The Waitaki Valley route from the east coast through to the mountainous interior was used for hundreds of years by Maori hunting parties. This trip leads deep into the heart of the mountains and visits a series of spectacular man-made and natural lakes.
With its graceful white stone buildings, Oamaru, was a pleasing sight to nineteenth-century sailors who called it 'the white lady by the sea'. By the time Governor Grey visited in the 1870s the bustling port had become a gateway for entrepreneurs who were busy exporting produce from the rich stations of North Otago. The city remains a gateway to North and Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country. This huge fragmented schist plateau with its broad tussock covered basins and gently graded hills, rises 600 m and more from the coastline. It is a region of climatic extremes, with very dry, hot summers and cold, frosty winters. Today much of the land is covered only in tussock, but as recently as 11,000 years ago there were still forests of matai and totara in the area. From the tenth century these forests were ravaged by the fires as ancient moa hunters tried to drive these huge flightless birds out into the open. Once the trees were gone the erosion began and continued into the twentieth century as the early run holders brought sheep onto the landscape and an ever-increasing population of rabbits took its toll on the vegetation. Today Central Otago is one of the most frequently travelled regions in the South Island, yet one of the least known, as most tourists simply pass through these lonely plains on their way to the mountain resorts.
Private boarding school, Oamaru
The trip starts in Oamaru on SH1.
Oamaru was officially founded in 1858 but did not start to grow substantially until it was discovered that the local limestone rock could be sawn after it had been quarried. The rock only hardens after it is exposed to air, which makes it perfect for use as a building material. The limestone comes from a quarry near Weston on the outskirts of town and soon became a valuable commodity in an area where timber was expensive and in short supply. Oamaru stone can be seen in a number of buildings on Thames Street, including the 'Old Post Office' (1864) as well as the 'New Post Office' (1884), the Courthouse (1883), the National Bank (1870) and the Brydone Hotel. The Brydone Hotel was built during the 1880s and is a survivor from the time when Oamaru had 18 hotels and 30 grog shops. A change in licensing laws in 1905, prevented the hotel from selling liquor for the next 60 years. The economic boom created by gold mining and agriculture also created strong competition between banks in the port town of Oamaru. New banks were often built to project an image of substance and prestige, imitating neo-classical structures that were being built in Britain at the time. Today these buildings can be seen lining Thames Street, which was made exceptionally wide to provide enough turning space for bullock teams hauling heavy drays laden with wool down to the docks.
oamaru historic precinct
Today 'the white stone city' boasts the best preserved collection of historic commercial buildings in the country, with more than 20 in the Harbour-Tyne Street precinct alone. On Harbour Street you will find the Meeks Elevator Building (1883) which was used for grain storage, the National Mortgage Building (1880) built for a stock and station agency, the Harbour Board Building (1876), Lanes Emulsion Factory (1907) and the Loan and Merchantile Co. building which was built in 1882. Tyne Street features the Customs House (1884), the Exchange Chambers (1889) and the Oamaru Mail building (1900).
oamaru blue penguin colony
Oamaru is the most accessible place in New Zealand for viewing Blue penguins (Korora) up close. Penguin fossils up to 34 million years old have been found in the area so the birds have probably ranged along these coasts for millennia. The penguins leave in the morning before first light and spend all day feeding at sea, returning to shore each evening to an old rock quarry only a few minutes walk from the town. They wait for dark out at sea, gathering together in groups called rafts, before coming ashore to their nests. The largest numbers, as many as 200 penguins, come ashore from November to January. Most penguins arrive within an hour after dark and can be seen from viewing platforms only a few meters from their nesting boxes. Also known as little penguins, these are the world's smallest penguin, only 25cm tall and weighing about 1 kg. They live for about 8 years, breeding at 2-3 years and usually produce 2 eggs. The breeding season is from July to March and the eggs are incubated for 36 days, the chicks remaining in the nest for 8 weeks after hatching. Both parents share the responsibility of incubation and feeding with one adult always remaining with the chick until day 16, after which both parents need to go to sea to get enough food to feed the chicks. At the end of the breeding season, the adults spend a lot of time at sea feeding to put on weight before moulting. When they lose their old feathers the birds cannot go to sea because they are not waterproof. They are vulnerable to predators while moulting and raising their young but the Oamaru Colony has provided a safer environment for the Blue penguins. The local colony is made up of about 3000 birds and is increasing each year.
From Oamaru head north 4 km on Dee Street onto SH1 and continue northeast 4.2 km, turn left onto SH 83 and travel northwest 34 km to Duntroon. The Takiroa Rock Shelter is signposted on the left a short distance north of the town.
The Vanished World Centre located at Duntroon, featuring numerous marine fossils of ancient whales, dolphins, sharks, penguins and shellfish in a range of exhibits that provide a glimpse into the ancient ecosystems that existed here 27-35 million years ago. Duntroon also feaures Nicol’s historic Blacksmith shop, complete with its original interior, containing a bellows and powered forge. Next door, is the original Bootmaker’s shop, now known as the ‘Flying Pig’ Café.
takiroa rock shelter
Named by an early runholder, Robert Campbell, after his hometown in Scotland, Duntroon lies on the confluence of the Waitaki and Maerewhenua Rivers. The hills in the area feature rugged, craggy limestone bluffs, many of which contain prehistoric fossil beds and also more recent remnants left by ancient moa hunters. Small family groups travelling in search of moa and other food sources once used the natural shelter provided by the overhanging bluffs as a campsite and it was here that they recorded what they had seen on their journeys by making ochre paintings. The most significant find was made in 1852 at the Takiroa rock shelter where you can view examples of 500 year-old Maori rock art. The drawings have faded considerably after centuries of exposure to the open air, and although some were removed by an American rock art enthusiast in 1916, those that remain provide a fascinating insight back to a time when the landscape was still cloaked in forest and the now extinct giant eagle soared above the trees.
Continue 23.6 km northwest on SH 83 to Kurow.
Strategically located near the confluence of the Waitaki and Hakataramea Rivers, both of which are renowned for their trout and salmon fishing, Kurow is the location of the historic Waitaki bridge, built from hardwood timber in 1893. The Vicarage of St Albans dates back to 1892 along with its associated chapel, featuring a kauri and limestone interior and a large stained-glass window. There are a number of historic limestone buildings in the town along the main street, including the Kurow Hotel, Buffalo Hall, the Butchery and Western House which dates back to 1871. There is a working water wheel nearby on Kurow Creek that was used to drive a number of stamper batteries that crushed the gold bearing quartz rock that was mined from local reefs. For the culturally-inclined, the Kurow Pioneer Museum and Art Gallery delves into the town’s past with displays and exhibitions. The Kurow Festival is held each year in January featuring a market day, a golf tournament and fishing contests, along with the famous Hay People, a family made from hay bales. The 100 km annual road race held in November is known as ‘That Dam Run’.
Continue 28 km northwest on SH 83 passing Lake Waitaki on the right, on the road to Otematata.
The dam at Lake Waitaki was completed in 1938 and was the last hydro-electric dam in New Zealand to be built using the labour-intensive pick and shovel earth-moving methods that had prevailed before the widespread use of excavators and bulldozers. The concrete Aviemore Dam was completed in 1968. Near the Aviemore Dam is an old village that was called Wharekuri, at its height in the 1860s and was reached by a punt service across the Waitaki River. The remains of a hotel and stables can still be seen. Now a picturesque holiday village near the tree-lined shores of Lake Aviemore, Otematata was originally built in 1958 to provide accommodation during the Aviemore and Benmore power projects.
From Otematata turn right off SH 83 and drive 6.5 km to the Benmore Dam.
It is a short but impressive drive along the tree fringed lakeside through a wildlife reserve to the ramparts of the Benmore Dam which holds back a 7900 ha lake. This is the largest artificial lake in the country and it is greater in volume than the entire Wellington Harbour. The Benmore Dam was completed in 1965 and guided tours of the power station make for an interesting visit, taking about 1 hr 15 mins. Bookings can be made at the Meridian Energy Benmore Centre which features informative displays, photographs and working models of how the power station works. Lakes Aviemore and Benmore can be fished for trout and salmon all year round except during September. There are camping areas by the lake and there is also a bird sanctuary to visit. The area is also home to some rare moths, butterflies and birds. You can take a walk up the Benmore Track, which climbs from the Benmore Dam to a lookout point with views across the Waitaki Valley towards Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The cliffs above the Ahuriri River near Omarama
Return to SH 83, turn right and drive northwest 24 km to Omarama.
As you travel towards Omarama at the head of the Waitaki Valley, you will see distinctive clay pinnacles in the distant cliffs to the south. These have been formed by the active Osler fault line which continually exposes the clay and gravel cliffs. The Clay Cliffs or Paritea (Maori for white or light coloured cliff), are made up of huge sharp pinnacles and ridges separated by deep, narrow ravines. They are made up of sloping layers of gravel and silt that were deposited by rivers flowing from ancient glaciers that existing 1-2 million years ago. Today the rivers around Omarama provide excellent fishing and the area also has an established reputation for gliding due to the rising northwest thermal air currents. The air is cool and the skies are exceptionally clear, providing great opportunities for stargazing at night.
Lake Ohau abounds with plump trout.
From Omarama take SH8, drive north 16.7 km to Clearburn, turn left and drive 17.5 km to Lake Ohau.
Lake Ohau marks the boundary between Canterbury and Otago and as a result, its affiliation was keenly contested during the days of provincial government when both provinces laid claim to the Mackenzie Country. The lake, surrounded by forests and mountain ranges is a popular fishing location. There are numerous forest walks and places to picnic or relax and absorb the serenity of the surrounding countryside. Unlike Pukaki and Tekapo, the other two major lakes in the Mackenzie Country, Lake Ohau is not predominantly glacier fed, and as a result features distinctive deep green coloured waters. Nearby is the Lake Ohau skifield, the smallest commercial skifield in the country.
Return to SH8, turn left and drive north 13 km to Twizel then continue 9.1 km to Lake Pukaki, turn left onto SH80 and travel 55 km to Aoraki/Mt Cook.