Extreme makeover in the Catlins

Department of Conservation —  20/01/2015

By Emma Bardsley, Services Ranger, Owaka.

In a little known corner of New Zealand, a wee house sat lonely. The paint was peeling and the grass was long. Luckily five enthusiastic volunteers arrived from across the country to give a makeover to this little DOC house nestled at Papatōwai in the Catlins.

The DOC house in Papatowhai before the makeover.

The house before its makeover

We could hardly contain these volunteers as they set to weed-wacking, mowing, dismantling railings, water-blasting and painting. They were all volunteer veterans who come back year after year. They worked for five days solid on the property, turning it from a neglected-looking house to a shiny, new home.

We enjoyed good company, good food with plenty of laughs and had the satisfaction of seeing this scruffy building transformed. One of the best things, of course, was that we were in a special part of coastal New Zealand and were able to experience the scenery and wildlife of the Catlins.

Volunteers Karen and Bob painting the DOC house.

Volunteers painting

The house gets used mainly for DOC workers and volunteers staying in the Catlins for track work, species and pest work. With all the work involved in maintaining this wild and almost unspoilt corner of New Zealand, the little house is often used but not often loved.

One of the highlights of the week was a full day working bee with the DOC crew from the Invercargill workshop and the Owaka field base. It was a typical beautiful Catlins day, and around our scone breaks we got the new deck railing built, overhanging trees cleaned up, weeds sprayed, the top half of the house got its second coat of paint, and the whole back of the property was cleared with scrub bars.

Now the house stands waiting for the next enthusiastic volunteers. It won’t wait long thanks to the excellent summer programme of volunteers. They stay for a minimum of two weeks just two minutes walk from a yellow sanded beach with magnificent overhanging rātā trees, a stunning estuary filled with good fishing, royal spoonbills and terns; and even watch the critically endangered New Zealand sea lions haul up here.

There’s not too much idle time though. Volunteers get the chance to come to Owaka field base for a day’s work, and impromptu field trips with the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust and Forest & Bird. And as for the house – over the summer the bottom half needs a second coat of paint, the railings stained, the grounds mown, and the garden weeded!

Rata tree overhaning a beach.

Southern rātā overhanging the nearby beach

We give huge thanks to the wonderful volunteers that help us out– they bring an energy and freshness that keeps us humming along here. With the right communication and organisation, we see that the volunteer programs DOC runs can really be such a huge benefit to both staff and our work.

Volunteers and DOC staff standing in front of the finished house.

Volunteers and DOC staff happy with the finished working bee

9 responses to Extreme makeover in the Catlins


    Hey Emma, great write-up of a great event, loved reading it. We are based in Te Anau now, looking after the campsites along Milford Road for the rest of the season. Fond memories of our volunteer time in Kaka Point and Owaka last year. The Catlins rock! Cheers, Beatty

      Emma Bardsley 18/02/2015 at 2:13 pm

      So pleased to hear from you Beatty – Ray and I talk about you guys all the time, and wonder where you are! Good to hear you’re still living it large in Southern South Island 🙂 you must call back past if you’re in the area. Say hi to Laura from us!


    Hi Emma Could I have permission to publish this article in Walking New Zealand please?

    Regards Frank Goldingham Walking New Zealand Ltd P O Box 1922, Palmerston North 4440 47 Lincoln Terrace, Palmerston North 4410 Phone 06-358-6863 Mobile 027-274-0726 Fax 06-358-6864


    Fantastic – great team work and great community involvement for a worthy project. Awesome job everyone.


    Hi! Not sure this email address is monitored, but just wanted to share my excitement from this email (and actually every DOC email that reminds me of my wonderful times in NZ in 2000 and 2013). I was amused to read Papatōwai is a “little known corner of New Zealand – Papatōwai, being in The Catlins, is already at my favorite part of the world, and I wish I could live somewhere between there and Porpoise bay 🙂

    – Ariel

      Emma Bardsley 23/01/2015 at 2:39 pm

      So good to hear from you Ariel, I have recently moved to the Catlins and absolutely love it too. Hope you get to come back and visit!