Kia ora: Balclutha

Elisabeth Easther explores the Big River Town.

The Nugget Point lighthouse is a short drive from Balclutha.
The Nugget Point lighthouse is a short drive from Balclutha.

Origin of name: From Scottish Gaelic, Baile Cluaidh, which translates as "Town on the Clyde". Maori called the place Iwikatea, meaning "bleached bones", after the bones of those vanquished during a battle in 1750, which turned pale in the sun.

Population: 4062 (2006 census).

Where it is: It's the largest town in South Otago, 80km from Dunedin and 125km from Invercargill on the Southern Scenic Route.

Town slogan: Balclutha is "Big River Town" and Clutha country is "Where everyone says hello".

Town mascot: The waving hand symbol or Balclutha Bridge.

Famous locals: Playwright Hone Kouka and former All Black Tony Brown.

Former All Black Tony Brown.
Former All Black Tony Brown.

Best website: cluthacountry.co.nz.

Biggest industry: Primary production - beef, sheep and trees. Tourism, too.

Source of pride: The genuine friendliness and community spirit. Locals take delight in the area's unspoilt nature.

Town fiestas: The Ken Milne Classic, The Catlins Great Escape, Milton Jailbreak mountain bike ride, and every year in the Catlins there's the Woodstock Music Festival.

Best places to take kids: Visit Blair Somerville at The Lost Gypsy in Papatowai. Blair is an ardent tinkerer and creator of automata, making workable wind-up wonders from junk. He makes great coffee, too. Or take the nippers to Kaka Pt Beach for the surf and rock pools.

Best drink: Have a beer at the Beaumont, a rural hotel on the edge of the Clutha River, with pig's head trophies adorning the walls and the blue mountains as a backdrop. It's very hunting and fishing; local farmers go there to drink. In town, try the historic South Otago, with its marine theme and shipwreck feel. Or Rosie's Bar at Rosebank Lodge.

Best food: Cafe 55 for lunch or Rosebank Lodge for fine dining.

Best flat white: Cafe 55, Heart and Soul or The Gate.

Best bakery: Gold's Bakery for real home baking and amazing cakes.

Best shop: White Willow, a fashion boutique that sells New Zealand's top labels. Peggydale is grand for gifts and souvenirs.

Best museum: South Otago Museum doesn't look like much from the road but inside it's amazing, with everything from old-fashioned cream and butter churns to pieces of shipwrecks to replicas of historic houses. A real gem.

Best walks: In Balclutha there's the Blair Athol Walkway through Naish Park, following the banks of the Clutha River. You can follow it for a couple of hours if you fancy. Good for cycles and strollers, too. Further out in the Catlins there's the Catlins River Walk. Or check out the Manuka Gorge Tunnel that passes through an old train tunnel that's home to glow-worms.

Best view: Head to Florence Hill in the Catlins and see for miles. In Balclutha, as you're driving into town, the sight of Balclutha Bridge's arches over the river is pretty gorgeous.

Best swim: Clutha River has several good swimming spots - ask a local about those - or try Kaka Pt for the ocean. And all year round Balclutha Centennial Pool is fantastic.

Hidden gem: At 115 years old, Tuapeka Punt is the only working punt in the Southern Hemisphere, operating from 10am-12pm and 4pm-6pm. The skipper winds the wire and moves the rudders, causing the punt to take you peacefully across the river.

Best mountain biking: Clutha's Gold Trail has just opened and is 75km of mostly grade 2 loveliness, meandering with the river from Roxburgh to Lawrence. The Tyree Millennium Trail from Waihola to Tyree Mountain is also fab. Or do the Blair Athol path. Nick from I Bike Hire in Lawrence rents out bikes for $35 a day. He also has sherpa gear and leads guided tours, if you fancy.

Best adventure: The jet boat ride from Beaumont Bridge is a beauty. Visit Birch Island, a real Noah's ark of ecology and a most pristine ecosystem. Some of the insects there haven't changed much in millions of years.

Best places to pull over: Try Kaka Pt, Naish Park or St Clair Wetlands in Waihola.

Best park/playground: Naish Park, the sweet playground also has a duck pond and a bird aviary.

The yellow-eyed penguin.
The yellow-eyed penguin.

Here for a short time: Watch the sun rise from Kaka Pt at Nugget Pt Lighthouse - you might also spot yellow-eyed penguins or fur seals.

Best kept secret: The Cathedral Caves in the Catlins can be reached only at low tide when two magnificent tunnels are revealed. These high-ceiling wonders are breathtaking to view and walk through.

Bright idea: Go and see the glow-worms in Manuka Gorge.

Wildlife: There are yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals and plenty of birdlife to crow about including the rare Mohua, a little yellow native bird recently voted bird of the year.

When a local has visitors staying: It's down to Nugget Pt Lighthouse for the spectacular views, then off on the Clutha Gold Trail for a day's cycling, then refuelling at Whistling Frog Cafe at Papatowai where frogs as big as your thumbnail whistle for you. If there's time, a trip to McLean Falls is probably in order. And go kayaking - why not?

Safety warnings: Mind those seals. Look, don't touch. They bite.

Locals say: You won't regret moving here.

Visitors say: I wish we could stay longer.

Thanks to Jo Lowery, a brilliant ambassador for the region.

- NZ Herald

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