Diana Noonan & Cris Antona – Women of the Catlins

Women of the Catlins cover

Women of the Catlins: Life in the deep south, edited by Diana Noonan & Cris Antona.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP: $49.95.
Pb, 192pp.
ISBN: 9781877578977.

Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.

The Catlins is an area of extraordinary, lush wilderness in the south-eastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand, extending from Balclutha and bridging the provinces of Otago and Southland. With stunning landscapes and remnant forests the challenging climate lends the area an economic precariousness. Thus the few individuals who choose to tough it out in the Catlins and make it their home do so with resourcefulness and resilience.

Women of the Catlins, edited by local writer Diana Noonan, picks out 26 women, ranging from young adulthood through to their late nineties, and allows them to tell their stories. What is remarkable is the range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives of these women, and the strong sense of community as well as their pride in the natural landscape. This poignant collection is complemented by Cris Antona’s beautiful black and white photography, as sharp and defined as a pinpoint. A two-page spread of a kereru in flight perfectly captures the essence of the freedom of the wild.

As Norwegian-born Unn West muses, even though children almost by necessity leave the area to gain more skills and education, the landscape that you are brought up in never leaves you, as it infiltrates your inner being. West herself is both creative and practical like many of these women here: while she works with wood she also seeks the beauty in it, the story that it tells, and its place in the environment. Treasuring her home she has recorded the small township of Owaka by painting all 196 homes in watercolour.

Some of these women have spent their lives in the Catlins and know no other life; content in this piece of paradise they follow their parents before in outdoors lifestyles: strong women – shearing, fishing, hunting, building and farming. Yet they place importance on their children having wider opportunities, emphasising the role of sport and communal activities in such an isolated region.

Others among these women are city-born or bred, shifting to the Catlins for teaching positions or a more tranquil lifestyle. Actress, teacher and deputy principal Mary Sutherland epitomises the sense of a life bursting-full, for she and her partner, feeling a sense of obligation towards the landscape, operate an ecotourism business and work with Forest and Bird. Her hope is that in another twenty years the fundamentals of the place will not have changed.

Women in educational roles share their strong sense of responsibility for everybody else’s children, and for these young people to know they have diverse choices. There is also a great sense of heritage and the place of the land in the Catlins. Rona Williamson nee Potiki (Ngai Tahu) and her family have lived at Kaka Point for generations, raising amongst themselves children of their wider whanau. She is part of the South Island runanga, and, as such, is involved with issues like protection of the waterways. Land and spirit for the tangata whenua are entwined.

All of the women profiled share their love of the land and the trials of maintaining a lifestyle here. Yet this is merely a snapshot: for each woman featured, there are still more, untold stories. Women of the Catlins is a diverse, thoughtful and deeply affecting collection of people’s memories and connections with their close communities and their entirely individual piece of treasured landscape.


Jessie NeilsonJessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for The Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.

First published takahe 87
August 2016