly deserved.
The Southland is lots of empty space – 34,347 km² which houses just 2.3% of the nation's population – peopled by a hardy folk, many of which claim Scottish heritage. Its delights include the magnificent wildlife refuge of Stewart Island and the heritage-rich city of Invercargill.
The Catlins is still inexplicably comparatively bereft of tourist visitors. Getting here involves taking a diversion away from main roads and is an area of wild and rugged beauty so perhaps that is why it continues to be something of a secret. However, if you are a nature lover and enjoy stepping off the most well-trodden tourist trails this is the place for you. With treasures too many to list, some of the Catlins highlights include
Activities and adventures come in just about every form and range from tow-in surfing to tramping - both leisurely and hardcore – horse trekking to helicopter flights and climbing to kayaking.
Un-missable THINGS TO DO in Fiordland, Southland and the Catlins
- Check out the natural grandeur and drama of Milford Sound both above and below water
- Experience total hush on Doubtful Sound and meet the resident dolphins
- Tramp your way amid spectacular Fiordland scenery with one of the Great Walks
- Linger in pretty Te Anau and take an underground boat journey to a glow worm grotto
- Sample the famous Bluff Oysters in Invercargill and explore the Heritage Trail
- Get up close and personal with the Stewart Island kiwis
- Take in the Waipapa historic lighthouse in the Southland
- Enjoy the dramatic coastline of the Catlins complete with sea lions, seals and dolphins
- Test your best opera voice in the acoustics of Cathedral Caves
- Take in a picturesque waterfall – or hundreds – in the Catlins
- Get sprayed by sea-water 200 metres from shore at Jack's Blowhole
- Stand at New Zealand's most southerly mainland point – Slope Point
- Wander a petrified forest millions of years old or watch the dolphins surf at Curio Bay/Porpoise Bay
Milford Sound (Image Credit: Rob Suisted)
1. Milford Sound
Dominated by the awe-inspiring Mitre Peak, Milford Sound is majestic and dramatic and although its location means visiting takes a little effort it is all worth it and then some. In fact, the road which leads out to the Sound from Te Anau is an attraction all in its own right.
Breathtaking at any time, it turns into spectacular following rainfall when what appear to be a million waterfalls spring to life, cascading down the mountainsides in silver streams.
Hop aboard one of the day cruise outfits on offer – or paddle your way by kayak - and get ready for a cricked neck from gazing up constantly at the towering and super-sheer cliffs and mountains crowding in around you. Seal, penguins and dolphins might all be part of your experience as they call these waters home and impressive waterfalls are a given.
Overnight cruises are also possible and should you want to get a glimpse of what goes on below the waters of the Sound a boat trip which includes a stop-off at the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory is a must.
2. Doubtful Sound
Far less visited than Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is a very different experience to its northern cousin. The journey here requires a boat trip across a lake followed by a twisty bus journey over Wilmot Pass so perhaps the biggest difference is found in tourist numbers (there aren't many here).
Otherwise, Doubtful Sound is wilder, greener, more remote and significantly larger. The waters here can appear green, reflecting as they do - in almost mirror-like stillness and hush most of the time – the verdant forest which crowds down to the water's edge. Possible wildlife encounters here include bottlenose dolphins, seals and rare penguins.
Routeburn Track (Image Credit: Miles Holden)
3. Great Walks
Fiordland – the country's largest national park - is a bit greedy as it has three of the nine Great Walks all to itself.Although each offers something a little different you can expect spectacular and naturally stunning as standard with rainforests, ice-blue crystal rivers, soaring mountains, glacial lakes and cascading waterfalls.Take your pick from the 60 km circuit Kepler Track, the one way 53.5 km Milford Track or the one way 34 km Routeburn which also takes in Mount Aspiring National Park.
4. Te Anau
Pretty little Te Anau sits on the shores of Lake Te Anau – the South Island's largest lake – and acts as the gateway for journeys to both Doubtful and Milford Sound and a base for hundred's of adventure activities.Included on the fun menu are kayaking, water-skiing, jet-boating, guided nature tours, fishing and horse trekking.
Be sure to check out Te Anau caves while you are in town. Stalagmite fans will be disappointed as there's only one but whirlpools, an underground waterfall and a secret grotto lit by glow worms more than compensate.
Invercargill is a true Southland experience with a strong Scottish heritage. Bargain hunters will love the plethora of op-shops (second-hand shops) while the foodies will be well spoiled too. Said by many of those who know about such things, Bluff oysters are apparently the world's best and you can sample these just about anywhere in town or make the 25 minute journey to Bluff itself to see how they are farmed.
Step inside the Southern Hemisphere's biggest pyramid to explore the free-to-enter Southland Museum and Art Gallery where you can get a glimpse of a 'living dinosaur' (tuatara) or check out the quirky village made from scrapheap items at Demolition World. Culture vultures can grab a 'Heritage Trail' map from the i-SITE and wend their way around museums, beaches and parks to visit Invercargill's most notable historic buildings or hire a bike to get a little further afield. Invercargill has heaps of lovely walks too - both urban and bush – which include estuary boardwalks, native forest and sandy coast.
Stewart Island (Image Credit: Venture Southland))
6. Stewart Island
Stewart Island, the third largest of the country's islands, sits just 30 km (19 miles) south of the South Island and although human inhabitants number just 381 the Stewart Island brown kiwi number in tens of thousands. That means if 'see a kiwi in the wild' happens to be on your bucket list here you stand a high chance of ticking it off. Almost all of gorgeous and remote-feel Stewart Island is national parkland comprising of idyllic beaches, lush rainforest and all things lovely.
Outdoor lovers can fill their boots with options for walking, tramping, wilderness camping, fishing, kayaking, diving, water-taxi adventuring and beach fun. Most people take the 1 hour ferry journey or 20 minute plane ride to linger here for a while but day trips are possible if you are short on time.
7. Waipapa Point Lighthouse
This Southland located, still operational lighthouse has a beautiful beach setting complete with lounging sea lions. The bleached white wooden lighthouse marks the spot of the nations' worst ever civilian shipwreck which claimed 131 lives in 1882.
8. Dramatic Coastline, Beaches and Wildlife
The coastline of the Catlins is strewn liberally with spectacular scenery and is incredibly rich with wildlife. Pick a spot anywhere along here and you will be rewarded but there are some especial stand-out highlights. Nugget Point has a lighthouse set where the land ends abruptly and is punctuated with dramatic rocks and islets.
These are home to New Zealand fur seals, hooker sea lions and Southern elephant seals which teach their babies to swim in the rock pools. Cannibal and Surat Bay are beautiful sandy bays full of hooker sea lions snoozing in the dunes while Roaring Bay is a bay of the wild and woolly kind with a penguin hide set in the cliff. Typically you will have this hide all to yourself to keep an eye out for rare yellow-eyed penguins which shuffle ashore at dusk.
Nugget Point (Image Credit: Venture Southland)
9. Cathedral Caves
Trip your way through forest and along a lovely beach to arrive at a series of caves and rock arches known as Cathedral Caves. It is the impressively high ceilings – one is 30 metres - and incredible acoustics of these caves which give them their name.Be aware, access is only possible at low tide and if there has been a storm or a spring tide the caves might be shut completely.
10. Purakanui Falls
The Catlins is home to a few lovely waterfalls. The especially picturesque 3-tiered cascade known as Purakanui Falls which empties itself into a pretty pool is perhaps the most easily accessed as it is just a few steps from the road. Matai Falls is native forest-surrounded with relatively easy access while McLean Falls is less than an hour's round walk. Try and time your return for dusk and you will be rewarded with glow worms lighting your path home.
11. Jack's Blowhole
Much of the time Jack's Blowhole is nothing more than a hole – albeit a fairly impressive hole of a collapsed cavern – in the ground in the middle of sheep grazing land, 200 metres from the ocean. However, time your visit with a spring tide or when there is a large ocean swell running and get ready to be amazed as sea-water surges its way up the subterranean passageways and explodes in a giant cascade from the hole.
Porpoise Bay (Image Credit: Venture Southland)
12. Slope Point
Mainland New Zealand's most southerly point – South Pole 4803km away as the signpost here will tell you – Slope Point is a series of sheer cliffs. Keep your eyes peeled for passing whales and dolphins and be sure to check out the curiously sculpted Macrocarpas trees here.
Subjected to an almost constant forceful wind from one direction, these trees have the appearance of growing sidewards or as if freeze-framed from the second when a hurricane has blown through. They make for great photos.
13. Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay
New Zealand comes up trumps again and again with regard to the naturally wonderful but for a whole bunch of wonderful all together head to Porpoise Bay/Curio Bay in the Catlins. On one side of the headland is the gorgeous sweep of beach and ocean known as Porpoise Bay which is where the smallest marine dolphin on the planet lives for much of the year – the Hector's dolphin.
Watch the mums teach their rugby-ball sized babies to surf or sign up yourself for a surf lesson which might well see your first ride accompanied by one of the dolphins. Sea lions and seals are also a common sight.
On the other side of the headland are the remains of an 180 million year old fossilised forest where at low tide you can go for a wander and trace out tree stumps and trees with wood grains so pronounced you will struggle to believe they are stone.
The viewing platform on the cliff gives interpretation panel explanations of what you are looking at and if you hang around here at dusk you will be rewarded with a sight of rare yellow-eyed penguins shuffling their way over the rocks towards their nests in the bushes.
There is a wonderful little camp-ground at Porpoise Bay where you can park your van or pitch your tent hidden away in complete solitude among the flax for those who find a few hours in this magical place is not enough.