The Catlins: An overlooked corner of New Zealand

May 14, 2019
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THE Catlins is the name given to a remote yet beautiful coastal area that wraps around the southernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand. It runs from the town of Balclutha at its northern end, to Fortrose in the southwest.

The Catlins and environs, with highlighted town names and Nugget Point and Curio Bay added to the background map (©2019 Google). The main coastal road between Balclutha and Fortrose and some of its side roads are also traced out in red. North at top

It’s an area notorious for wild weather, only guaranteed to be warm for two months of the year, from mid-December to mid-February, the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Names like Fortrose and Balclutha tell you that the settlers who came to the district in the nineteenth century were mostly Scots. So, they tended to be in other parts of New Zealand’s ‘Wild South’: a region that probably reminded them of Home.

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. Interestingly enough, there’s a sailing ship from the 1880s tied up in San Francisco harbour that’s called the Balclutha. It’s named after the New Zealand town, already well established when the ship was launched.

Some photos of Balclutha and its industrial / maritime heritage

The Catlins 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 natural resources too, for the climate was always too cool for the kumara (sweet potato)-based agriculture practiced by North Island Māori.

The Place of the Canoe

The name of the village that serves as the Catlins’ main tourist hub — Owaka — means ‘of the canoes’ and refers to the fact that Owaka was the region’s main canoe harbour. It always was the hub of the region, in other words.

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

The Captain’s profession gives you clue as to what the main economic activities were locally. That is, the harvesting of whales, penguins, seals and native timber. These have 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 live in Owaka. Fortrose is even smaller.

A rare penguin

I’ve visited the Catlins several times, including one trip I made with my sister, Maree, where we saw yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, on the petrified forest at Curio Bay (more about that below).

A collage of Curio Bay scenes from my 2017 book, A Maverick New Zealand Way

The yellow-eyed penguin only exists in New Zealand waters. It breeds in coastal forests and so it is vulnerable to all sorts of threats these days, from deforestation to dogs to the sheer stress of ‘walking in a wet suit’ from the shore to the forests where it breeds. It’s the fourth-largest penguin in the world. And perhaps it is also one of the most raucous as well, for its Māori name, hoiho, means ‘noise maker’!

There was only one breeding pair of hoiho at Curio Bay at the beginning of 2019. The scientists are trying to get to bottom of why numbers have decreased from 8 or 9 pairs a few years ago.

Up to my neck in peat

When I was there another time, I went tramping at Papatowai, an inland coastal walk, where I fell into peat. Thank goodness it was summer and not raining, as I certainly would have been worse off in wet weather. Even then, I was up to my neck in peat. Somehow, I made it out and then headed to the coast following a rarely used track, where I cleaned all my clothes in the ocean and made it back to the car.

The author in similar South Island terrain (though not actually at the Catlins)

Aside from the dangerous peat and beautiful views of the coastline, old Māori middens can also be seen along this track. These middens, a word meaning camp remains, can generally be identified by the presence of vast numbers of seashells, in much the same way that later European encampments could be identified by the presence of vast numbers of bottles.

Porpoise Bay

My editor and dad went to the Catlins for the first time, for either of them, this May. They stayed one night in Balclutha and then went on to spend two more in a big two-level guesthouse on Porpoise Bay, about a kilometre from Curio Bay.

Panorama looking eastward from the guest house balcony on Porpoise Bay
Sunset looking westward from the guest-house on Porpoise Bay. The yucca-like trees at left are Tī (pronounced ‘tea’), also known as Cabbage Trees, while the bushes to the right are New Zealand flax or Harakeke. Both are common sights in Britain these days, though native to New Zealand.

Porpoise Bay gets its name because it is supposed to contain lots of Hector’s dolphins. The Hector’s dolphin is a small dolphin, about the size of a big dog. Like the hoiho, Hector’s dolphin is only found in New Zealand waters.

Curio Bay is the most famous bay in the Catlins, because it is the site of a petrified Jurassic forest, the source of the ‘curios’ it’s named after, plus a population of the rare hoiho.

(Dad and Chris didn’t see any dolphins during their visit to the Catlins, or any seals or whales or penguins for that matter. Apparently, most marine creatures are well out to sea and feeding up large in May, getting ready for the rigours of the winter.)

The petrified forest

In the petrified Jurassic forest, you can still see the grain of the wood, in vertical stumps and fallen logs.

Plaque at Curio Bay. Note the tree ferns, which survive in the nearby living forest, along with several other Jurassic tree varieties
A part of the petrified forest, complete with visible logs and stumps
Another plaque, describing the petrified forest and how it came to be
A petrified log with visible grain
A petrified tree stump poking up through sedimentary rock
Charred-looking fossil timber

The forest still lives!

The petrified forest is only a few hundred metres from the edge of a lving forest, extending over much of the Catlins, that has many similar species to the old petrified forest. As incredible as it sounds, the modern-day Catlins forest could even be the direct descendent of the forest that stood on the same spot in the Jurassic era.

A plaque contrasting the fossil and living forests
The living forest at Curio Bay
Dad in the living forest among tree ferns, various other evergreens including conifers known as podocarps, and a deciduous native tree fuchsia. Podocarps, known in some parts of the world as ‘plum pines’, mount their seeds on top of fruit-like structures attractive to browsing birds and, before them, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs, rather than in woody cones. Podocarps were common in Jurassic forests and remain common in contemporary New Zealand forests: species such as mataī, tōtara, and rimu. But as bearers of fruits and berries, they were eventually out-competed by flowering shrubs and trees in virtually all other parts of the world, becoming rare and unusual. But in New Zealand, tree ferns and podocarps still rule many forests including the forests of the Catlins. So the ecology of the living forest really is closer to the Jurassic, and to the nearby petrified forest, than most other places on earth.
Another view of a giant tree fern in the living forest. These days, tree ferns are mostly found in the tropics and the ones in the living forest are close to their southern limit.

Well, things doen’t get much weirder than that.

(I have more to say about this amazing region in my next post, 'The Catlins, continued'.)

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