South Otago (pop. 17,172) lies in the south east of the larger of New Zealand's two main islands, imaginatively named the South Island. As the name suggests, it forms the southernmost part of the geographical region of Otago. The area is roughly congruous with the Clutha District, which has its administrative centre at Balclutha.
South Otago is dominated by three main topographic features. 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, bisected by the floodplains of several large rivers. With the exception of this flat, fertile area, South Otago is quite sparsely populated due to relatively cold winters, geographical isolation and lack of a decent port.
There are a number of rivers flowing through South Otago, the largest of them is 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 Clutha (Clyde)") and there splits in two around the river delta known as Inch Clutha before reaching the Pacific Ocean.
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 of Milton. Lakes Waihola 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 these two large rivers is the smaller Tokomairiro River.
Lying 81km south of Dunedin by road, Balclutha is the most populous town in South Otago, with a population of 4,104 (2001 census). Other towns of note are Milton (pop. 1,920), Kaitangata (pop. 789), Lawrence (pop. 474), Clinton (pop. 321) and Owaka (pop. 363). For a while in the 1980s Balclutha was New Zealand's most wealthy town, per capita.
Residents of South Otago and Southland have a prominent accent which is noticeably different to 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. 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 there midst. Whilst remaining relatively crime free, the influence of a cynical outside world has had a noticeable influence on the area within the last 10 years.
Noted inhabitants of South Otago include Maori poet Hone Tuwhare.
The area has a rich history, with the Maori tribes and the predominantly Scottish settlers the latter of whom arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. Like the rest of the South Island, the land was "bought" from the original inhabitants, the Maori, for minuscule sums. The main Maori tribe of the area, Kai Tahu, received a large cash settlement from the New Zealand Government as reparation for the wholesale confiscation of land that took place during the colonisation of the country.
A goldrush in the 1860s, centred around Lawrence, drew thousands of men to the district in search of wealth. In more recent times the region has been associated with woollen milling and forestry, and sheep, dairy cattle and New Zealand