Owaka(just click) is a charming little town with lots of history surrounded by beautiful beaches, wonderful waterfalls, a tidal lake and steep valleys swathed in lush rainforest. It's also very close to top spots to see seals, penguins and sea lions.
It maybe the Catlins largest settlement but with a population of around 400 has that lovely village feel where everyone knows each other and the community spirit is really strong.
Owaka means the "place of the canoes" and like many of the surrounding places which have kept their original Maori names, it is a powerful reminder and legacy of the first people who called the Catlins coast home attracted by the spoils of the sea or Kai (food in Maori) and the abundant resources of the rainforest (yep that's where the canoes came from).
You will see the stainless steel canoe sculpture which was created by the same guy who did the "giant anchor and chain linking Stewart Island and Bluff". It is designed to last 1200 years and celebrates Owaka's 150th anniversary (2015).
The Owaka Museum is the perfect place to find out more about the rugged characters including moa hunters, the whalers and sealers, pioneer settlers, farmers and conservationists who have all over the last 500 years helped shape and safeguard this rugged coastline.
In Te Reo (Maori) the museum is known as “Wahi Kahuika: The Meeting Place – A Rest on Your Journey”. That pretty much sums it up perfectly.
Amazingly there was a railway which snaked its way through the bush all the way from Balclutha to Tahakopa (just north of Papatowai) covering some 60 km's and you can watch some old footage at the museum. The railway which helped move timber ran till 1971 and "Tunnel Hill" is a real railway reminder and happens to be the most southerly train tunnel in the World, built using handmade local bricks (remember to take a torch).
For a small town there are some surprisingly quirky shopping options in Owaka. Gevadi is a authentic alternative clothing and accessories emporium offering a fantastic range from Thailand, Tibet and Nepal. It's only open from late November to May because the owner Connie spends the winter soaking up some sunshine and buying new stock in Asia (really is that authentic!).
Meanwhile the Blacksheep Boutique has its own brand new building on the main road selling "pre loved affordable labelled clothing and jewellery" and is firm favourite with locals and tourists alike.
"Paper Road" is another new store which again does things differently. What so they sell? Rare books, rare records (yes good old vinyl) a bit of art and even a few vintage motorbikes. Quirky? Definitely!
There are also a number of small art galleries along with "the Lumberjack" restaurant and Dave's coffee shop and a takeaway food truck. Not bad for a wee town (oh and there's even a little supermarket and library).
Explore (things to do in Owaka)
Owaka is surrounded by spectacular scenery. A tad north is the iconic Nugget Point which has absolutely astounding views and amazing wildlife(what's not to like).
Even closer are Surat and Cannibal Bay where the world's most endangered sea lions are regular visitors. You can even walk over the headland , through the dunes linking the two, past an old camp where human remains have been found (yes that's the cannibal bit). Both beaches are stunning and there is also the tidal lake which laps the shore round to the small holiday hamlet of Pounawea, where there is a lovely nature walk.
Heading on the Hina Hina road you pass "Earthlore" which is a wonderfully wacky temple to conservation, recreation and education! The wildlife gardens and insect theme park connect us with our environment using clever interactive games full of frolics and fun for all the family (you can even get a shuttle out there from the Owaka Museum).
Keep going and you reach the tidal Catlins lake from the tother side. From here you can branch off left to Jack's Bay and it's famous blowhole or keep going straight onto Purakaunui Bay and the falls which share the same moniker.
Jack's bay is another great place to see seals/sea lions and is a gorgeous little cove next to Long Point reserve which is home to the world's rarest penguins (the yellow eyed/hoiho). Clamber up the hill (it's a good bracing walk not a climb by the way) to a subterranean hole in a field at the top of coastal cliffs which is 55 metres deep and connected by a 200 metre tunnel to the ocean.
Purakaunui Bay has that lost world jurassic feel framed by rainforest and boasting the Catlins highest cliffs. It is a stellar surfing spot, another fantastic place to see wildlife and you can even stay there in one of the country's finest DOC (Department of Conservation) campgrounds. Now I know that is quite a statement but just wait till you get there!
Only a short drive further south takes you to dreamlike Purakaunui falls famed for their triple tiered cascade. The wondrous thing is that DOC has cunningly crafted a platform in the middle of the stream/river which gets you up close and personal (normally you are above or below and off to the side but here you stare right at the heart of this fairytale beauty). Welcome to the wonderful of waterfalls which is the Catlins (6 sensational sites which are pretty much the only falls on the south island which aren't in or near the Alps, these are all only a short distance from the coast).
Other things to do in the Catlins (just click)....