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If you’re a history buff, Mike McPhee is the man to talk to.

“In the 1830s and 1840s, there were whaling bases here. But once the whales were all gone, they moved on. The Catlins were left alone for 20 years or so, until Dunedin started booming with the gold rush and they ran out of construction materials like timber” says Mike.

“The Catlins had the closest forest they could tap into, and that’s how settlement started here.”

Mike is the manager of Owaka Museum and was born down the road in the Cottage Hospital – now the backpackers. He has a long connection with the region; his great grandfather was a boat builder and built some of the first ships that worked the region.

“In those days there were no roads and no railway, so everyone had to come and go by sea.”

The importance of those early ships is echoed in the sculpture-like shape of museum itself, a mast-style marker and a porthole set in the front door. The museum offers a window into this maritime history, as well as housing a collection of Maori taonga and smaller collections that focus on oral history, photography and textiles.

Mike’s seen the district change over time as the spectacular beauty of the district has attracted more visitors. But don’t worry – there’s still plenty of wilderness to go around.

“On a busy day, there might be 200 or 500 tourists around, but there’s 10 or 15 beaches you could be at or bush walks you could be doing. You always feel like there’s plenty of space. You often have these places to yourself.”

According to Mike, it’s the contrast to other big tourist destinations close by that is one big draw card.

“You wouldn’t imagine a bigger contrast really. It’s still possible to get away from all the hyper-tourism marketing and do your own thing here.”

The other big draw card is the wildlife.

“We’re so close to the natural environment here. You can see wildlife in this district that you would have to otherwise board a ship and go 300-400 miles to the sub-Antarctic to see. Yet it’s right here on our coast. That’s what I love.”

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