Early Maori were the first people to live and settle in Clutha attracted by the abundant fish found in the rivers and sea.
The Catlins with its rich resources proved a popular place with hunting camps set up around Papatowai where there was lots of timber for canoes. You can see the remains of some of these sites which have been exposed by sea erosion.
Maori legends tell tales of the great chiefs and their battles with large hairy forest monsters called Maeroero 'wild man of the forest' or Moehau.
Maori history is very rich in The Catlins and the many Maori place names are evidence of this. For Maori these place names remind them of who they are and where they have come from. In The Catlins today, Maori people of Waitaha, Ngati Mamoe and Ngai Tahu descent have ancestral and land-holding interest.
The Owaka museum is a great place to find out more.
Descendants of those first settlers still live in Clutha today but many of the indigenous people died from diseases bought by the waves of European sealers and whalers.
Captain Cook actually failed to spot the Catlins coast due to bad weather and it was another 40 years till the Europeans finally arrived down here.
These hardy profiteers set up whaling stations at Taieri Mouth, Port Molyneux and Tautuku but within decades there were pretty much no seals or whales left.
Plans to build the country’s first Scottish colony in Clutha were dashed due to the lack of a big enough harbour with Dunedin (or new Edinburgh taken from the gaelic word) chosen instead. However within years settlers had spread throughout the district.
Then came the Gold Rush in the 1860’s as miners from across the country and world descended on Otago in such of fortune and fame. Lawrence known as the “junction” became the hub for one of the world’s fastest and largest ever gold rushes. Around 12,000 people lived in lovely Lawrence more than double the number who called Dunedin home.
Timber was the next big thing with sawmills set up around the river estuaries in the Catlins before the railway was built between Balclutha and Tahakopa which only closed in 1971 just 6 years after the road to Owaka was finally sealed.
Logging continues to a lesser extent across Clutha today but farming has very much taken over as the primary industry with dairy and livestock at the forefront.
Clutha has always been and probably always will be about working with the land and connecting with and respecting our environment.
Today Clutha has a mix of descendants from Maori and European settlers along with an increasingly multi-cultural mix from Polynesia, Asia and across the World!