Carrying on through the Catlins: Part 3

July 6, 2024
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The Place of the Canoes

CARRYING ON FROM Part 2, which I published back in March before getting sidetracked by a trip to the USA, Central America, and Mexico (!), I should add that the name of the Catlins’ main tourist hub — Owaka — means ‘of the canoes', or of the canoe.

It refers to the fact that Owaka was the main canoe harbour of this wild and most southerly region of mainland New Zealand, for which I’ve posted a quick road trip refresher video here.

The Catlins themselves are named after the whaling captain Edward Cattlin, sometimes spelt Catlin. Captain Cattlin/Catlin bought a block of land in the area from the Ngāi Tahu chief, Tuawaiki, a month before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840.

The Māori had already inhabited the area for the best part of a thousand years before Cattlin came along. Their lifestyle was very much based on the sea and on harvesting existing natural resources, for the climate was always too cool for the kumara (sweet potato)-based agriculture practiced by North Island Māori.

Nowadays, the seafaring origins of Owaka are commemorated by a stainless-steel sculpture of a waka with a triangular sail.

The silver canoe at Owaka reminds me a little bit of the sculpture called Sólfar or ‘Sun Voyager’ in Reykjavík, Iceland. Indeed, the Polynesian voyagers who included the ancestors of the Māori were called Vikings of the Sunrise in a 1938 book of that name by the Māori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck).

Reflecting waters, at the Owaka Boating Club (Hinahina)

Close to Owaka is Surat Bay, named after another ship that was holed at Chasland’s Mistake (see Part 2), before sinking in the bay near Owaka that came to bear its name.

A plaque commemorating the earlier, 1 January 1874 loss of the Surat, also holed at Chaslands Mistake. The sinking ship offloaded many passengers at nearby Jacks Bay before running aground at what is now Surat Bay, where this picture was taken. As with the later wreck of the Otago, everybody survived.

The mainstay of the Catlins’ early frontier economy — the harvesting of whales, penguins, seals, and native timber — has since given way to a rather low-key tourism industry; so low-key that to this day the permanent population of the Catlins is only about 1,200.

A third of the Catlins’ inhabitants live in Owaka. So, even though it is the hub of the region, Owaka is not very big.

Along with Surat Bay and the silvery canoe, another of the attractions of this little town is the Catlins Country Store, a trading post full of bric-a-brac and Victoriana, where the locals swap their books and DVDs.

A friend of mine, just outside the Country Store

Further things to do in the Owaka area include the Catlins River Walk, and a stay at the Mohua Park ecosanctuary, as well as a visit to Teapot Land, another eccentric local museum!

Scenes from the Owaka area, including bat conservation, ‘Teapot Land’, the Clinton-Gore (‘Presidential’) highway out of Balclutha, the Catlins River and the cover of Women of the Catlins

Nugget Point

THE lighthouse at Nugget Point is one of the region’s must-dos. You should persevere along the path to the lighthouse, even though it’s a bit daunting. From this spot, you can also see the coal smoke pollution that hangs over Balclutha at times.

There’ll be another smudge on the eastern horizon, last night’s coal smoke blowing out to Chile.

Lots of places in New Zealand have a pollution problem, both in towns and in areas that are intensively farmed. The ‘clean green’ bit only applies to wilderness areas.

Pollution over Balclutha, from Nugget Point

The Nugget Point track, with ‘exposed’ sections like the one in the next photo, with my dad

Another encouraging sign!

My editor said that he’d spoken to a couple of people in a Balclutha pub and that they said they’d always been too nervous to walk to the lighthouse!

Nugget Point is named after a profusion of rocks at its tip called the Nuggets.

The lighthouse at Nugget Point, with another view of its ‘exposed’ track

My father pointing to the Nuggets from the lighthouse

Just south of Nugget Point is Roaring Bay, and a little further south, near the Catlins Heads, is Cannibal Bay, a name that sounds a bit un-PC these days.

Cannibal Bay got its name from the gruesome discovery of masses of human bones by early sealers and whalers. These remains were the result of a one-sided tribal war of the kind common in those disorderly days, when one group would acquire muskets from European traders and attack another that only had traditional weapons of the up-close-and-personal kind like taiaha, patu, and mere (pronounced meré, with two ‘e’s).

Among the old-time Māori and most of their Polynesian relatives, long-range weapons such as bows and arrows were practically or even absolutely unknown.

Their absence seems to have sprung from a very strong concept of honour for which the Māori and most Pacific peoples use the term mana: there was not much mana to be won by skewering someone with an arrow from a safe distance. But many of these fine old attitudes did not long survive the coming of the musket.

Here are some collages from the road trip thus far.

This collage is of Pūrākaunui Bay, Surat Bay, and one of the waterfalls

Here we have the Nuggets by Nugget Point/Tokatā. And the beaches, a tumbled-down barn and some signs, including one that says to watch out for sea lions!


Balclutha is on the edge of the Catlins but isn’t counted as part of the area. It’s an old industrial town that doesn’t have too much to do with the region to its south.

The name Balclutha comes from the Scots Gaelic Baile Chluaidh, meaning ‘City on the Clyde’, a poetic term for the Scottish town of Dumbarton. There’s a sailing ship from the 1880s called the Balclutha, permanently tied up in San Francisco as a sort of floating museum. It is not named after the New Zealand town, apparently, but rather after Dumbarton.

The Clutha part of Balclutha is from Chluaidh, the Scots Gaelic for Clyde, and it is the settler name for the river on which Balclutha finds itself, also known in Māori as Mata-au.

Some photos of Balclutha and its industrial / maritime heritage

Looking backward

All in all, visiting the Catlins and its neighbourhood is a bit like going back in time by half a century. Balclutha contains few modern buildings and often smells of coal smoke. And you can stay very cheaply in guesthouses that are right on the beach and practically vacant outside the short summer season. Queenstown, it isn’t.

I couldn’t think of a better writers’ retreat. Maybe that’s what they should start selling the region as!

But before I sign off, there’s plenty more to see and do in the Catlins, which I haven’t even touched on as yet, including caves, waterfalls, cold-water surfing, and long and adventurous inland hikes through the primeval forest.

Overall, I thought that the best campsite to stay at because of its scenery and remoteness was at Pūrākaunui Bay, followed by Pounawea near Owaka, where there are a couple more campsites.

Although Pūrākaunui Bay has a lovely beach, it is not the same as Pūrākaunui Beach: a quite different locality on the end of the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin! On the maps, the one in the Catlins is Bay, not Beach.

For more information, including the best times of year to go and the location of camping spots, cafes, and where to buy fuel, see the official website of the Catlins:

The official website includes the option to download a really useful brochure, which I’ve linked to here as well.

If you liked this post, check out my book about the South Island! It’s available for purchase from my website,


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