Owaka is a charming little town surrounded by beautiful beaches, wonderful waterfalls, a tidal lake and steep valleys swathed in lush rainforest. It is close to top spots to see seals, penguins and sea lions.
While it may be The Catlins largest settlement, the small population of around 400 has that lovely village feel where everyone knows each other and the community spirit is 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. Settlers were attracted by the spoils of the sea or Kai ('food' in Maori) and the abundant resources of the rainforest.
You will see the stainless steel canoe sculpture, 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 the whalers, sealers, pioneer settlers, farmers and conservationists who have all over the last 500 years helped shape this rugged coastline. In Te Reo Maori, the museum is known as “Wahi Kahuika: The Meeting Place – A Rest on Your Journey”.
There was once a railway which snaked its way through the bush from Balclutha to Tahakopa ( north of Papatowai) covering some 60 km's; you can watch some old footage at the museum. The railway which helped move timber ran until 1971. 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 quirky shopping options. Gevadi is an authentic alternative clothing and accessories emporium offering a fantastic range from Thailand, Tibet and Nepal. It is open from late November to May.
The Blacksheep Boutique has its own brand new building on the main road selling pre loved, affordable, labelled clothing and jewellery; it is a firm favourite with locals and tourists alike.
Paper Road is another new store which does things slightly different, from rare books and vinyl records to a bit of art and even a few vintage motorbikes.
There are a number of small art galleries in Owaka, along with The Lumberjack restaurant, Dave's Coffee Shop and a takeaway food truck. Not bad for a wee town, there's even a little supermarket and library.
Things to do in Owaka
Owaka is surrounded by spectacular scenery. Head north to the iconic Nugget Point Lighthouse which has astounding views and amazing wildlife.
Close by are Surat Bay and Cannibal Bay where The World's most endangered sea lions are regular visitors. You can walk over the headland , through the dunes linking the two bays, on past an old camp where human remains were once found. The beaches are stunning and there is the tidal lake which laps the shore round to the small holiday hamlet of Pounawea.
Heading along Hina Hina Road you will pass Earthlore which is a wonderfully wacky temple to conservation, recreation and education! The wildlife gardens and insect themed park connect us with our environment using clever interactive games full of frolics and fun for all the family.
Jack's bay is another great place to see seals and 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). Head up the hill 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 is framed by rainforest and boasts The Catlins' highest cliffs. It is a stellar surfing spot, fantastic place to see wildlife, and you can even stay in one of New Zealand's finest DOC (Department of Conservation) campgrounds.
A short drive south of Owaka takes you to Purakaunui falls famed for their triple tiered cascade. Welcome to the wonderful world of waterfalls which is The Catlins, with 6 sensational sites all only a short distance from the coast.