It's only taken around 80 million years, but one of New Zealand's most extraordinary landscapes is about to receive world-wide recognition – and will help spark interest in one of our burgeoning tourism regions: Waitaki
The story involves New Zealand's first aspiring UNESCO Global Geopark, plesiosaurs, human-sized penguins, the largest eagle ever to fly, ancient Māori rock art – and a 21st century town where locals dress in Victorian clothes and invent impossible sci-fi toys.
Geoparks are areas where landscapes of international geological significance are carefully managed for protection, education and sustainable development, using a bottom-up approach that involves local communities.
The proposed Waitaki Whitestone Global Geopark, likely to be approved by UNESCO's board in May, covers 7200 sq km of the South Island's Waitaki District – which runs from Lake Ōhau in the Southern Alps along the Waitaki River valley to the Pacific at Ōamaru and down the coast to Palmerston.
Its history dates back over 80 million years when Te Riu-a-Māui/Zealandia (the continent New Zealand is part of) slowly separated from the super-continent Gondwana. Over millions of years the continent slowly sank almost completely below the sea before re-emerging. It was in these ancient settings that special geological features and landscapes were formed – the Moeraki Boulders, Elephant Rocks, and the dramatic "badlands" at Clay Cliffs, near Omarama.
The Southern Alps rose about 5 million years ago and, in the last 2 million years, glaciers carved through the landscape, with glacial retreat creating stunning Lake Ōhau.
Wildlife thrived, too: plesiosaurs, shark-toothed dolphins, giant moa, Haast's eagle with its 3m wingspan, plus the 1.3m-tall Kairuku penguins. Humans arrived over 700 years ago, creating one of the largest ancient Māori settlements in New Zealand at the Waitaki River mouth – living in inland caves, decorated with elaborate rock art in places like Takiroa.
Later goldminers, wheat and meat farmers settled in lands perfect for agriculture, and the port sprang up at Ōamaru, then and now known as "the Whitestone City" – a unique Victorian town full of grand limestone buildings.
The geopark story is somewhat shorter, effectively beginning in 2000 when Duntroon landowners and volunteers, with help from Otago University's Geology Department, established the Vanished World Fossil Centre as an attraction for their town and the Vanished World Trail of sites throughout the Waitaki. The process of seeking UNESCO recognition began in 2018.
Tourism Waitaki general manager Philippa Agnew is well qualified to tell the district's story. In addition to her responsibilities in promoting the area, she's a research scientist at Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony and has extensive experience in environmental management.
She's quick to point out that, while it's a natural paradise, including a ski field, there's much more for visitors, particularly families, to see and do in and around Waitaki.
"We have a range of landscapes from the mountains, the lakes all around the hydro schemes and then down through the river to the ocean," she says. 'We have some really fantastic beaches – probably the most well-known is where the Moeraki Boulders are – but there are others like Kakanui, All Day Bay and Campbells Bay. Surfing is really popular there.
"We have the Alps2Ocean Cycle Trail, the longest trail in New Zealand at 316km. Many describe it as the jewel in the crown of the country's Great Rides. It begins at the foot of Aoraki Mt Cook and comes past the lakes and rivers, finishing at Ōamaru harbour. It's a six-day trail but people often do it one piece at a time."
As well as its Victorian streetscape, with artists and cafes occupying many of the famous buildings, Ōamaru has a couple of unique attractions – Steampunk HQ and Whitestone City.
"Steampunk is a concept that can be a little bit difficult to understand," Agnew admits. "It's science-fiction that relies on steam-powered technology and it's set in Victorian times. Steampunk HQ is an interactive museum great for families because it's fun and quirky. Whitestone City is an attraction based around heritage that's also a hands-on, interactive experience."
If families are feeling active, there's the cycle trail, walks around the valley and lakes, the Duntroon wetlands and Clay Cliffs, and plenty of opportunities for boating, kayaking, paddle boarding and swimming.
And, of course, Agnew's passion – the little blue penguins, which aren't quite as big as their ancestors. "I'm quite pleased they're not giant penguins - they'd be very difficult to work with."
Her birds are the stars of the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony: "They head out to sea first thing in the morning, do their fishing, and come home just as it starts to get dark. We're open every night of the year with viewing events. At the moment it's their breeding season so we're seeing hundreds of birds arrive at night.
"In the harbour we also have the Otago shag, which breed here on the wharf, where they set up in 2015. Now almost half the species breeds at that site. We have NZ fur seals hanging out at the penguin colony during the day."
With its rich history of food production, the district has any number of artisan producers and restaurants – think Whitestone, think cheese; sample salmon from those braided rivers; and where else could be home to a premium whisky named The Oamaruvian?
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