Through the Catlins by Campervan

June 18, 2021
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(I have two earlier posts about this region: 'The Catlins: An overlooked corner of New Zealand', and 'The Catlins, continued'.)

I'VE revisited the Catlins just lately. I went through in a camper van this time, and managed to visit a lot of places that I, my dad and my editor had missed earlier. I got some more photos of wonderful scenes, plus four minutes of video.

Here is a map of the Catlins that I saw on the side of the local museum at Waikawa. It shows the inland rainforest parks with their spectacular waterfalls, as well as the better-known coastal areas. You can download a PDF from, the producers highlighted at the right.

One thing about these tourist organisations, though, is that they generally don't promote freedom camping sites, meaning sites where you can camp for free with a toilet nearby. Which is why you have to find out about freedom camping spots separately.

Information about freedom camping sites can be a bit hard to come by, so I have made the effort to identify all five freedom camping sites in the Catlins (let me know if there are any more!)

MORAY TERRACE RESERVE, FORTROSE. According to Fingertip Travels, the freedom camping site at Moray Terrace Reserve, Fortrose, is very good. This is identified on Google Maps.

WEIRS BEACH. Fingertip Travels also recommend the freedom camping site at Weirs Beach, though some of the locals aren't happp with it as there is only one toilet and they feel that it is being overused. This is also identified on Google Maps. Which is just as well, as the sign pointing to where it is has been pulled down at least once.

HINAHINA RESERVE (OWAKA BOATING CLUB). But if you want to stay closer to the heart of the Catlins, another option is Hinahina Reserve, about five kilometres out from Owaka on the south side of the Catlins River, just before the Catlins Lake. This freedom camping spote is also the base of the Owaka Yacht Club and the Owaka Boating Club; so according to Kiwis Fly the Coop, don't block the ramp! Neither the Hinahina Reserve nor the freedom camping site are shown as such on Google Maps: the spot is identified as the 'Catlins Boating Club'.

OWAKA FREEDOM CAMPING SITE. According to Kiwis Fly the Coop, you can also freedom camp behind the Catlins Inn at Owaka. This site is more formally known as the Owaka Freedom Camping site, and is identified as a freedom camping site on Google Maps.

WAIKAWA RECREATION RESERVE. The fifth freedom camping site, which I found on the Rankers Camping NZ App, is the Waikawa Recreation Reserve. This is not identified as a freedom camping site on Google Maps, but it is, and it has a large sealed parking area suitable for large campervans.

All five freedom camping spots have been identified with black outline boxes on the map below, which first appeared in an earlier form in my first blog post about the Catlins in 2019.

As far as I know, the post you are reading is the only place where all five of these sites have been identified at once!

The Catlins and environs, with names over water and black and red highlight boxes added to the background map (©2019 Google). The main coastal road between Balclutha and Fortrose, two inland roads and some side roads have also been traced out in red. Sharpened using FastStone Image Viewer. North at top.

This second map also identifies the main inland roads through the Catlins, through to State Highway 93 and State Highway 1.

These are good for getting to the more adventurous hiking trails and the waterfalls for which the Catlins are also famous, past peaks with names like Bleak Hill and Starvation Bluff!

This time, I visited the freedom camping site at Hinahina.

Reflecting waters, at the Owaka Boating Club (Hinahina)

And the museum at Waikawa.

And the lovely coastal areas around Papatōwai where there are many walks and more fossils.

Papatōwai, a name which means 'where the forest meets the sea'


An information sign at Papatōwai

The secluded, mirror-like Lake Wilkie, just off the main road just south of Papatōwai. Mirror-like waters seem to be a Catlins thing!

Lake Wilkie

The McLean and Pūrākaunui waterfalls.

McLean Falls

And remote Pūrākaunui Bay, at the end of a one-way road, where there are cliffs and sea lions and massive washed-up tangles of kelp.

Kelp on the beach that looks like aliens!

Sea Lions on the beach at Pūrākaunui Bay

(Although Pūrākaunui Bay has a lovely beach, it is not the same as Pūrākaunui Beach: a quite different locality on the end of the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin! On the maps, the one in the Catlins is Bay, not Beach.)

Unfortunately, I never made it to the Cathedral Caves, because they were closed for the season and will re-open toward the end of October. Access to the Cathedral Caves is governed by the tides, in any case.

The nearest I got to the Cathedral Caves

I thought that the best campsite to stay at because of scenery and remoteness was at Pūrākaunui Bay, followed by Pounawea near Owaka, where there are a couple of campsites.

And I visited Florence Hill Lookout.

Florence Hill Lookout

And Slope Point, the southernmost spot in the South Island.

Slope Point

Here is my four minute video, after which I include some collages!

Here are the collages.

This collage is of Pūrākaunui Bay, Surat Bay, and one of the waterfalls

Here we have the Nuggets by Nugget Point/Tokatā, which I also visited. And the beaches, a tumbled down barn and some signs including a sea lion sign!

The last collage includes a record of my visit to Teapotland, an eccentric local museum at Owaka!

Scenes from the Owaka area, including bat conservation, 'Teapotland', the Clinton-Gore ('Presidential') highway out of Balclutha, the Catlins River and the cover of Women of the Catlins

For more information, including the best times of year to go and the location of camping spots, cafes, and where to buy fuel, see the official website of the Catlins:

The official website includes the option to download a really useful brochure, which I’ve linked to here as well.

If you liked this post, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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