The first time I visited the tiny Southland township of Owaka, it was dark and I thought we were lost. My trusty Austin 1100 (jaffa-coloured) groaned as I coaxed it around the last bend and into the village as The Verlaines blared what was to become our anthem that weekend from a tape recorder on the floor – the somewhat aptly titled She Speeds.
It was 1992. We were students en route to a friend’s 21st in another “blink and you’ll miss it” hamlet nearby. One of the passengers in the aforementioned 1100 lived on a farm down that way so we thought we’d pop in to see her family on the way.
I don’t remember if we called in to see her folks first but pretty soon we descended on the local pub – Swandri clad men in red bands propped up the bar, drinking from big bottles of beer, a local game of rugby blaring from the TV perched in the corner. We giggled nervously. Shh! the bar manager warned us pointing a hairy index finger animatedly towards the telly.
We left the next day after visiting Purakanui Falls, known as the Wedding Cake Falls for their spectacular fan-like cascade of water toppling down three tiers and surrounded on all sides by native bush. It silenced us instantly in a similar yet more pleasant fashion than the bar manager had the previous evening.
Quarter of a century later, Owaka and its environs continue to impress but for different reasons.
Located 25 minutes drive inland from Balclutha, Owaka (the Place of the Waka) is the biggest of several townships dotted along the Southern Scenic Highway in a region known simply as The Catlins. It exudes a strong sense of community that has survived floods, droughts, recessions and the rise and fall of the timber industry. It’s also the place we get supplies en route to our wee home away from home at nearby Pounewea (the Meeting of the Waters).
Today the township boasts two cafes plus, over summer, BakeHouse Takeaways a gourmet pizza/burger/coffee caravan with an outdoor eating area sporting stools made from upcycled tractor seats and tables made from re-purposed cable reels. You don’t get more rustic than that. Next door is the Bake House Gallery where a sign (see below!) encourages visitors to browse and if they’re keen on anything, let the staff at the Country Store know. (In fact, as I waited for my coffee, the aforementioned retailer flew down the street, jumped into the caravan and transformed herself into a barista during a busy period).These businesses (and their multi-tasking prowess) attest to Owaka’s evolution as a township supporting not only cosmopolitan locals but also the growing number of tourists chomping at the bit to explore the district’s beaches, native bush, history and hospitality. It’s as New Zealand as L&P and we love it.
On rainy days, we visit the Owaka Museum which is opportunely also home to the Catlins Information Centre whose volunteers ooze information with an air of assuredness only decades of community connection can yield. They certainly don’t need to consult a computer to tell you the best time to visit Jack’s Blowhole, the safest way to view seals at Surat Bay and which walkways best suit little legs.
The museum is filled to the gunnels with local history. As well as displays about the region’s namesake, Edward Cattlin and other local identities, there’s a theater showing a short film about the ill-fated Surat, a ship of hapless immigrants which ran aground at nearby Surat Bay on New Years Eve 1873. Imagine spending three months travelling from England then getting shipwrecked a day away from your destination?! (It didn’t help that the Captain was inebriated and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to get help…a tale begging to be immortalised on the big screen surely?!).
Back down the main street, The Black Sheep Boutique is also bursting at the seams but with pre-loved labelled clothing while the adjoining Catlins Country Store tempts townies and locals alike with a range of home wares. In a truly inspired move, there’s even a Man Cave out the back of the store offering respite for less enthusiastic shoppers who can meander on country time through carefully curated displays of farming gear and collections of matchboxes, beer bottles, tin signs and bric a brac from a bygone era.
In Labour Weekend, the Owaka Community Centre (up behind the Four Square) hosts the district’s Annual Market Day. Every man and his dog seem to be there, and quite possibly are. Local artisans, craftspeople and entrepreneurs ply their wares as the school’s Kapa Haka group perform on stage. Down the road at Pounewea, the locals run an event at New Year’s Eve featuring good old fashioned family fun – children’s races, a mystery bottle auction, bands playing from the back of a truck finished off with a jaw-dropping fireworks display which some in the crowd opine is “streets ahead” of displays at a tourist mecca not too far away, as the crow flies.
It would be trite to say Owaka is the sort of place where time has stood still. The changes are obvious between my first visit and more recent adventures. At the township’s 150th celebrations two years ago, a large sculpture of a waka was placed with much fanfare in the centre of town. There’s a palpable sense that there is a lot to be proud of here. Owaka has picked itself up, dusted itself off and is busying along doing what it does best – trading off the back of genuine southern hospitality and an authentic sense of community reflective of a proud and adventurous pioneer spirit. Those things, I hope, never change.