Kia Ora: Papatowai

A golden sunset at Curio Bay, on the Catlins coast.
A golden sunset at Curio Bay, on the Catlins coast.

Origin of name: Papa is Maori for land and the towai is a native tree - making it Land of the Towai; interestingly, towai bark is popular for treating skin diseases, tanning and dyeing.

Population: There are about 30 permanent residents, with a sharp rise in summer. Papatowai is very quiet in winter.

Town slogan: Where Forest Meets Sea.

Town mascot: Whistlewood is a giant, green whistling frog found outside the Whistling Frog Cafe. He's a couple of metres tall and perfect for selfies.

Big birds: Moa bones have been found around here and it's said, in the denser parts of the forest, the last remaining moa still roam today.

Famous locals: Ibby, the local postman, has been doing the run here for years, font of all local knowledge (and gossip) he volunteers at all the local events and at the museum.

He also delivers people's medicines, groceries and of course the post.

Famous faces: Famous people to have had their pictures taken up against Whistlewood include Bret Mackenzie, Hamish from Hamish and Andy, Neil Oliver from the TV series Coast and Robert and Duncan Sarkies, who shot parts of their movie Two Little Boys around here.

Best website:

Source of pride: Papatowai is proud to be clean, green and eco-friendly. Locals strive to keep nature pristine and wildlife protected, fishing is limited and there is no pollution - the air is so fresh you could eat it.

Town fiestas: The Papatowai Challenge is a fun run/walk held each February. The Catlins Coast Rally is an off-road event each August, plus there are regular talent shows, art exhibitions (including Waikawa - Edge of The World) as well as markets, New Year's Eve hoedowns and carnivals.

Inspirational: The Catlins attracts all manner of creative people: photographers, painters, sculptors, knitters, people making things with possum fur, there's even a soap company.

Here for a short time: The Lost Gypsy Gallery is run by the magnificent Blair Somerville. Describing himself as an organic mechanic, Blair takes recycled materials, whether from nature or inorganic sources, and turns them into interactive gizmos and gadgets. He's burst out of the original caravan, and visitors can now enjoy The Gadget Garden for a modest entrance fee.

Best reasons to stop: For the forests, beaches and beautiful bush walks. Or perhaps you want to get into big wave surfing - cheaper than a defibrillator.

Kids love: Aside from The Lost Gypsy, kids love Shanks Interactive Nature Bush Walk where they can learn all about nature. Bug World, on the way to Jack's Blowhole, is also groovy for interactive fun featuring live insects. They also have donkeys.

Best park: Right near Papatowai beach there's room for kids to play, dogs to run and it's where you'll find the public bathrooms.

Best walks: The Catlins is a walking wonderland. The Cathedral Cave walk is gorgeous but only accessible at low tide. Lake Wilkie is an easy stroll round an old glacier lake and is also where the whistling tree frogs come from. A perfect reflecting pool, it's so pretty when the rata blooms in December. McLean's Falls are the tallest in the Catlins, this walk is 45 minutes return and perfect for bathers in summer.

Best view: From the Florence Hill lookout you'll be rewarded with sweeping views along 4km of beach, turquoise water, white sand, native podocarp forest marching downhill, it's so fetching it features in Japanese car commercials.

Look up: With no light pollution, the stars are magical on a clear night. The Southern Lights are a highlight from December to April and in January, when the Milky Way is directly vertical with the horizon, photographers flock here.

Best swims: Papatowai and Tautuku are both known for big wave surfing and when it's not really rough the sea is great for boogie boarding and swimming, but you'll need a wetsuit year-round. Pools in the river and waterfalls are great for dips too, and warmer.

Best museum: Run by passionate volunteers, Owaka Museum tells the forestry side of Catlins history while the Waikawa Museum tells the maritime story.

Top shops: There are lots of groovy second hand shops, great for browsing, popular items include Kiwiana artwork, bug spray, paua shell delights and locally made honey.

Cream of the coffee: The Whistling Frog. They also serve craft beers, wines and boutique ciders.

Best mountain biking: Cycling is amazing here, with lots of new tracks being developed including a historic rail trail round Matai Falls. Or ride over farmland at Bellbird Ranch. Hire bikes (and boogie boards) available from Whistling Frog.

Catch a wave: Catlins Surf School in Curio Bay is perfect for learning how to surf and, if you catch a wave at Porpoise Bay you'll probably have to share the surf with dolphins.

Adventures: Kayaking, abseiling, scenic helicopter flights and horse trekking are all super-cool.

Best kept secret: Locals nurture a free vegetable garden at Papatowai, but please pick respectfully.

Wildlife: There's hector's dolphins, moreporks, bats, swags of native birds, estuary birds including spoonbills, kereru swooping in and out of the canopy, fantails. Plus there are sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins and of course, whistling tree frogs.

Feeling batty: Forest and Bird run native bat tours over summer, with short and long-tailed bats cruising around looking like really big moths, chomping on mozzies and huhu grubs.

What to take: Take a flashlight, a good rainjacket, sturdy boots and bug spray.

Safety first: Be careful with the ocean and tides, take on Cathedral Caves at the wrong time and you might be swept out to sea. Don't approach sea lions for selfies or you deserve to be bitten. And buy petrol every chance you get as there are long stretches of road with no gas - so no driving on the warning light. FYI Papatowai does have gas.

The verdict: Wow, nature you rock.


In the Clutha district, more specifically The Catlins, halfway between Dunedin and Invercargill.

- NZ Herald

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