South Otago

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South Otago lies in the south east of the South Island of New Zealand. As the name suggests, it forms the southernmost part of the geographical region of Otago.


The exact definition of the area designated as South Otago is imprecise, as the area is defined not in geopolitical or administrative terms, but rather by the area's topographical features and the similarity of its communities. Overall, it encompasses some 8,000 km² (3,100 sq mi) and has a population of approximately 20,000, but these figures vary according to the various definitions of South Otago's boundaries. The area is often seen as roughly congruous with the Clutha District, which has its administrative centre at Balclutha. However, most of the Taieri catchment, from Taieri Mouth and Henley to Mosgiel and Middlemarch, with the coastal areas around Brighton, has been part of the City of Dunedin since 1989. The southwestern part of Clutha District, around the townships of Tapanui and Clinton, are regarded as part of a separate area, West Otago.


Tautuku Bay in the Catlins View over Tautuku Bay 3.jpg
Tautuku Bay in the Catlins
Taieri Plains TaieriPlain.jpg
Taieri Plains

South Otago is dominated by three main topographic features: forests, hill country, and floodplains. To the south is the rough bush country of the Catlins, with its forests and rugged coastline. To the north of that the land is mainly rolling hill country, dissected by the floodplains of several large rivers. With the exception of the flat, fertile floodplains, South Otago is quite sparsely populated because of relatively cold winters, geographical isolation and lack of a decent port. A former port, Port Molyneux, located near the mouth of the Clutha River was abandoned in the early 20th century after rail transportation made freighting produce by rail to and from Dunedin more economically attractive.

There are a number of rivers flowing through South Otago, the largest being the Clutha, the country's second longest river, which flows from Lake Wanaka in Central Otago for 340 kilometres, through Balclutha (Scots Gaelic for "Town on the banks of the Clyde") and there splits in two around the large delta island of Inch Clutha before reaching the Pacific Ocean. A significant west-flowing tributary is the Tuapeka River, starting point of the 1860s Central Otago Gold Rush near Lawrence.

Also of note is the Taieri, the country's fourth longest river, which winds through rough hill country before forming the Taieri Plains to the north-east of Milton then cutting through coastal hills to reach the ocean at Taieri Mouth. Lakes Waihola, Mahinerangi, and Waipori, which ultimately drain into the Taieri through its tributary the Waipori River, are also located in South Otago.

Between and roughly parallel with those two large rivers is the smaller Tokomairaro River, which drains the Milton area.

Balclutha Balclutha City.jpg

The most populous town is Balclutha, 81 km south of Dunedin by road (except for the occasional inclusion of the larger Mosgiel in definitions of South Otago). It serves as the man service town for the area's large farming community. [1] Balclutha's population, by the 2006 census, was 4,062 (down from 4,137 in 1996). Other towns are Milton (pop. 1,887), [2] Kaitangata [3] (pop. 810), Brighton, Lawrence (pop. 432), Owaka (pop. 327), Stirling (pop. 309), Waihola, Outram, Allanton, Henley, Momona, Kaka Point (pop. 201), Taieri Mouth, and Benhar (pop. 96). For a while in the 1980s Balclutha was New Zealand's most wealthy town, per capita.


The area has a rich history, with Māori iwi and predominantly Scottish settlers, the latter of whom arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. As happened in most of the South Island, the land was bought by these settlers from its original Māori inhabitants. Later, the main Māori tribe from the area, Kai Tahu, received a large cash settlement from the New Zealand Government as reparation for the confiscation of land that took place during that colonisation period.

Memorial to the 1879 Kaitangata mining disaster. Kaitangatamemorial.jpg
Memorial to the 1879 Kaitangata mining disaster.

The Central Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s, initially centred around Lawrence, drew thousands of men to the district in search of wealth. The discovery of coal at Kaitangata was also important for the regions development, and was also responsible for one of Otago's worst disasters, an explosion at the mine in 1879. [4] Other minerals mined in South Otago include silica and phosphate. [5]

In more recent times the region has been associated with woollen milling and forestry. [6] Sheep, dairy cattle and deer are farmed locally, and farming and farm-related industries are the mainstay of the region's economy. Tourism, particularly around the Catlins, is also becoming important to the region.

South Otago's close association with Dunedin has increased since the reorganisation of local government areas in the 1980s. The northern part of South Otago, including much of the Taieri Plains, is now within the boundaries of Dunedin City (the rest of the area is almost entirely within Clutha District). The location of Dunedin International Airport at Momona is the area's most important transport hub, though most of the people who use this travel only briefly through South Otago while commuting to and from Dunedin. South Otago is also home to Lake Mahinerangi, Dunedin's most important reservoir, which is located close to the top of Maungatua.


Residents of South Otago and Southland have a prominent accent which is noticeably different from that of the rest of New Zealand, with a rolling 'r' that is almost certainly an indication of the Gaelic roots of many of the residents. [7] This is also indicated in the Scots Gaelic and Lallans Scots origins of many of the area's placenames. The people are paradoxically warm and friendly yet wary of strangers in their midst.

The main schools are South Otago High School in Balclutha and Tokomairiro High School in Milton.

Notable residents

Related Research Articles

Otago Region of New Zealand

Otago is a region of New Zealand located in the southern half of the South Island administered by the Otago Regional Council. It has an area of approximately 32,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq mi), making it the country's second largest local government region. Its population was 245,300 in June 2020.

Balclutha, New Zealand Town in Otago, New Zealand

Balclutha is a town in Otago, lying towards the end of the Clutha River, on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is about halfway between Dunedin and Invercargill on the Main South Line railway, State Highway 1 and the Southern Scenic Route. Balclutha has a population of 4,230, and is the largest town in South Otago.

Clutha River River in the South Island of New Zealand

The Clutha River, officially Clutha / Mata-Au, is the second longest river in New Zealand and the longest in the South Island. It flows south-southeast 338 kilometres (210 mi) through Central and South Otago from Lake Wānaka in the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana to the Pacific Ocean, 75 kilometres (47 mi) south west of Dunedin. It is the highest volume river in New Zealand, and the swiftest, with a catchment of 21,960 square kilometres (8,480 sq mi), discharging a mean flow of 614 cubic metres per second (21,700 cu ft/s). The Clutha River is known for its scenery, gold-rush history, and swift turquoise waters. A river conservation group, the Clutha Mata-Au River Parkway Group, is working to establish a regional river parkway, with a trail, along the entire river corridor.

Henley, New Zealand

Henley is a township on New Zealand's Taieri Plains, presumably named after the rowing centre Henley-on-Thames in England. It lies close to the confluence of the Taieri and Waipori Rivers at the eastern edge of the plain, at the foot of a low range of coastal hills.

Dunedin City in Otago, New Zealand

Dunedin is the second-largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the principal city of the Otago region. Its name comes from Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.

Mosgiel Town in Otago, New Zealand

Mosgiel is an urban satellite of Dunedin in Otago, New Zealand, fifteen kilometres west of the city's centre. Since the re-organisation of New Zealand local government in 1989 it has been inside the Dunedin City Council area. Mosgiel has a population of approximately 14,600 as of June 2020. The town celebrates its location, calling itself "The pearl of the plain". Its low-lying nature does pose problems, making it prone to flooding after heavy rains. Mosgiel takes its name from Mossgiel Farm, Ayrshire, the farm of the poet Robert Burns, the uncle of the co-founder in 1848 of the Otago settlement, the Reverend Thomas Burns.

Taieri River

The Taieri River is the fourth-longest river in New Zealand and is in Otago in the South Island. Rising in the Lammerlaw Range, it initially flows north, then east around the Rock and Pillar range before turning southeast, reaching the sea 30 kilometres (19 mi) south of Dunedin.

Lake Waihola

Lake Waihola is a 640 ha tidal freshwater lake located 15 km north of Milton in Otago, in New Zealand's South Island. Its area is some 9 square kilometres, with a maximum length of 6 kilometres and a mean depth of 0.75m.

Taieri Plain

The Taieri Plain is an area of fertile agricultural land to the southwest of Dunedin, in Otago, New Zealand. The plain covers an area of some 300 square kilometres, with a maximum extent of 30 kilometres.

Waipori River

The Waipori River is in Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Rising in the Lammerlaw Range, it flows southeast for 50 kilometres (31 mi) before joining the Taieri River near Henley, 30 kilometres (19 mi) southwest of Dunedin of which it is officially the southernmost border. Google Maps erroneously shows the stretch of Taieri river from the confluence to the mouth as Waipori River. The correct name is shown on the New Zealand government's official NZ Topo Map.


Maungatua, known also by its Māori name Maukaatua is a prominent ridge in the Taieri Plains in Otago, New Zealand.

Taieri Mouth

Taieri Mouth is a small fishing village at the mouth of the Taieri River, New Zealand. Taieri Island lies in the ocean several hundred metres off the river's mouth.

Clutha District Territorial authority in Otago, New Zealand

Clutha District is a local government district of southern New Zealand, with its headquarters in the Otago town of Balclutha. The Clutha District has a land area of 6,362.86 km² and a 2006 census population of 16,839 usual residents. Clutha District occupies the majority of the geographical area known as South Otago.

Inch Clutha is a large, flat island sitting in the delta between the Matau (northern) and Koau (southern) branches of the Clutha River, downstream from the town of Balclutha in the South Island of New Zealand. Approximately 10 kilometres (6 mi) long and 3 kilometres (2 mi) wide, the fertile but flood-prone land of the island is extensively farmed. The island was formed in 1878 after a massive flood changed the course of the Clutha, which had formerly reached the ocean 4 km to the south at Port Molyneux.

Lake Tuakitoto

Lake Tuakitoto is a small lake in South Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand. It is located to the northeast of Balclutha, close to the small town of Kaitangata. The smallest of South Otago's three main lakes, it is, like the others very shallow. The lake drains into the lower reaches of the Clutha River.

Southern Scenic Route Road in New Zealand

The Southern Scenic Route is a tourist highway in New Zealand linking Queenstown, Fiordland, Te Anau and the iconic Milford Road to Dunedin via, Riverton, Invercargill and The Catlins. An Australian travel magazine labelled it "one of the world's great undiscovered drives" in 2008.

This is a list of placenames in Scotland which have subsequently been applied to parts of New Zealand by Scottish emigrants or explorers.

Waihola Town in Otago, New Zealand

The township of Waihola lies between Dunedin and Milton, New Zealand in Otago, in New Zealand's South Island. It lies close to the southeast shore of the shallow tidal lake which shares its name.

Taieri is a parliamentary electorate in the Otago region of New Zealand, initially from 1866 to 1911, and was later recreated during the 2019/20 electoral redistribution ahead of the 2020 election.

Port Molyneux

Port Molyneux is a tiny settlement on the coast of South Otago, New Zealand, close to the north-easternmost point of The Catlins. Now home only to farmland, it was a thriving port in the early years of New Zealand's European settlement.


  1. Balclutha," Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  2. "Take five: Milton". Otago Daily Times . 30 November 2019.
  3. "Kaitangata," Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  4. Davison, R., "Miners' lives and deaths to be recalled at festival," Otago Daily Times , 5 February 2019. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  5. "A regional profile: Otago," Statistics New Zealand, 1999. p. 30.
  6. "Millar, R., South Otago wood residue supply assessment," Wood Energy South, 2015. Retrueved 8 February 2020.
  7. "The Southland 'rolling R'," in NewZild: the story of New Zealand English [videorecording]. Director and producer, John Milligan. Auckland: Bright Spark Television, 2005. Retrieved from Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand , 8 February 2020.