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Campervan exploration of The Catlins: New Zealand's untouched southern beauty

Embarking on a campervan journey to The Catlins is to set out on a path less traveled, where the rugged coastlines whisper ancient tales, dense forests guard the secrets of the land, and wildlife roams free in its natural habitat. This corner of New Zealand's South Island offers a sanctuary for those seeking solitude and an unfiltered embrace with nature, making it an enchanting destination for North American travelers looking to escape the well-trodden tourist paths.

Imagine the thrill of waking up to a new vista each morning, with the freedom to chart your course through The Catlins' untouched beauty. From the lighthouse-guarded cliffs of Nugget Point to the echoing chambers of Cathedral Caves, a campervan journey here promises adventure, discovery, and a profound connection with the earth's raw magnificence.


Discovering The Catlins in a campervan

Freedom on wheels

The true essence of exploring The Catlins lies in the unparalleled freedom a campervan offers. It's about having the liberty to follow the winding roads wherever they may lead, from the misty shores of Curio Bay to the serene expanse of the Catlins Forest Park. A campervan journey here is not just travel; it's an embrace of spontaneity, allowing you to wake up to the sound of waves crashing against rugged cliffs or the calm of a forest, with the day's path yours to decide.

This mobile haven becomes your gateway to adventure, equipped with all the essentials, turning any spot amidst The Catlins' natural splendor into a home for the night. Imagine sipping your morning coffee with a view of the sunrise over Nugget Point or enjoying a home-cooked meal under the stars at Purakaunui Bay. It's these moments of simple joy and freedom that define a campervan journey through The Catlins.

Route highlights

Embarking on a campervan voyage through The Catlins, you're presented with a myriad of natural wonders, each with its own allure:

Nugget Point: known for its iconic lighthouse and the rocky islets (the Nuggets) that dot the ocean below, Nugget Point is a must-visit for sunrise enthusiasts and wildlife spotters alike. The area is a haven for seabirds and often plays host to fur seals and sea lions.

Purakaunui Falls: a short walk through lush forest leads to the cascading beauty of Purakaunui Falls, one of New Zealand's most photographed waterfalls. Best visited after rain, the falls are a serene spot for contemplation and connection with nature.

Cathedral Caves: accessible only at low tide, the Cathedral Caves are a marvel of natural architecture. These towering sea caves offer a unique exploration experience, with the sound of the ocean echoing through their vast chambers.

Where to Start Your Campervan Journey

Before you hit the road to explore the captivating wonders of The Catlins, you'll need to decide where to kickstart your adventure. While there are no campervan rental services directly within The Catlins, nearby cities serve as convenient starting points for your journey.

Option 1: Starting in Invercargill: if you're eager to dive straight into The Catlins' natural splendor without spending too much time on the road, Invercargill is your ideal launching pad. As the closest city to The Catlins, it offers the advantage of minimal travel time, allowing you to immerse yourself in the region's beauty sooner rather than later.

From Invercargill, you'll find yourself just a stone's throw away from The Catlins' southern gateway. Fuel up your campervan and stock up on supplies in Invercargill before embarking on the short journey south. With its proximity to The Catlins, Invercargill provides a convenient starting point for your adventure, ensuring you waste no time in discovering the treasures that await.

Find and compare campervan rental offers in Invercargill

Option 2: Starting in Dunedin: for those seeking a broader selection of campervan rental options and amenities before setting off on their Catlins expedition, Dunedin offers a compelling alternative. As a larger city compared to Invercargill, Dunedin boasts a wider array of rental companies, providing you with more choices to find the perfect campervan for your journey. Additionally, Dunedin offers plenty of opportunities for exploration and provisioning before you head south to The Catlins. Whether you're stocking up on groceries, exploring the city's attractions, or simply soaking in its vibrant atmosphere, Dunedin sets the stage for an adventure-filled journey ahead.

Find and compare campervan rental offers in Dunedin

Navigating through The Catlins by campervan allows for the luxury of timing your visits to these attractions perfectly, whether it's catching the golden hour at Nugget Point or ensuring you're at Cathedral Caves at the right tide.

Campervan living in The Catlins

Choosing the right campervan

The key to a seamless and enjoyable exploration of The Catlins lies in selecting a campervan that aligns with your journey's needs. Here's what to consider:

Size and comfort: balance the desire for space with the practicality of navigating The Catlins' winding roads. A compact campervan offers easier handling and access to more secluded spots, while a larger vehicle provides more comfort and amenities.

Off-road capabilities: given the Catlins' diverse terrains, from coastal roads to forest tracks, opt for a campervan with reliable off-road capabilities to fully embrace the region's rugged beauty.

Facilities: consider a campervan equipped with essential living facilities, including a kitchenette, sleeping area, and, if possible, a bathroom. The comforts of home on wheels enhance the experience, allowing for more time immersed in nature.

Campervan rental tips

Renting a campervan in New Zealand is straightforward, with many reputable companies catering to the needs of adventurers. Here are some tips to ensure a smooth rental experience:

Reputable rental companies: choose a company known for its quality vehicles and customer service. Reviews and recommendations from fellow travelers can guide you to the best choice. 

Rental agreement: understand the terms of your rental agreement, including insurance coverage, mileage, and breakdown assistance. Knowing these details upfront can save you from surprises down the road.

Essential extras: inquire about add-ons such as GPS navigation, camping gear, and additional drivers. These extras can enhance your journey, making it more comfortable and enjoyable.

Using for rentals

For those embarking on this adventure from afar, offers a valuable platform to compare and secure the ideal campervan for your Catlins exploration:

Wide selection: access a broad range of campervan rental offers to find the one that best suits your adventure style and budget.

Compare with ease: simplifies the comparison process, compare features, rental conditions and prices. Every rental shop has a Score, a quality score derived from aggregated online reviews of previous customers, to help you make an informed decision.

The Catlins' natural wonders

Wildlife encounters

The Catlins region is a sanctuary for a diverse array of wildlife, offering visitors unique opportunities to observe animals in their natural habitat. Highlights include:

Rare yellow-eyed penguins: the secluded beaches of The Catlins are one of the few places in the world where you can witness the rare yellow-eyed penguins returning to shore at dusk.

New Zealand fur seals: along the rocky coastlines, you'll find colonies of New Zealand fur seals, often seen lounging on the rocks or playfully navigating the surf.

Sea lions: keep an eye out for the impressive New Zealand sea lion, especially on the sandy beaches near Nugget Point and Curio Bay. These magnificent creatures are known for their size and curiosity.

Outdoor adventures

Beyond the thrill of wildlife watching, The Catlins offers a plethora of outdoor activities set against its stunning natural backdrop:

Hiking to hidden waterfalls: trails like those leading to McLean Falls and Purakaunui Falls offer not just a hike but a journey through lush forest landscapes ending in spectacular waterfalls.

Beachcombing along deserted shores: the Catlins' coastlines boast some of the most beautiful and untouched beaches in New Zealand, perfect for beachcombing, photography, or simply enjoying the solitude.

Night sky observation: with minimal light pollution, The Catlins is an ideal spot for stargazing. Locations such as Nugget Point offer a dark sky sanctuary where the Milky Way seems almost within reach.

Practical advice for North American travelers

Travel documentation and requirements

Embarking on a New Zealand adventure from North America involves some preparation in terms of documentation:

Visas: most North American travelers can enter New Zealand under the NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority) for short visits. Ensure this is arranged well before your journey.

Driving permits: while a valid driver's license from your home country is often sufficient for renting a campervan, carrying an International Driving Permit (IDP) is recommended for ease of identification and in case of any legal discrepancies.

Cultural insights and local etiquette

Understanding and respecting local customs and etiquette is crucial for a harmonious journey:

Environmental respect: New Zealanders (Kiwis) take great pride in their natural environment. Always adhere to the principle of "Leave No Trace," disposing of waste properly and respecting wildlife and natural habitats. Also read: Adventuring responsibly: leave no trace and sustainable practices for equipment rentals

Road etiquette: driving in New Zealand might be different from what you're used to. Keep left, and be mindful of local road rules, including speed limits and right-of-way norms. Rural roads in The Catlins can be narrow and winding, requiring extra caution.

Staying connected and safe

Connectivity on the go

The remote beauty of The Catlins means that mobile coverage can be spotty. Planning ahead can help you stay connected:

Portable Wi-Fi devices: renting or purchasing a portable Wi-Fi device before your trip can ensure internet access in most areas, making it easier to navigate and stay in touch. Check if a portable Wi-Fi device is included in your rental campervan, some rental companies include them.

Local SIM cards: consider buying a local SIM card for your mobile device for wider coverage and cost-effective data usage. Ensure your phone is unlocked to accept new SIM cards.

E-SIM providers: as a convenient alternative, consider using E-SIM providers like and Betterroaming for seamless connectivity across New Zealand, offering flexibility and avoiding the need for physical SIM cards.

Safety first

Exploring The Catlins' remote areas requires a focus on safety:

Weather awareness: the region's weather can change rapidly. Always check forecasts before setting out and prepare for all conditions.

Emergency preparedness: have a basic first aid kit, extra food and water, and know the location of the nearest medical facilities. Familiarize yourself with New Zealand's emergency number (111).

Wildlife respect: while encounters with wildlife can be a highlight, always keep a safe distance and avoid disturbing animals, especially during breeding seasons.


Embracing The Catlins: a journey unveiled

Embarking on a campervan exploration of The Catlins isn't just a trip; it's an initiation into the heart of New Zealand's untouched southern beauty. This journey offers more than just a chance to traverse breathtaking landscapes; it invites a deep connection with nature, a bond forged through the freedom of the open road and the intimate encounters with wildlife and wilderness.

A symphony of nature and adventure

The Catlins serve as a backdrop for a symphony of experiences that resonate with the soul of the traveler. From the rugged coastline where the ocean's might is unveiled, to the tranquil forests where waterfalls serenade the silence, each mile traveled is a note in the melody of adventure. It's here that the spirit of exploration meets the tranquility of solitude, offering a retreat from the world yet a profound engagement with the essence of life itself.

Beyond the journey

While the campervan journey might end, the stories and memories created in The Catlins linger, painting the canvas of your life with hues of adventure, contemplation, and connection. The tales of navigating the winding roads, the sunsets shared with the rarest of companions, and the nights spent under a canopy of stars become the treasures carried home, enriching your narrative and inspiring others to seek their own paths through this less-trodden part of the world.

Helpful resources for planning your Catlins exploration:

Find and compare campervan rental offers in Invercargill

Find and compare campervan rental offers in Dunedin

Getting there: 

Starting from Invercargill: fly into Invercargill airport

Starting from Dunedin: fly into Dunedin airport

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Mastering campsite etiquette: being a responsible camper

Quick guide to renting a campervan

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David Martinez