Real Life

Southern pioneers: How the Catlins shaped us

It takes a special kind of person to settle in this isolated Southland region

It is minus three degrees in the Catlins, but Liz Cairns isn’t complaining. Frosty and freezing is better than the rain, which has been cold and relentless for the past few days.

“I wear jandals 24-7 and people look at me and ask, ’How can you wear those? It’s so cold!’“ she tells. “I say it’s to stop my feet from getting webbed because it rains so much.”

Liz is quick to point out the Catlins, which is hidden away on the southeast coast of the South Island, gets around the same amount of rainfall as Auckland per year and the climate means there are no creepy-crawlies like ants to deal with, or mould and mildew.

As the tourist operator for Cathedral Coves, a local attraction, she says rain and cold shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the natural beauty of the region.

“Just put on a blinking jacket!” she groans. “It’s not the weather, it’s inappropriate clothing. It might rain, it might blow, but put some shoes and a jacket on, and let’s do it!”

Kerri’s takeaways in Waikawa got a glowing review in an international travel guide.

While it’s mainly European tourists who flock there, it takes a special kind of person to live in the Catlins. With frequent power cuts, very limited cellphone coverage and the nearest supermarket about an hour’s drive away, life isn’t exactly easy. Kerri Stronach, who lives 25 minutes down the road from Liz in Waikawa, says it’s definitely not for everyone.

“A lot of people just wouldn’t be able to handle living here,“ she admits. “There’s no nightlife – the closest place to go have a beer is the pub at Tokanui, which 23km away.”

Both Kerri and Liz struggled at first to adjust to the remote location after moving from Invercargill to be with their husbands. Kerri’s husband Wayne is a fisherman and Liz’s husband Richard is a farmer.

“It was isolating for a start. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’“ Kerri tells. “My family drive from Invercargill to come stay quite a bit. I probably see them more than I would have if I’d stayed in town,“ she laughs. Liz, who had already experienced the culture shock of moving from Whangarei to Invercargill as a 12-year-old, was also concerned.

“My husband showed me the house and I said, ’That’s cool. I can live there, but I don’t ever want to hear you say to me that I can’t go somewhere,’” Liz recalls. “I didn’t want to be cut off from my friends. I thought, ‘While I might make friends here, they might only be friends because we live in the same area. They won’t be real friends.’”

But Liz and Kerri did forge strong relationships with the locals who, as well as themselves, are among the 26 who feature in the book Women of the Catlins by author Diana Noonan and photographer Cris Antona.

While Liz knows most of those who appear in the book, hearing their personal stories was an eye-opener. Kerri only recognises the familiar faces who visit her takeaway caravan, Blue Cod Blues. The business is so popular with locals and tourists, she works every day over the summer.

The caravan’s now become an attraction in itself after appearing in the best-selling Lonely Planet guide book. Not that Kerri knew.

“I didn’t even know what Lonely Planet was!“ she admits. “People kept saying, ’We read about you,’ but we had terrible internet service, so I couldn’t look it up.“

While her internet connection has improved, Kerri has just been left without power for half the weekend due to some wild weather. But she says she’d never leave.

“It’s quiet and there are beautiful beaches. It’s a funny thing that draws tourists here. When they get here, they’ll say it’s not what they expected, it’s perhaps better.”

Liz points out the Catlins was an awesome place to raise her three children, Joshua (30), Samuel (26) and Jessica (21). They all fish and hunt, and had a wonderful time at the local Tahakopa School.

Between the kids’ sports and Liz’s own love of playing, coaching and umpiring netball, they clocked up the mileage, travelling as far away as Alexandra on the weekends to watch Samuel play rugby for Otago.

Liz says nothing beats a hot summer day in the Catlins.

“You can walk on a beach and there’s nobody there, but we’re not as well known here in New Zealand as we could be because a lot of Kiwis just go overseas,” says Liz. “What’s the saying? Don’t leave home until you see your own country. We have a lot on offer.”

Words: Anastasia Hedge

Women of the Catlins – Life in the Deep South by Diana Noonan and Chris Antona (Otago University Press, RRP $49.95)

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