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Owaka is a small town in the Clutha District of South Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand. It is the largest community in the rugged, forested Catlins area, close to the border with Southland, some 35 km (22 mi) south of Balclutha on the Southern Scenic Route.
The town's population was 303 in the 2013 census, a decrease of 24 from 2006. In the census figures, 91.7% of the population were European, and 11.5% were Māori.
The smaller settlement and holiday location of Pounawea is 4 kilometres away on the estuary of the Catlins and Owaka rivers.
The town's name comes from the Māori for "the place of canoes",a reference to the town's location close to the Ōwaka River, which joins the Catlins River three kilometres (2 miles) from the town, close to the coast. The town was originally called Catlins River, then Quakerfield.
On 22 June 1896, Owaka became the terminus of the Catlins River Branch railway, and it retained this status until an extension of the branch line to Ratanui was opened on 1 August 1904. The railway ultimately terminated in Tahakopa, but as traffic declined on the line in its later years, the Tuesday freight train (one of four per week) ran only as far as Owaka after 1958.
The branch closed on 27 February 1971, and little evidence of its existence remains in or around Owaka besides some of the line's old formation, as the last substantial relic, Owaka station's goods shed, was removed in 1986.
In November 1991, 15-year old Kylie Smith was abducted in Owaka and was raped and murdered by Paul Bailey. Bailey pled guilty in 1992, and was subsequently jailed for life, with a non-parole period of 10 years.In 2021, his application for parole was denied and his next opportunity will be in 2023. Bailey's offending had a substantial impact on the town at the time: the local pastor, who had assisted Bailey in gaining employment in Owaka, had his house vandalised, and a lynch mob threatened to burn down his church, whilst that same mob burned down Bailey's house.
The Catlins Area School is a co-educational state area school for Year 1 to 13 students, 113 as of November 2020.with a roll of
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