New Zealand has several big cities (if a couple of million people qualifies as big), but to get to the heart of New Zealand and what it is to be a New Zealander, you really have to leave the city. Climb the mountains, surf the breaks, and drive the backroads. There’s a little town just north of Dunedin on the South Island that is well worth a visit for just such an experience. In Karitane, you’ll find a single shop featuring a ‘happy birthday’ chalkboard, plenty of Māori culture and history, and a couple of rather lovely beaches to stroll along.
Taking the back roads
First tip: if you’re coming from Dunedin, turn off State Highway 1 towards Warrington (just past Waitati) and take the back road that winds its way along the steep Pacific coastline. You’ll drive past eerie abandoned buildings and plenty of curious cows - and sheep of course! This is New Zealand, after all. Make sure you stop at the lookout just before you zig zag down the hill into the little village of Karitane. It’s a good spot to take in the view of the small patch of homes set alongside the great big blue (or grey, depending on the day) Pacific, the estuary, and the rolling hills in the background.
The rural ideal
There is a certain idealism in New Zealand associated with the rural lifestyle of the mid to late 20th century. A time when kids had the freedom to play in the street or on the beach without supervision, an era in which everyone knew everyone, and had a certain ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to life. In Karitane, this ideal is (on the surface) alive and well. Last time I was there, my friends and I took a dinghy out into the estuary and came across two young boys fishing in their own dinghy, no adults in sight. The owners of Karitane’s single store know everyone’s names, and you can walk down the middle of the road without too much concern for your life.
A potted history
Go back another 100 years from that rural ideal and you come to a fascinating but slightly disconcerting slice of Karitane’s history. If you follow the track that starts just past the playground, and look out towards the northern headland at low tide, you’ll see a strange structure in the bay. This is the remnants of a whaling station run by Johnny Jones, where humpback and southern right whales were hunted between 1838 and 1848.
The tour through New Zealand history continues if you wander past the whaling station onto the Huriawa peninsula. This is the site of a pā (Māori village, usually in a strategically defensive position) known as Te Wera. The peninsula was not only used for defensive purposes, but it was also used for agriculture and was a part of spiritual life for the local Māori. Plaques, placed along the walkway that meanders across the peninsula, reflect the rich history of this small piece of land. The walkway is well maintained and only takes 20 minutes or so. It’s well worth the time!
A beautiful place to breathe deep
Aside from the rich history, Karitane is simply a beautiful and tranquil place to spend an afternoon. The southern bay is often dotted with surfers, as it’s a well known break for those with a bit of experience and a sense of adventure. The rest of the coastline is rocky and wild, but it’s great fun to clamber across the rocks at low tide, exploring rock pools and marvelling at the isolated beauty around you.
Karitane is the epitome of New Zealand small-town life, and the perfect place to wile away an afternoon, taking in the beauty, chilled out vibes, and local history.