This corner of the Catlins was once blanketed in native forest, however, by the end of the 1860’s, over 180 sawmills operated in the area. The mills were powered by steam engines and fed by tree trunks from the logging sites. Depending on the location of the mill, these were floated down rivers, hauled in by bullock teams, or transported on a bush tramway. These ingenious wooden rail systems ferried logs across swampy ground where the bullock teams would have floundered.
The great forest was used to create buildings all along the coastline, including many homes in Dunedin and Oamaru. Once processed the logs were stowed on coastal vessels, or in later years sent off on the branch railway. The mainline locomotives reached Owaka in 1898 and the next year the line was extended to Waimahaka.
In 1917, the trusty farm horse was made redundant by the Fordson A farm tractor. Mr Traills, a true Number 8 Solutions man from Riverton local, modified this tractor in 1924 so it could be used on the forestry tramways. He mounted it on railway wheels, installed a reversing box so the tractor had equal power regardless of which direction it was moving in, and added a shaft that allowed for the transmission of power to the log wagon bogies...this meant an increase in adhesive weight to the whole system, and a total of eight driven wheels. (Geoff tried to explain how all this worked, however, it still seems a bit hazy to me!). The tractor was a huge success and A & T Burt – Dunedin had a full year of tractor production in 1925, 15 units were produced and a further 36 ordered.
Neil Cook set up a second sawmill at the Tauataku site in 1936. Sadly his mill burnt down not once, but twice. Due to a lack of insurance, and a bank loan that could not be repaid he closed the mill in 1942. Mr McLeanan resumed mill operations in 1942 and in 1948 the operation became part of the Flemming Timber Company. Logging finally ceased in the area in 1952.
Lake Wilkie is a short drive from the Trallis Tractor Reserve and is one of the Catlins most beautiful short walks. The lake is caught between the sand dunes and coastal cliffs and was created 17 million years ago by glacial ice melt. As a bog lake it has slowly evaporated over time and become this small lake bordered by the forest that can be seen today.
The tannin stained waters offer a surreal reflection of the surrounding bush which is made up of a selection of podocarps, interspersed with southern ratas and broadleaf species. There are no fish to be found, but a large population of introduced frogs inhabit the area. Forest and pelagic sea birds can spend time around the lake and can be heard if not seen even on a rainy day. As you look out to the Pacific Ocean, it seems like someone has erased the forest at the start of the sand dunes. This abrupt change in vegetation looks like the division between two movie sets - Jurrasic Park vs. Lawrence of Arabia.
The Traills Tractor is only ten minutes walk from the car park, and the Lake Wilkie track with its boardwalk loop takes around thirty minutes. Both are worth doing, even if the aid of an umbrella is required. Just another couple of stops on the road which could win the award for ‘New Zealand’s State Highway with the most 'Point of Interest' and scenic lookouts.”