This friendly town is a fabulous place from which to explore the Catlins, writes Elisabeth Easther.

Where is it?

At the northern entrance to The Catlins in the Clutha District of South Otago. On the Southern Scenic Route, 30km from sunny Balclutha.

Origin of name: Owaka is Maori for "place of the canoe", a reference to the town's proximity to the Owaka River and the first Maori inhabitants who called this place home.

Previously known as: Catlins River and Quakerfield.


Population: 400.

Town mascot: The magnificent 10m stainless steel waka, created by artist Russell Beck. Estimated to have a life span of 1200 years, it's lit up for a couple of hours each night. The stunning sculpture was erected earlier this year to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary.

Town motto: Nothing's a problem (unofficial, but accurate).

Back in the day: The rail line went through Owaka in 1886 (closed in 1971) and for many years this town bustled with timber mills, a big butter factory, a hospital and a lot of churches.

Famous local: Jack McNab was an All Black from 1949-50. It wasn't a great era - they lost four on the trot to South Africa and two in a row at home to Australia.

Infamous locals:

Each and every one of them.

Best website:

Source of pride: This is a good old-fashioned community where the people work together to support one another.

Town fiestas: The Boar Hunt (raising money for St John) and The Critter Hunt (raising money for Search and Rescue). As for Catlins Got Talent — well it's amazing how many gifted people live round these parts. The annual market day in October (a fundraiser for the Owaka Museum) is also great fun.

Best reasons to stop: To marvel at the majestic waterfalls and the wonderful array of wildlife. The swathes of native bush and unspoiled beaches are also hard to beat.

Kids love: The museum, the heated swimming pool and, of course, having the chance to immerse themselves in nature.

Owaka is in the Clutha District of South Otago, some 30km from sunny Balclutha. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user ActiveSteve
Owaka is in the Clutha District of South Otago, some 30km from sunny Balclutha. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user ActiveSteve

Best park:

Just down the road, Pounawea Park is right on the waterfront, with amazing play equipment and a skate park the main attractions.

Best playground: The Owaka Playground has climbing frames, a massive slide and a dizzy-making spinny roundy thing.

Best facilities: The flash new loos at the playground are the talk of the town. The cubicles are lined with decorative tiles created by the students from Catlins Area School.

Best walks: This area is riddled with wildly breathtaking walks. For a quickie, stroll out to Long Point - this track takes about 40 minutes, and was created by The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust. It has spectacular coastal views. Or have a go at the Catlins River Trail, it's longer, but well worth the effort. Lake Wilkie is another favourite, especially in late December when the pohutukawa flowers are in bloom.

Best view: Drive (or walk) up Florence Hill for panoramic vistas across Tautuku Bay. Fascinating interpretation panels add another dimension to the experience.

Best place to pull over: Owaka Village is a lovely slice of laid-back country life - it's not unusual to see people on tractors or horses passing through. You could be forgiven for thinking you'd slipped back in time, in a good way.

Best swim: Jacks Bay is a lovely safe, sandy beach — although wetsuits are essential year round. And of course there's the swimming pool too, although it is closed in the depths of winter.

Bush-clad Lake Wilkie is worth a visit. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user ActiveSteve
Bush-clad Lake Wilkie is worth a visit. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user ActiveSteve

Best museum:


Owaka Museum

(Wahi Kahuika - the Meeting Place) is remarkably modern and full of charm. From short movies to historical displays, it puts the region's stories into perspective - the shipwreck and moa-hunting information are riveting - like walking through a three dimensional storybook. There's also a sweet gift shop, and the information centre is there too.

Nice arts: The Bakehouse Gallery — filled with delightful local art.

Top shops: The Black Sheep is where you'll find pre-loved affordable fancy clothing and new jewellery while the Catlins Country Store sells souvenirs and gifts. Or head to the Four Square for all the groceries and fishing gear you could ever want.

Eat and drink: The Catlins Cafe is a great place to relax. There's a lovely outdoor area, groovy furniture and friendly service too. You can't go past Aileen's vegetarian quiche, the famous cheese rolls or the Homity pie that originates from Cornwall and is made with kumara, potato, fresh cream, wholegrain mustard and garlic. Be warned though, these babies fly out the door.

The Lumberjack Bar and Cafe

is the other great eating and drinking spot, serving amazing burgers and seafood — and their roaring fire in winter will steal your heart.

Wet your whistle: The Catlins Inn is a friendly, welcoming, country pub — the generous outdoor area is the bomb in summer.

Best mountain biking: Don't forget your bike — the trails around here are epic, from The Catlins Lake (22km) to The Wisp (40km) or Cannibal Bay trail (37km) - but you'll need to be pretty fit.

Best adventures: Everything to do with the outdoors, from walking, biking, hiking, hunting, fishing and surfing to being at one with nature.

On the fly: The river fishing down there is excellent with healthy mayfly and trout populations and the Catlins Lake is known to have huge sea-run fish that come and go.

Bugging out: This region is also one of the few areas you'll find consistent hatches of the magnificent Kakahi Queen mayfly, Coloburiscus humeralis, identify it by the bright yellow dot at its wing base and yellow edge on its wing.

Best kept secret: Sorry, the locals' lips are sealed on this.

Wildlife: Yellow-eyed penguins, view them from the hide near Nugget Point or check out the sea lions that populate most of the beaches in the area. Not to mention pigs, porpoises and dolphins, along with flourishing native bird life.

Safety first: Don't fondle the sea lions.

The verdict: Sigh, Owaka is paradise.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Dunedin from Auckland up to four times daily. From there, it's an hour-and-20-minute drive south to Owaka.