Back to Basics
The bottom of the South Island is well known as a nature and wildlife wonderland. In this issue, we’ve picked four southern campsites that will let you get back to basics, enjoy some of New Zealand’s best scenery and entice you to be as active or as relaxed as you like. They’re all on the coast or by rivers and some even have species you won’t see anywhere else in the country.
Purakaunui Bay Campsite, Catlins TD #9007
Purakaunui Bay was featured in both The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some consider the Purakaunui Bay Campsite to be a hidden gem while those in the know have long recognised it for the star that it is.
The campsite is located on a scenic grassy area beside the beach. It has 40 non-powered/tent sites and basic facilities including long-drop toilets and water on tap. Note that cellphone coverage is limited in this area. This campsite has fantastic views of the sandy beach and sheer cliff faces. Fall asleep to the sound of waves rolling in and out of the shore. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars – Purakaunui Bay is a favourite spot for seeing some of the wildlife that the Catlins is renowned for including sea birds, yellow eyed penguins, dolphins and especially sea lions.
Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times.
Purakauni Bay is a well-known surf beach, so bring your surf board or boogie board if you want to enjoy the waves. This area is a great place to observe marine mammals in their natural environment – New Zealand fur seals and sea lions are a regular sight along the Catlins coastline. Both species spend considerable time ashore, with seals usually found on rocky shorelines and sea lions on sandy beaches. Sea lions that are onshore are often resting from physiologically taxing trips to find food. They may also be caring for their young or socialising. When people and dogs disturb sea lions, they interrupt sleep or other important behaviours. Give them lots of space, staying at least 10 to 20 metres from them. Male sea lions may be very aggressive during December – February which is their breeding season. For your safety, keep at least 30 metres away from sea lions during this time. The Purakaunui Falls are a short drive from the campsite. It’s a short 15 minute return walk to the falls through mature beech and podocarp forests, and is suitable for wheelchair users to the top viewing platform. From there the track descends to give you the stunning postcard view of the three-tiered falls.
Turn off SH1 at Balcutha. Drive south past Owaka until you reach the Ratanui turnoff. Follow Purakaunui Falls Rd to Long Point Rd, then follow Purakaunui Bay Rd to end. Be aware that the gravel road is quite narrow.
Papatowai Campsite, Catlins TD #9430
The Papatowai campsite is nestled in the bush on the Catlins coast. From the campsite you can easily access the beach and estuary at Papatowai. It can be very busy during the summer months but there is plenty of space over the rest of the year. Papatowai has 116 non-powered/tent sites and a range of facilities at the campsite including a shop, a shelter for cooking, toilets, water on tap, picnic tables and rubbish bins. Papatowai provides many opportunities to enjoy marine mammals and birds in coastal and wetlands settings. The estuary is home to many wading birds such as kaki/stilt, torea/oystercatcher – two species, herons – two species, tuturiwhatu/dotterel, plovers, kuaka/godwit as well as gulls, tara/tern – two species, at least three species of duck, and kotare/ kingfisher. On the beach you’ll also see New Zealand sea lions, fur seals, penguins and many species of sea birds. Dogs are not allowed at this campsite.
The area is known for excellent fishing in the estuary or from the rocks at Papatowai Beach. There are a couple of highly recommended walks that start at Papatowai. The Old Coach Road track (40 mins return) follows the original route that horse-drawn coaches took after coming off the beach in Tahakopa Bay. After the track’s start, when it forks, go right. It’s flat going, alongside the tidal river and a very pleasant walk for all ages and abilities. In parts the original Coach Road formation can be seen as it passes beneath a canopy of tree fern, silver beech and young totara. There’s an important historic moa hunter archaeological site near the track’s end, where there’s a host of regenerating totara. The track ends when it reaches the beach, which can be walked along for some distance to link with a more challenging and often muddy route known as Old Possumers Track. This is a three-hour loop. The start/finish is the left fork off the Old Coach Road. To get to the start of the walk go to the carpark near the northern end of the bridge over the Tahakopa River, just north of Papatowai. The Picnic Point Track takes about 40 minutes return. It suits all ages and abilities and has plenty of variety. The start of the walk from the bush side is signposted from the Papatowai township. You can return via the sandy shore. The layering of the rock structure at Picnic Point provides an excellent view of the geological structure of the region. To get there turn off the Papatowai Highway onto Alexandra Rd, then into Cross Rd.
From Balclutha, drive south past Owaka until you reach the Papatowai township where there is a sealed road to the campsite.
Tawanui Campsite, Catlins TD #8989
The Tawanui campsite is located in the Catlins Conservation Park in a scenic clearing beside the Catlins River. This campsite is at the end of the Catlins River walk and is surrounded by beautiful silver beech forest. Many of the silver beech trees host the native mistletoe, peraxilla colensoi. The campsite has 60 non-powered sites and standard facilities including flush toilets, water on tap, rubbish bins, and picnic tables. As in the rest of the Catlins, cellphone reception may be limited. Regular pest control has helped this area become a haven for both birds and bird lovers.
You may be lucky enough to see a mohua/yellowhead which is only found in a few parts of the South Island. You’ll also see other forest birds such as fantails, tomtits and New Zealand’s smallest bird, the rifleman. Long-tailed bats and kārearea/New Zealand falcons can also be seen near the campsite. Dogs are welcome at this campsite but must be kept on a leash at all times.
This is a great spot to relax and enjoy the forest’s birdlife. For the more active amongst you, all the activities at this campsite revolve around the Catlins River, which flows for 42kms before finally reaching the sea at Pounawea. The Catlins River Walk is a well-formed tramping track that can be started at the Tawanui campsite going through to The Wisp. It takes five to six hours one way/10-12 hours return.
Alternatively, it can be walked in sections, via connecting tracks from the forestry road:
- Tawanui to Franks Creek – 2.5hr
- Franks Creek to Wallis Stream – 1.5hr
- Wallis Stream to The Wisp – 1hr The river is full of decent-sized brown trout but can be challenging to fish because of vegetation both in and hanging over the river.
To get there from Balclutha, drive south to Owaka. Follow the Papatowai Highway for about 7kms then turn right onto Catlins Valley Rd and right onto the gravel Morris Saddle Rd. The campsite is left at the cattle-stop (you’ll see a sign indicating the campsite).
Piano Flat Campsite TD #8860
Piano Flat is a riverside campsite located at the southern end of Waikaia Forest. The forest is 10,500 hectares of stunning beech forest (red, silver and mountain beech) in the mountains of northern Southland. Piano Flat has 50 non-powered sites and its surroundings contribute to a truly Kiwi camping experience.
You’ll hear the sound of the river and native birdsong but one thing you won’t hear is the ring of cellphones as coverage is limited. This area is home to several rare and unique species. Watch out for the spectacular New Zealand falcon (karearea), kererū, yellow crowned parakeet and long-tailed bats. Piano Flat is also one of the few places in Southland where you’ll see the South Island robin.
The eagled-eyed amongst you may come across invertebrates that can only be found in Waikaia Forest – the Piano Flat spider, the fern weevil and two different types of velvet worms. Dogs are welcome at this campsite but must be kept on a leash at all times. Insider’s tip – make sure you pack the mosquito repellent when you visit this campsite!
This area has an interesting gold mining history – you’ll see the remains of a number of water races, as well as numerous mining relics. The water race at Piano Flat was built in the late 1800s to provide water for gold sluicing operations. It was used up to the late 1940s. The water race is still maintained to supply water to several cribs and the camping and picnic area. It is the only operational water race known in Southland. You’re spoiled for choice with the range of recreational activities available in the area near this campsite. These include horse riding, trail bike riding, trout fishing, hunting, walking and four-wheel drive excursions. There’s a series of walks for all abilities – starting from 30 minutes through to seven hours return. The shorter Ngahere Ara Track (30 mins return) and Piano Flat Loop Track (one hour return) take you into the forest and offer you glimpses of the forest’s historic heritage. Go for a riverside walk on the Waikaia River Track (four hours return) or test your lungs as you climb up above the bush line on the Titan Rocks Track (seven hours return).
From Waikaia, head towards the Riversdale-Waikaia Rd and turn right. Follow this road for just over 24kms and you’ll see the campsite on the left.