If you say to any traveler in New Zealand that they should drive the Southern Scenic Route, they immediately say yes. It’s the Catlins! Of course they’re going!
That stretch of road between Balclutha and Invercargill is famous for its beautiful beaches, deserted bays, stunning waterfalls, and quirky roadside stops. And of course you should go; it’s famous for a reason.
But what many people don’t realize is that there’s another side to it. The Southern Scenic Route actually extends West of Invercargill all the way along the Southern coast of New Zealand, winding its way through farmland and past more gorgeous beaches, which are much less populated in this part of the country.
It goes all the way to Tuatapere, hits that vast wilderness called Fiordland and then continues, going North all the way to Queenstown.
Well, a handful of travelers do, and probably a few Kiwis. But I’m here to tell you why you should not just drive the Catlins, but also the stretch between Manapouri and Invercargill.
1. Rakatu Wetlands
These wetlands are a conservation project designed to ease the environmental effects of the Manapouri Hydroelectric Dam, which diverted the Waiau River from the area. After careful consideration and design of ecology and habitats, the Rakatu wetlands now have 9km of walking tracks to explore.
There are bridges, boardwalks, and shelters with information panels telling you all about the birds and wildlife that regularly visit the area. Ducks, geese, shags, stilts, herons, and other wading birds chill out in the lagoons, while frogs jump out of your way and songbirds chirp amongst the trees and grasses.
2. Big Totara Walk
Head out into the middle of nowhere to see some of New Zealand’s biggest trees! Read all about it here. I definitely think this short easy walk is worth a visit!
3. Clifden Suspension Bridge
This bridge was built in 1899 to replace the ferry that crossed the Waiau river here, and at 111.5 metres long had the longest main span in NZ at that time. Can you imagine how happy the locals must have been to have a big safe bridge instead of a rickety ferry? Now only open to foot traffic, it’s a great stop off the highway for a short walk and a picnic.
4. Blue Cliffs Beach
A few kilometres West of Tuatapere, Blue Cliffs beach is popular for surfing, beachcombing, and just hanging out. I was also told that dolphins are often seen playing in the surf here! And in this article you can read about how in December 2011 there was a pod of orcas feeding on a group of sharks in the water here! Crazy, right?
I only arrived just in time for sunset so I didn’t see any wildlife, but it was a beautiful beach nonetheless.
5. Hump Ridge Track
Just past Blue Cliffs beach is the Hump Ridge Track, a three day hike that is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous. I wanted to do it but a combination of bad knees, new shoes and an only so-so weather forecast made me chicken out. Make sure to book this one in advance, as the huts are privately run and provide a little more luxury than your average DOC facilities.
Tuatapere is a classic example of small-town New Zealand, with a couple of pubs and hotels, a café or two, and a small museum dedicated to the logging history of the area. It’s a good place to base yourself for a night or two while you explore the area.
7. McCracken’s Rest
A small stop along the highway, McCracken’s Rest is on top of a small cliff and gives a great 180 degree view of Te Waewae Bay and out to Solander Island and Stewart Island. Apparently whales can often be seen basking off the coast here, but not when I visited, of course!
8. Gemstone Beach
A huge, empty expanse of sand, Gemstone beach is known for its fierce tides that bring in all kinds of different rocks. You can then go and pick up the prettiest ones for yourself.
I spent ages wandering the beach and collecting them, only to realize that of course there was no way I could take them all with me, so I took a picture of the best ones instead. What would I do with a bunch of rocks anyway?
9. Monkey Island
Monkey Island isn’t just about the island, it’s the beach too. A huge expanse of peachy coloured sand, it’s gorgeous and the water sparkles blue beneath you as you climb to the top of tiny Monkey Island for a view.
I stopped here twice, once around midday to have lunch on the beach, and again around sunset, when the campground here was absolutely jam packed. Keep in mind that if the tide’s in you can’t access the island without going swimming!
10. Cosy Nook
Cosy Nook is an adorable little bay with just a few tiny houses (baches) with boats ready to be launched on their own rails. The beach is rocky but very picturesque, with its blue water creeping into every available corner.
There is a fantastic sign here giving you the answers to an imaginary FAQ. It’s all about the history of the area, both Maori and European, as well as some great info about the houses here. It’s too much to include here though, so you’ll just have to go read it yourself.
Oh, and don’t miss the ‘Long Drop Lodge’ (public toilet), but keep in mind the sign says short stay only!
11. Long Hilly Track
Part of Te Araroa (the walking trail that goes the entire length of New Zealand), this loop track was supposed to take two hours but took me only one, and I went slow.
It’s on the site of the largest Chinese gold mining settlement in New Zealand, from which the water races are still very visible, and it passes through a sawmiller’s tramline cutting as well.
There are plenty of information boards here explaining the man-made landscape features you can see, but I found it hard to make sense of it all, possibly because I may have done it in the wrong direction! (And now…I can’t remember which way I went to tell you to go the other…I’m going to say you should go counter-clockwise. I hope.)
12. Colac Bay
Colac Bay is a huge long beach that is very well known for its surfing breaks, so much so that there’s a statue of a surfer in ‘town’. There isn’t much here aside from the beach and a lot of holiday homes, but it’s a pretty place to stop for a walk. It was crazy windy when I was there though! (hence the surfing, I guess)
The final town before you reach Invercargill, Riverton is a pretty place set on the banks of the Jacobs River Estuary. You can head up to Mores Scenic reserve on top of the hill, for short walks and great views over the town and back to Colac Bay. There are other parks on the oceanfront as well as a small wetland reserve, and the information centre has a good museum about the history of the area. May I recommend getting fish & chips and going to eat them on the waterfront?
I’m not even going to pretend this is all of it. Between Manapouri and Tuatapere if you head West you can reach Lake Monowai, Borland Lodge, and Lake Hauroko for great wilderness hikes, fishing, and camping. Check road conditions first, as you need a 4WD for at least one of these.
There’s also Clifden Caves and Port Craig, and I’m pretty sure that if you just turn south on any road along the Southern coast you’ll find a great deserted beach.
If you’re headed to the area (and why aren’t you?) you should definitely pick up the Southern Scenic Route brochure, which has maps and details of all of these spots and more. You can also check out this site, which is built by the local community and can probably hook you up with some great local info. (Wish I’d seen it before I went!)
So get a car and take a few days and explore Western Southland!
Did you enjoy this post? Please pin it!