Topic: Catlins Charm by Lynne Hill

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The south-eastern corner of the South Island, the area known as The Catlins, is a special place for us. It lies on a coastal route between Balclutha and Invercargill. Because the road has been fully sealed only in the last twenty years, there is less traffic than on most highways. 

Year by year it increases as more people discover the magic of this land. There are superb vistas where the bush reaches to the sand, the best-known being at Florence Hill. Away in the distance is Tautuku Peninsula, once a flourishing whaling station. Now there are cribs (North Island baches) that can only be reached by travelling the length of Tautuku beach, then fording the river.

The fishing is good, but swimming can be dangerous. Not far away is one of New Zealand’s best surf breaks. Inland there are graceful waterfalls surrounded by ferns and trees. Some are reached by well-maintained and tactfully graded tracks. Others need a bush scramble.

South Island rata trees bloom early in January, and at Labour Weekend the native clematis flowers.

The people who live in this area are special, too. They know its history and can tell you stories of the shipwrecks on this rugged coast, of the railway that used to run from Balclutha to Tahakopa, and the steep lines through the bush from Puketiro to Matai Falls.

We’ve heard how that Hokonui whisky was distributed around the district when it was officially ‘dry.’ We’ve also heard how our house was built, and what the different teachers were like.

Generosity is here in abundance, including the local Search and Rescue volunteers. I remember leaning on my  crutches, after I’d broken my ankle, and looking out along Tautuku Beach, when I was presented with two freshly caught fish,  because ‘like that, you can’t catch them yourself.’

When we first bought the school teacher’s house, long after the school had closed, we felt at home soon after we started to paint the house. The colour scheme was different, yet everyone made an effort to tell us when they thought the weather would be right for painting. It might or might not have agreed with the TV forecast, but the local knowledge was always right.

Electric power reticulation did not come to the district until 1956, after the school had closed. The old school house was not used regularly and was not connected to the power. It still isn’t.

In the first years we owned the house I had great difficulty lighting the coal range to cook dinner, something a real Catlins mother could do with ease. Keeping things cold was a juggling act with chilly bin and frozen blocks until we found an efficient gas fridge.

Yet there were benefits - like the time we were the only house in the valley with lights on, even if they were gas lamps. Everyone else was wondering when the power would come on, what TV programmes they were missing, and if the food in their freezers would thaw out.

Our family knew that books, jigsaws and games like the four-day session of Monopoly were great fun. And when they needed to do school projects about living without electricity, it was so easy.

During summer holidays, it is light until well after nine p.m. New Year’s Eve was special. There would be an afternoon beach carnival, complete with Big Dig, barbecue and other events for children. There was sometimes a triathlon where families would compete, one swimming the river, another running the forest track, and another canoeing the final leg.

Once the carnival was tidied away, everyone went home for an evening meal. Then out would go the cars and trailers, collecting wood for the beach bonfire.

Most times, New Year’s Eve has been fine, cool, starlit with waves lapping gently on the sand. The fireworks would light the night sky, and sometimes there was a piper playing. Wood-chopping contests took place in other seasons. The woodchoppers, dressed in white, would cleave precisely through the wood, axes sharp and gleaming as the speedy blows fell.

One of my most treasured memories is of the wildlife. Hoiho, the rare yellow-eyed penguin, breeds on this coast. Each day the penguins go out fishing, returning to their nests on the cliffs in the late afternoon. On this particular day, the family were walking the track to the Nuggets Lighthouse. As I had a leg in plaster, I’d stayed in the car with a book, the car door open to keep cool.

Eventually I felt as if I were being watched. I looked up to see a yellow-eyed penguin, within arm’s reach, staring at me. Silently we gazed at each other. Then the sound of footsteps sent him trudging up the hill.

On the sandy beaches there might be sea-lions hauled out and dozing, almost indistinguishable from the fine light sand. Oystercatchers nest not far from the high tide mark and try to distract beachgoers from coming too close to the nests. Fur seals prefer rocky areas of the coast.

Tui and bellbirds swoop on the blooming rata. Wood pigeons don’t restrict their diet to native berries. I’ve been close to one in the blackberry patch, reluctant to move. Perhaps it had gorged itself on the ripe fruit; still, there was enough left over for a generous blackberry pie.

The Catlins is a jewel, a cameo edged by forest and sea. For our family, its precious wildlife and special people have made it an enduring treasure.

 

‘Catlins Charms’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/THX7-6KVP

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