Captivating Catlins and Beyond | Apollo Campervans NZ
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Nugget Point, The Catlins, New Zealand Image Credit: Graeme Murray

The Captivating Catlins and Beyond

7 Days exploring the coasts, lakes and alps of the South Island

Get off the beaten track and enter the wilderness! Your journey takes you along the untouched, untamed east coast of the South Island as you first explore Otago and the Catlins. Feel the spray on your face at Purakaunui falls, watch out for New Zealand’s rarest penguin, swim with tiny dolphins or just sit back, relax and soak in the true wonders of the south. This coastal route is full of scenic view points and walks around every corner. This is the great ocean road – kiwi style, and it even has Rick Steins favorite restaurant as a must do stop!

As you continue your journey, swap the coast for lakes and alps as you travel through Queenstown and the lakes district before stretching your legs at the amazing walks Mt Cook has to offer. Your final night will be spent in the International Dark Sky Reserve around Mt Cook and Tekapo for some epic stargazing before this loop itinerary takes you back to Christchurch.



Day 1: Christchurch - Moeraki (370km, 5hrs)

Day 2: Moeraki - Otago Peninsula - Nugget Point (250km, 4hrs)

Day 3: Nugget Point - Catlins - Purakaunui (100km, 2hrs)

Day 4: Purakaunui - Catlins - Curio Bay (80km, 1hr 30mins)

Day 5: Curio Bay - Queenstown (300km, 3hrs 30mins)

Day 6: Queenstown - Mt Cook (270kms, 3hrs 15mins)

Day 7: Mt Cook - Tekapo - Christchurch (331km, 4hrs 30 mins) 

*hours indicate estimated daily driving time


New Zealand Wildlife

Wildlife Spotting

This trip will introduce you to some of New Zealand's iconic wildlife including the kiwi. From rare penguins, massive albatross and tiny dolphins on the coast to native birds in forests and even the chance to see a Himalayan tahr in the Alps. It showcases the diverse wildlife Aotearoa has to offer as you journey from the alps to the oceans.

Roaring Forty's, New Zealand

Roaring Forty’s Coast

The Catlins is located at latitude 45 degrees, right in the middle of the roaring forty's, one of the world's most notorious ocean areas. This has helped craft unique and rugged rocky coastlines complete with massive caves you can explore that contrasts with beautiful golden sand beaches to swim at. Think Patagonia mixed with Fiji!

Purakaunui Falls, New Zealand South Island

Wonderful Waterfalls

The southern scenic route has not one, not two but FOUR waterfalls we recommend you explore on this journey. Each short walk is family friendly and well maintained and they take you through some lovely native forests complete with amazing birdlife that will serenade you with their song.

Mt Cook hiking trail, New Zealand

Mt Cook walks and the Hooker Valley Track

Explore the many trails around Aoraki Mt Cook and walk in the footsteps of Sir Ed Hilary at the hiking capital of New Zealand. There are many family friendly walks such as the hooker valley and Tasman glacier/blue pools tracks while for more serious adventurers, a full day hike to the Mueller Hut is a must do.

Places to stay

Caravan parks in New Zealand's North Island

Katiki Beach Freedom Camping Reserve, New Zealand

Katiki Beach North Reserve Stop

Katiki Beach Freedom Camping Reserve for self-contained vehicles is located in South Otago and is the perfect place to stop off on your trip south. Just a few minutes from Moeraki, it has direct access to a beautiful sandy swimming beach that the sun will rise over and has facilities on site. This is a FREE camp site and is for self-contained vehicles only.


Curio Bay campsite, New Zealand

Curio Bay

The paid Curio Bay campsite is located on a peninsula with a petrified forest and penguin colony on one side and a bay where you can walk off the beach and swim with one of the world's smallest dolphins on the other. It is one of New Zealand’s most unique and picturesque campsites.


Queenstown to Glenorchy road

25-mile Stream Freedom Camping Area

25-mile Stream Freedom Camping Reserve for self-contained vehicles is located on the beautiful Queenstown to Glenorchy road. This is arguably one of New Zealand's most scenic roads to travel on and being able to stay on the edge of Lake Wakatipu close to Queenstown makes it an ideal choice.


Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand

The Dark Sky Reserve: Lake Pukaki or Mt Cook

Lake Pukaki offers a massive freedom camping reserve for self-contained vehicles. You can stay close to facilities or explore and camp by yourself right on the edge of this stunningly colored, glacier fed lake. DoC also offers a paid option at White Horse Hill campsite located at Mt Cook if you wish to stay closer to the hiking trails. Both are in the middle of the International Dark Sky Reserve.



Full Itinerary

Day 1: Canterbury and South Otago (4 Hours, 300km)

Collect your motorhome from Apollo’s Christchurch branch located conveniently 10 minutes from the airport and near SH1 which you will follow all the way south until you reach the South Otago coast. Here you will find blue and yellow eyed penguins, NZ fur seals, the amazing Moeraki boulders, historic lighthouses, coastal trails and of course arguably New Zealand's best sea food restaurant – Fleurs place, the restaurant Rick Stein picked as his favorite place in the world to be sent to!

  • Pick up Christchurch Apollo
  • Moeraki boulders
  • Shag Point
  • Katiki Point
  • Fleurs for dinner
  • Watch the world's smallest penguins come home at the Oamaru penguin parade

Where to Stay: Katiki Beach North Reserve stop, a free camping reserve right on the beach or at the Trotters Gorge DoC campsite. It’s a long day that you won’t want to end!

Apollo Hint: Book in at Fleurs place to avoid missing out as this is one place where reservations are essential!

Day 2: Otago Peninsula and Catlins (4 Hours, 250km)

Sleep in to the sounds of waves on the beach or wake up early and watch the sun climb out of the ocean. Today you will be heading to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula where you will find views fit for a castle (quite literally) and New Zealand's most photographed building. You also have the chance to see the royal albatross, one of the largest sea birds in the world on its ONLY mainland colony. Enjoy all that Tairoa head has to offer before heading to roaring bay at nugget point. Make your way down the meandering track to the penguin hide where you may be lucky enough to see the yellow eyed penguins appear out of the water and make its way up the beach below to its nests.

  • Dunedin Railway Station
  • Tairoa Head (Otago Peninsula)
  • Sandfly bay
  • Larnach Castle
  • Royal Albatross Center – the ONLY Royal Albatross breeding colony on the mainland anywhere in the world!
  • Nugget point/roaring bay at sun set to see yellow eyed penguins

Where to Stay: Kaka Point campsite or 20 minutes away at the free camping site in Owaka, ready for an early start the next morning. You won’t want to sleep in for this one!

Apollo Hint: If you want to see nugget point at its best, set your alarm before bed to get their 20-30 minutes before sun rise is scheduled to get the best of the colors as you watch the sun rise out of the ocean.

Day 3: Catlins (2 hours, 70km)

Start the morning with a short drive back to Nugget Point where, torch in hand, you take the short walk to the lighthouse. As the sun rises, the view will simply take your breath away. Take 1000 photos on the trail, the lighthouse and of the “nuggets”, the awesome rock formations reaching out of the ocean around the peninsula. After, head south and enjoy some family friendly short walks through native forests and nature trails to some beautiful waterfalls before stopping for the night at one of the most beautiful ocean view campsites in New Zealand.

  • Nugget Point (sun rise at lighthouse)
  • Cannibal Bay (Seal Lions)
  • Tunnel Hill walk (25 min)
  • Tea Pot Land • Purakanui Falls Walk (25 min)
  • Matai falls walk (25 min)
  • Tahakopa Bay

Where to Stay: Purukanui Bay is an affordable DoC run campsite that is very affordable and offers amazing views of the coastline and a beautiful beach that often people have all to themselves!

Apollo Hint: Don’t be in a rush to leave nugget point, take the short detour to the viewing platform on your right for your chance to see the amazing royal spoonbill colony below.

Day 4: Catlins (2 Hours, 80km)

You are now in the real wilderness where reception and 4G coverage is hard to find. If you need to upload an amazing photo from the day before, you can do so on WIFI while you grab a coffee at the Lost Gypsy Gallery – a fantastic collection of ...everything! This day will be full of short walks before a small trek in and out to the Cathedral Caves. While steep in parts, it is a well-maintained track and fine for families. The walk is well worth the amazing opportunity to explore the phenomenal coastal cave systems of the Catlins coast and swim on a truly breathtaking beach. Finish the day with a picturesque drive to Curio bay where you can have a chance to swim with Hectors dolphins on one side of the bay and once again see the yellow eyed penguins on the other. All this on a prehistoric beach made up of a fossilized forest entombed in ash for eternity. Amazing.

  • The lost Gypsy Gallery
  • Florence Hill Look out
  • Lake Wilkie
  • Mclean Falls
  • Cathedral Caves (Arrive 2 hours before low tide). Allow at least 2-3 hours
  • Curio Bay for petrified forest walk and yellow eyes penguin spotting
  • Porpoise Bay in the late morning and late afternoon to swim with hectors dolphins. Next to Curio cliffs is often the best spot.

Where to Stay: Curio Bay campsite overlooking to ocean and wake up right next to the dolphins and penguins or at the free camping area just down the road at the Waikawa Recreation Reserve.

Apollo Hint: Hectors dolphins are most active in the morning and late afternoons. If present, give them space (stay 50 meters away from them) and let them swim to you. This is one of the few places in the world you can beach swim with dolphins – respect them and their home.

Day 5: Catlins and Lakes District (4.5 Hours, 300km)

Here is your chance to do a morning swim with the dolphins or view the penguins before checking out slope point, the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand and the historic Waipapa lighthouse before waving goodbye to the coastal route as you head inland for an overnighter in Queenstown. While there, take in any of the marvelous activities the adventure capital of New Zealand has to offer, or just relax to a lovely meal with the wonderful lakeside views of Lake Wakatipu and visit the kiwis at the wildlife refuge and leave them to entertain you.

  • Morning Swim with Dolphins
  • Slope Point
  • Waipapa Point Lighthouse
  • Explore Queenstown
  • Kiwi birdlife park
  • Take the scenic drive to Glenorchy

Where to Stay: Queenstown Top 10 , or at the twenty-five-mile stream freedom camping site.

Apollo Hint: Camping at twenty-five-mile stream puts you right on the road to Glenorchy, one of the most beautiful short drives anywhere in the world and a must do.

Day 6: Lakes District and Mt Cook National Park (3.5 Hours, 290km)

Stop off at the vineyards of the stunning Gibbston Valley for a gift for a friend (or yourself) before heading through the rest of the scenic lakes district to Canterbury where the amazing views continue. If air activities are more your thing, Twizel is home to some epic glacier flights and a ski dive that lets you take in Mt Cook and the glaciers along with the amazing glacial lakes of Pukaki, Ohau and Tekapo. Next, Mt Cook welcomes you with the family friendly hooker valley track, one of the best short walks anywhere in the world just around the corner. For the more experienced hikers, a day hike up the Mueller hut track is a must do. For a more relaxing end to your trip, why not try the soak and stars at Tekapo where you enjoy an astrology tour from the idyllic comfort of a thermal pool!


Where to Stay: Whitehorse Hill DoC campsite or head back out to The Pines freedom Camping Area at Lake Pukaki where you can find your own little piece of secluded paradise on the lake shore to call home for the night.

Apollo Hint: Don’t be too early to bed, you are in the dark sky reserve (1 of only 16 in the world) where some of the clearest views of the night sky and Milkyway exist anywhere in the world making it an ideal place for stargazing and astro-photography.

Day 7: Tekapo and Christchurch (4.5 Hours, 331km)

On your final day, you can relax in the hot springs of Tekapo and enjoy one of the most photogenic places in New Zealand. In summer, wild lupins will dazzle you while in winter, the snow-covered alps provide a perfect backdrop to your final day on the road. The church of the good shepherd and a glacier fed lake are just some of the magical scenes that await you. On your way back to Christchurch, no trip is complete without stopping for a bite to eat at the Fairlie bakehouse, one of New Zealand's best bakeries and home to arguably its best pie!

  • Explore Lake Tekapo
  • Soak in the hot pools
  • See the colorful Lupins (November – February)
  • Church of the good shepherd
  • Sheep dog monument
  • Late lunch at Fairlie bakehouse
  • Drop off Apollo Christchurch

Apollo Hint: Get to the church of the good shepherd early to ensure you get it to yourself before the tour buses and 8am rental pickups from Christchurch arrive!

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