New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route

You may have not heard of The Southern Scenic Route, even if you have visited New Zealand. It is a gem, with much to see along the way. Let us give you at least a taste of what’s there.

Welcome to Southland

Southland is what they fittingly call the southern end of New Zealand. It covers the lower part of the South Island as well as Stewart Island. Past Stewart Island there is no land until Antarctica. The spectacular Fiordland region sits within this area, but we’ve already written about that famous destination. In this post we’ll focus on what we explored in the rest of that region.

After our time in Fiordland, we headed south from our fabulous cottage at Acheron Cottages just outside Manapouri. We were following what is hailed as one of the best drives anywhere, The Southern Scenic Route (SSR). Taking into account that it is difficult to find a boring road anywhere in this relentlessly picturesque country, we expected something special. The drive may not be as spectacular as roads along the Southern Alps, but it is undeniably easy on the eye, with the bonus that it is quiet, sitting off of the established tourist routes. We saw no tourist buses or pre-wedding shoots. No crowds. No line-ups. No noise. There were very few other people or cars. Outside of Auckland and Queenstown, New Zealand is a rustic, peaceful country, with little traffic to speak of. But down in this part of the country it was even more so.

The Devil's Staircase on The Southern Scenic Route

Above: This section of the Southern Scenic Route winds along the edge of Lake Wakatipu south of Queenstown and is known as The Devil’s Staircase.

The Southern Scenic Route is just over 600 km in length, beginning in Queenstown and ending in Dunedin on the south-eastern side of the South Island. Heading south from the tourist town of Queenstown, the route is relatively busy (in Kiwi terms) because that is the only access into Fiordland from that overcrowded South Island tourist hub.  Once reaching Te Anau, the traffic heads north to Milford Sound, while the SSR turns south. The road south from Manapouri first skirts the edge of the Southern Alps and then follows the Waiau River until reaching the southern coast at Te Waewae Bay. Then the route heads west, soon reaching Invercargill.

We stopped in Invercargill, which holds the distinction of being the only proper city in Southlands as well as one of the most southernmost cities on the planet. We were there merely for lunch and then some shopping to stock up for the following few days. It was a quiet and tidy historic town with an attractive Main Street.

Outside of Invercargill we noticed how many of the trees had a bent appearance. This was an obvious indicator of how much the coastline was battered by strong southern winds. We had only light breezes, so considered ourselves lucky. In fact, we had probably the best weather of our entire New Zealand road trip while in Southland.

Southland Sheep on the Southern Scenic Route

Above: we were told by a farmer that their job was to grow grass; the animals take care of themselves. The pastures in New Zealand were enviably green, even though we were there in the Fall. The result was fat and healthy livestock, whether they were sheep, cattle or deer.

Going to Porpoise Bay

As we headed east, we left the SSR to take the so-called Coastal Scenic Side Trip to our rented house on Porpoise Bay. There are not many options for dining out or staying overnight between Invercargill and Dunedin, but we loved our Curio Bay Accommodation and arrived with food to cook. We enjoyed our bay so much that it took quite some effort to go out further afield.

There was no handphone signal in the area, but we had been warned. The big surprise was that we enjoyed the best wi-fi signal of our entire NZ road trip! New Zealand gets a generally low rating for connectivity, but we found it enough for our needs during our travels. The only disappointingly slow connection we experienced was in Franz Josef, which is understandable, being in a rather remote location on the west coast.

Porpoise Bay, Southland

Above & below: We really enjoyed staying in this well-equipped, comfortable house with fast wi-fi and a magnificent view over a long, quiet immaculate beach with dolphins offshore. In fact, we didn’t want to leave!

Porpoise Bay is long arc of clean sand with a few houses overlooking the bay. Hector’s Dolphins are seen here regularly and even share the waves with surfers. Being a bit late in the season, we did not expect to see any. But we not only saw a few from our veranda, but even saw them riding the incoming waves directly in front of our house. The owners of the house told us that both yellow-eyed as well as blue penguins nested under our accommodation at night, but being quiet and shy, we never saw any. We only saw the “evidence” they left overnight.

Surfers at Porpoise Bay, Southlands

Visiting a Jurassic Forest

Across a narrow isthmus from sandy Porpoise Bay lies a slab of noteworthy rock called Curio Bay. This bay draws visitors at low tide to walk amongst a fallen Jurassic Period petrified forest that’s over 160 million years old. These trees were alive when New Zealand was part of a much-larger landmass known as Gondwanaland. Visiting in the late afternoon we hoped to see nesting yellow-eyed penguins come ashore for the night, but we saw none. Still, it is a very cool place to experience.

Below & lower right: Curio Bay petrified forest. Further down: Views from Purakaunui Falls 

Southern Scenic Route: Curio Bay petrified forest
Southern Scenic Route: Curio Bay petrified forest
Purakaunui Falls on the Southern Scenic Route
Catlins forest, Southland on the Southern Scenic Route

Purakaunui Falls

Exploring further eastward, there are a number of notable sites. But we were happy to be lazy after almost three weeks of driving round the country. There are numerous forest and beach walk options, but we targeted one in particular: the famous Purakaunui Falls.

The drive to the falls ended up being a bit of an expedition, preventing us from seeing much else that day. We came to a barricaded bridge, deemed dangerous to cross and awaiting repairs. But there was no indication to offer us an alternate road. We retraced our route to a nearby village to find someone who could give us directions and then headed off again. We found the signage in New Zealand to normally be clear and concise, but in this instance, we had no idea where we were going on the winding gravel roads and armed only with vague directions, we feared ourselves lost. With no signs of human habitation and no other traffic, we kept driving until we finally met with another vehicle. We learned from the other driver that we were indeed on a viable route, though it was not the most direct option. But we got there eventually.

Purakaunui Falls is an easy 10-minute walk from the car park. We really enjoyed the verdant growth along the path. The 3-tiered falls themselves are certainly pretty, if not high. We already knew that they are the most-photographed falls in the entire country. A painting of these falls adorned a wall in one of the hotel rooms we slept in earlier on our adventure. So they are renowned, if not spectacular.

Southern Scenic Route: Purakaunui Falls, The Catlins, on the Southern Scenic Route
Tree ferns in The Catlins on the Southern Scenic Route

Not Enough Time

Once back to our car and taking into account our delay and the time needed to return to Porpoise Bay before sundown, we decided to not go further. This meant that we never managed to reach the other site we wanted to visit that day, which was the aptly-titled Nugget Point: a steep headland with a lighthouse at its tip, overlooking rocky islets. Next time.

The following day saw us retrace our route past Queenstown to Arrowtown, a place we thought we could happily live in. But that’s for another post.

Cows in The Catlins on the Southern Scenic Route

Above: We had to wonder: Do cows appreciate a great view? Of course good grazing is their priority, but do they look around with appreciation? Something to ponder.


We enthusiastically recommend driving The Southern Scenic Route and especially visiting the Catlins. With so many established must-see destinations in New Zealand, the area won’t be at the top of anyone’s wish list. But it is well worth the effort to visit for two or three days.