The Road Less Travelled: The Southern Scenic Route

This part of New Zealand is often missed off the itineraries of travellers, especially those who are pushed for time. The route runs from Queenstown, through Te Anau and onto Dunedin via Invercargill and Balclutha.  Lured by the prospects of photogenic lighthouses, wind torn trees, penguins, and waterfalls we set aside a few days to explore this area.

The area is well set up for tourists, and the website is a useful planning tool listing the top sights alongside handy maps.   The southernmost reaches of the route seemed akin to northern Scotland, both in terms of weather, desolate beauty and pesky sandflies (a dreaded beast, not unlike the Scottish midge). Our adventures in fiordland can be found on a separate post, but the rest of our adventures on the southern scenic route follow below.


When we drove through, Tuatapere seemed almost like a ghost town. Many people stop here to walk the 3 day hump ridge track and offers a base for exploring the wilder, less travelled parts of fiordland. It also has a history rooted deep in sawmilling and the small Bushmans Museum attached to the isite is worth a visit, even if just passing through.

Clifden Caves

Bring a torch! This is definitely worth the small detour of the main road. The route through the cave is clearly marked and involves wading through water and climbing a few ladders. This part of the cave can be done with no equipment, although if you want to delve deeper, you will need some caving experience as well as proper gear. It is a fantastic example of kiwis encouraging adventure sport by making things accessible to the general public – a signpost on the edge of the road explains the route, entrances and equipment needed clearly and concisely.

Gemstone Beach

We spent almost an hour here picking up “pretty” rocks, although what we actually found we have no idea! The cliffs here are made of clay and look relatively unstable, so steer well clear of them if you do go hunting for stones!

Monkey Island

This is a great free camping spot (for campers and tents) and although there is a limit on the number of days you can stay, it doesn’t seem to be imposed. The small island can be “climbed” and potentially owes its name to a monkey winch which used to be installed here.


We did little more than pass through here, stopping only to spend an hour or so in the Te Hikoi (Southern Journey) museum.  This is another excellent exhibit, detailing the lives of early settlers here – both Maori and European – and is presented in a variety of ways.

Waipapa Point

The lighthouse at Waipapa Point makes for some good photos. At low tide, you can explore the rock pools on the shore – just watch out for the big waves! We went on a wet and windy day, the clouds making the scene look very moody. The weather we experienced during our trip through the southern south island explained the number of wind torn trees along the route.

Curio Bay/Porpoise Bay

These bays are on either side of a small headland, both are worth a visit. There is a campsite here with large flax growing between sites – which we found to be a useful wind barrier! Curio Bay is home to a petrified forest, which can be explored at low tide. The Bay is also home to the Hoiho, or yellow eyed penguin which is endemic to New Zealand and one of the rarest penguin species in the world.  It is worth visiting at dusk to watch the penguins surf back in and waddle to their homes.

On the other side of the headland, Porpoise Bay is home to a large number of hector dolphins which often swim close to shore. We spotted one whilst we were there – and some lucky swimmers had a brief interaction with it.

Cathedral Caves

This can only be accessed at low tide, and when conditions allow. Being on private land and there is a small fee to access the beach and caves. Go early if you can – the car park fills up quickly! When we went we were extremely lucky to find a little blue penguin hiding at the back of Caves. The beach was also strewn with blue bottle jellyfish.

McLean Falls / Purakaunni Falls / Matai Falls

These waterfalls are dotted along the width of the southern scenic route, although sadly they didn’t quite live up to their credentials. Despite the rain we had whilst visiting, the rivers were running  low, meaning the falls weren’t  as spectacular as hoped.

McLean Falls

Jack’s Blowhole

The hour or so walk out to the blowhole is well worth it. The sea runs under the land some hundred and fifty metres before gushing into the opening of Jack’s blowhole. The walk itself is relatively gentle and offers some good scenic views too.

Jack’s Blowhole

Nugget Point

This is a most picturesque place, although slightly dampened by the weather when we went! Make sure you look down the cliffs to the rocks and floating kelp – they are teeming with seals! You can also spot these creatures on the beaches as you drive up to the point.