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The rugged coastline of the Catlins

Surfers and sea lions at Purakaunui Bay.

Mike White meets the people – and critters – of the Catlins.

Alan Burgess’s dad left school when he was 12 and started swinging an axe. That was what men in the Catlins did. That was how New Zealand’s southeast corner was gradually turned from forest into farmland. From the 1860s, its sawmills produced timber that built houses from Invercargill to Dunedin to Timaru. Totara for piles, matai for floors, rimu for walls.

Alan’s dad, Chub, reckoned he could stand on his back doorstep near Owaka on a quiet day and hear the whistles of 20 sawmills when they started work at 8am. There were two on their road alone.

Chub was hell of a good at swinging an axe. At sports days, everyone else would start whacking their logs at the starter’s command. At 15 seconds, Chub would take off his jersey. At 20 seconds, his shirt would come off leaving just a singlet. At 25 seconds, Chub would stand on his log and start axing, and still beat them all.

In 1933, at the local settlement of Niagara, he set a world record for the 14-inch underhand: 33 and two-fifths seconds. It stood for 20 years.

During the Depression, Chub built his house with timber from their property; Alan and his wife, Helen-May, still live in it. And then Chub carried on clearing the land, burning slopes and geligniting stumps, as farmers did across the region.

“He fitted a hell of a lot into his life,” says Alan. “There weren’t many daylight hours that he didn’t use, really. But they played hard, too. If he met mates and they decided to have a whisky, they’d usually screw the top up and chuck it away.”

Alan and the other kids in the area would ride horses, calves or pigs to the local primary school. The big event of the year was the sports days, with events like tossing the sheaf, stepping the chain, throwing the cricket ball, and guessing a sheep’s weight. Women competed in woodchopping and winners won three quid.

Alan Burgess at an old sawmill on his farm.

The telephone line only ran as far as Alan’s home, so his brother had to ride to surrounding houses if there was an emergency message. Power didn’t come till 1953, the same year Alan’s school closed, as sawmilling declined and the population dwindled. “It was a funny sort of a world we had in those days.”

When Chub died of a heart attack, aged 64, Alan and his brother carried on farming. Now 76, Alan still has 1000 acres and his two sons also farm in the area. Helen-May teaches at the school in Owaka, they’re involved in countless community groups, and they reckon they’ll stay here as long as they can. “We’ve had a lovely life,” says Helen-May.

Alan, or “Budge” as everyone knows him, walks outside the house he’s lived in all his life and slides the cat some leftover bacon from breakfast. “Lucky, your tucker’s there, you old bastard.” Lucky was also going to get to chew on a bit of possum Alan had picked off the road, so hawks wouldn’t feed on it and get bowled by cars. Skins from possums trapped on his property always provided Alan with extra income, and helped put his sons through university.

The days of sons leaving school and swinging an axe and being paid by the acre they cleared are long gone, the industry that created the Catlins, over. There’s still the corpse of an old sawmill on Alan’s property, just concrete and metal remains, lichen encrusting the cogs.

Now, there’s farming, a freezing works near Owaka, and tourism. They come to see the graceful Purakaunui Falls just down the road from Alan’s place. And they come and stay at Purakaunui Beach, a spot so magic they filmed part of The Chronicles of Narnia on the cliffs above the bay.

“This filmmaker rang me up and said he wanted to film there and I offered him half a dozen other places he might want to consider. So I took him to most of my other fishing possies, but he kept coming back to there. The view is really amazingly outstanding – you’ll have to see the film.

Real life is better. In summer, hundreds come to the bay to camp and surf and holiday. But often there’s nobody here, just sea lions play-fighting and seagulls swirling and mottled-white cliffs rising.

A young couple in an old Subaru light a bonfire and then go surfing. When they finish, they drop their boards above the tideline and walk back to the water’s edge and sit there, enveloped by the bay and how beautiful it is, and how lucky they are to have it to themselves.

Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt says for a long time, southern councils wondered how they could attract some of Queenstown’s tourist surfeit. “We argued and we debated and we pondered and we looked at maps and aerial photos – and it just seemed such a hopeless task. Because, you fly into Queenstown and they’ve got pristine lakes and skifields all over the place, and you fly into Invercargill and we’ve got five freezing works and an aluminium smelter. It’s hard to look pretty, if you know what I mean.

“But we decided what we had that Queenstown didn’t have was a coastline: a rugged, exciting, dramatic coastline with 20ft waves smashing up against 30ft cliffs. So we set about building this Southern Scenic Route.”

The Catlins is in the middle section between Invercargill and Balclutha, and with the coastal road nearly all sealed now, tourist numbers are rising.

At Jacks Bay, Kate wanders back from the lovely sweep of beach. She lives in northern Queensland and having to wear a jacket is a novelty. Kate only has eight days in New Zealand, but that is better than seven, or five, she reckons. She climbs into her van and looks at the map, wondering which side road to take next.

Aileen Clarke has seen the steady rise of vans and tourists over her lifetime. As a kid, virtually nobody passed through Owaka, other than crib owners from Dunedin, down to get a feed of paua and cod.

She joined the Air Force, stayed away for 25 years, but one Christmas when visiting her brother, she noticed lots of vans driving through Owaka with nowhere to stop. So she and husband Steve shifted back and opened a cafe. There’d been one a few years before, “but it was an organic vegetarian place. That’s fine, but in winter you rely on your locals. I don’t know if we’ve got any organic vegetarians in the Catlins, have we? It was a great concept, but a bit too soon for the Catlins.”

Now, in summer, she’s so busy they have to turn away people at lunchtime. “The big thing is making it not just a nice drive between Dunedin and Invercargill, but a destination. We’ve got an amazing region, the Catlins, but we don’t want to be Queenstown. It’s got to stay very eco-tourism based. We need to share it, but it needs to be shared under guardianship.”

Owaka, with 250 residents, is still the Catlins’ hub, with a great community that rallies around whenever there’s trouble or tragedy, Aileen says. “But because we’ve been brought up in it, sometimes we don’t realise what we actually have. I’d like the locals to come and listen to some of the tourists and how they’re blown away with what we’ve got here. It’s an amazing part of the world, we’re very blessed. But I think a lot of people need to go away and actually realise how blessed we are.”

Leadman Ibbotson realises how blessed he is just about every day. He and wife Lindsay do the rural post delivery, covering 280km daily along the Catlins coast, just about the country’s longest post run. They’ve done it for 20 years but “Ibby” says he never tires of the views from places like Florence Hill, overlooking Tautuku Bay.

“It’s always different. One day it’s wet and rough and the bloody sea’s like an electric jug. I’ve seen it, by god, if you were in there you wouldn’t have much show. Other days, if you got in you wouldn’t know what all the fuss was about, it’s calm as.” 

In summer, he’s held up by idiot tourists stopping on one-way bridges to take photos or check maps. But in winter, there’s virtually nobody on the road. He takes his time, picks up hitchhikers sometimes, occasionally tells a customer to put the jug on if he wants a break. “I’m not into stress, I can tell you that. The fella that makes time is still making it.”

Sometimes the roads are so bad it’s like driving in porridge, but he’s never crashed, though a wheel fell off his truck once. “I was heading up a wee side road and I hit the ground and this bloody wheel passed me and went up into the grass. I still don’t know how the hell it happened.”

They’ve lived here all their lives and have never thought of moving.

“Hell, no,” says Lindsay. “It’s home. It’s a place where if anything goes a wee bit wrong, you’ve got a huge family that turns up to help. You go somewhere else, you’ve got to start from scratch.”

Tonight, they are helping organise a rugby club fundraiser at the Owaka hall. Last year they had a bucking bull. This year they’d hired a mechanical surfboard, a band called Raging Bull from Dunedin, and a spit roast.

Ibby, now 70, used to play fullback for Owaka. “I was secretary for 15 years, president for two, treasurer for eight.” He’d coached as well, and was a life member. They last won the competition in 1963, Ibby says, “so that’s not yesterday”.

This past season, though, they’ve had good turnouts at practice, and despite not winning a match, he is hopeful they’ll beat Clinton this afternoon. “We’re bottom and they’re second-bottom. But I think we might – I’ve got a good feeling.”

But down at the park, the ground is greasy and so is the ball. The day is bleak, and smoke rises straight from the chimneys of surrounding houses. Sheep graze on the adjacent field. Owaka lose 24-10.

Posties Leadman and Lindsay Ibbotson. Their daily rural  delivery route covers 280km along the Catlins coast.

In the middle of the Catlins is a roadside information board explaining a tussock restoration scheme, and noting that “this rugged and remote land has attracted hardy and self-reliant people”. To a large extent, it still does. Invercargill and Dunedin are only a couple of hours away, but if you can’t cope without a supermarket or Warehouse or cinema down the road, then possibly the Catlins isn’t your kind of place.

Waikawa Museum’s collection is a testament to self-reliance, with pioneers having to do everything themselves. Candle moulds, bottle toppers, raisin seeders, shoe stretchers, suet choppers, and a knife to cut honey that used hot water to heat the blade. There’s farm machinery, blacksmith tools and shearing equipment. Awls shaped from bird bones, lures made from moa bones. The rooms are ringed with monochrome portraits of early families, bearded men looking serious, women in long black dresses looking exhausted.

Just down the road at Curio Bay, tourists can see an ancient petrified forest, rare yellow-eyed penguins and Hector’s dolphins.

Bruce Lamb, who farms at nearby Quarry Hills, used to swim there as a kid, when you knew everyone else on the beach, before the tourists discovered it. Recently he’s been part of a trust that’s upgraded facilities and built a visitor centre there.

Above Curio Bay you stare down at heaving Foveaux Strait, where kelp flexes with the swell and dolphins idle offshore. On the other side is Porpoise Bay, a curve of calmness with a gently sloping beach. Overlooking this contrast is a seat to the memory of Waikawa local, Harold “Bull” Leith.

Lamb went to shearing school with Bull, and played rugby with him – his nickname coming from being so hard to tackle. Bull possumed, was a shearer, drove a bulldozer, and to a large extent lived off the land, says Lamb. He was descended from one of the area’s first Europeans, whaler Captain James Wybrow, who married Maori woman Temuka. Like them, Bull was tough, as “hardy and self-reliant” as they come.

“He fell down something one time – a cliff or something,” says Lamb. “And he got up and went back shearing and he was sort of struggling along, and they said, ‘What’s wrong? Looks like something’s wrong with your leg.’ And Bull said, ‘Oh, it’s a bit sore.’ And they got him to the doctor, which took a bit of doing, and he had a broken pelvis. He was a real legend round the district, a good guy.”

The memorial seat for Harold “Bull” Leith, at Curio Bay.

Waikawa’s small cemetery is full of good people and local legends. It must have one of the loveliest outlooks of any cemetery, over the estuary that fills from and empties into Curio Bay. The mementoes left by headstones are different down here. A possum trap shackled to one plinth; a letterbox with the deceased’s name on it; leather boots with a stubbie of beer stuffed into them; a scallop shell and salt shaker.

Further north at Ratanui’s cemetery, more than 70 people were buried between 1896 and 1971, but only one headstone remains standing – to Agnes Hanna Allan – braced with a waratah, wood and wire. The rest are collapsed or overgrown. Alan Burgess says the surrounding macrocarpas kept falling and smashing headstones, so he cleared the trees, fenced the cemetery, built a small shed, and painted the names of those buried there on an old sawmill blade he found. A neighbour grazes it to keep the grass down and Alan keeps an eye on it.

“I’ve got all the details there at home, and jeez, they’re sad reading. ‘Died teething, diphtheria, drownings, sawmill accidents.’ But that’s someone’s loved ones in there – that’s important.”

Ratanui used to have a church, a cheese factory, a school, a store. Now it pretty much doesn’t exist, time having moved on, almost forgetting those who came here first.

In their place are tourists who come to the Catlins to get away from people, to find a quieter corner of New Zealand, Burgess says. It’s different, but that’s fine.

“You meet all these wonderful people who travel round the world. I think it’s wonderful – it’s keeping the district alive.”

Purakaunui Falls.

To Stay

Greenwood Farmstay

South of Owaka, near Purakaunui Falls, this is a great base for exploring the Catlins. Alan and Helen-May Burgess are fantastic hosts, the cooking is great, and a farm tour is included in your stay.

From $180 per couple, including breakfast. Dinner by request. 739 Purakaunui Falls Rd, Owaka. Ph (03) 415-8259, www.greenwoodfarmstay.co.nz

Whistling Frog Resort

Great range of accommodation from powered van sites to spacious self-contained chalets. Situated very close to Cathedral Caves, which are a must-see. Excellent cafe on site.

Rewcastle Rd, Chaslands Highway, near Papatowai. Ph (03) 415-8338, www.whistlingfrogresort.com

Cathedral Caves.

To Do

Purakaunui Bay

A beautiful beach safe for swimming and surfing. Sea lions sometimes loiter here. Great DoC campsite with toilets. Also visit Purakaunui Falls, just a five-minute walk from the road.

The Lost Gypsy Gallery

A unique collection of curiosities and quirky creations that do magical things when you wind them. Coffee available. While you’re in Papatowai, do go down to its striking beach where bush meets the ocean.

Waikawa Museum

Volunteer-run museum open every day except Christmas, evoking life here in early times. Local visitor information also available.

Curio Bay

Watch penguins come in from the sea, Hector’s dolphins cruise the waves, and see the 180 million-year-old petrified forest on the foreshore. There’s a surf school here, too.

Waipapa Point

Easy short walk to the lighthouse, a golden beach, and the site of one of New Zealand’s worst maritime disasters when the passenger steamer Tararua struck the reef in 1881, with 131 people lost.

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.