The distinctive ridges and valleys of the Catlins run parallel in a north west to south east direction.
The mainly-sandstone hills were lifted and folded 150 million years ago forming a landscape feature known as the Murihiku Syncline.
At Curio Bay an internationally renowned fossilised forest, dating from the Jurassic period 180 million years ago, can be seen at low tide.
Most of the hills of the Catlins are clothed in rimu, kāmahi, rātā and silver beech which together form the largest area of native forest on the east coast of the South Island.
Of considerable interest are the forest sequences behind beaches at Tautuku and Tahakopa, formed on old sand dunes.
On the most ancient dunes are mature miro, rimu, tōtara and mataī; then vast stands of pole podocarps; replaced closer to the coast by narrow bands of mature manuka, kāmahi, tōtara, rātā, tree ferns and finally fuchsia.
On some dunes the native sand-binding sedge, pīngao, is still common despite competition from introduced marram grass.
In the forest bellbirds, wood pigeons, fantails and grey warblers are likely to make their presence known. The Catlins hills are also refuge for rare birds like yellowheads (mohua) which can also be found on the Catlins River Walk.
On the coast visitors may encounter all four of the seals found in New Zealand waters - elephant seals, leopard seals, New Zealand sealions/rāpoka and New Zealand fur seals/kekeno.
The coast is also home to yellow-eyed penguins which nest in pockets of coastal forest and scrub. Australasian gannets, royal spoonbills, spotted shags, sooty shearwaters/tītī and oyster catchers may also be seen.
Hector’s dolphins, the worlds smallest and rarest marine dolphin, are often seen from the beaches, particularly at Porpoise Bay.
Māori have a long association with the region and kaika or seasonal camps were dotted along the coastline, most notably at Papatowai. Owaka means place of the canoe.
Excavations of ovens and middens dating from 1000 to 1700AD have revealed the bones of eight species of moa, and the extinct native goose and swan.
Fishing was an important activity at Māori camps and one which was beginning to replace moa hunting and sealing as early as 1350.
The first mixed race settlements in the region were formed around whaling bases at Port Molyneux, Tautuku and Waikawa, but like their quarry they quickly disappeared.
The name of the region is a mis-spelling of the surname of Captain Edward Cattlin, who purchased over 5000 square kilometres of land from Ngāi Tahu chief Tuhawaiki in 1840.
One of the region’s early explorers, Otago provincial councillor JW Thomson, in 1863 described the Owaka River as being crowded with “overhanging branches, meeting in some places, giving the impression of an immense arcade.” Sawmilling quickly became a major industry and in 1872 more timber left that river than any other South Island port.
Construction of a railway line from Balclutha began in 1879, reaching Owaka in 1896 and its final railhead at Tahakopa in 1915. In its wake followed sawmills, schools and farms.
Turn off SH1 at Balclutha or Invercargill and follow the Southern Scenic Route.