Waitaki is fuelled by powerful forces. Steam, coal, hydropower, tectonic might - the whole region seems to hum with energy.
From the charcoals of Pablo Tacchini's Argentinian grill to the coke that crackles and pops at Nicol's Blacksmith; from the steam-powered madness of Ōamaru's retro-futuristic Steampunk movement to the power of the hydro dams that queue up and down the braided Waitaki River, and the slow grinding forces of the earth that created the incredible Waitaki geopark; Waitaki is all power and might.
And yet this is a region that few Kiwis could place on a map.
If you were flying from the north, you'd enter Waitaki about halfway between Dunedin (the closest airport) and Ōamaru (the district's main town). It's a route that takes you past several time-honoured New Zealand stops - Moeraki's windswept boulders and Fleur's legendary seafood restaurant for a start. But take your photos and eat up quickly, because Waitaki has a lot to discover.
The main town
Ōamaru is a small town full of character, and characters. In the Victorian Precinct, a neoclassical limestone streetscape built in the 1860s, you'll find Craftwork, a tiny establishment which for all appearances appears to be a Belgium pub. Inside, on the taps or waxing lyrical to customers, you may find Michael O'Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti, the owners of this small brewery (forget microbrewery; this is nano-sized) and tasting room. The couple are crafty to their core - he was once a bookbinder, she sews her own clothes. In a three-piece corduroy suit and moustache, Michael speaks with passion about Belgium and guild halls and farmhouse brewers, and educates his guests on Wallonian saisons, obscure trappist ales, and other rare and speciality brews. The tasting room keeps nano hours to match its brew capacity, so check before you visit to be sure they're open.
If the strong ales (and they are very strong) steal your sense of time, just be sure you leave as the daylight disappears outside, because when the sun starts to set in Ōamaru, the penguins come home. Hundreds of them, en masse, arrive each night from the sea to Ōamaru's Blue Penguin Colony - the old rock quarry, just a five-minute drive from town.
These are the world's smallest penguins, but they're mighty. The blue penguins swim up to 50km every day, hunting and eating as they go, covering the miles before coming ashore in rafts of up to 100 birds at a time. The crowd oohs and aahs as they sweetly scramble up the quarry slopes, dodging past the common fur seals who block their way and snip at their flippers when they get too close.
They're carrying food for their chicks and will soon regurgitate it for the chicks' daily meal. But for now, they are full to the craw - they stumble like drunks as they return home, bellies distended, balance more than a little off-centre.
You'll soon understand how they feel. From the old quarry, it is just a few minutes' drive to Cucina, an Argentinian restaurant that resides in a Category 1, 1871 building on Tees St. The building has been home to a millinery, an AMP, a dressmaker, and office space. Now, at the grill, Pablo Tacchini sears hot aged steak as per the traditions of his home country. Pablo and his wife, Yanina, moved to Ōamaru in 2008. Eight years later (and now with three children), they run Cucina and the Tees St Cafe around the corner. Here, the food reflects Pablo and Yanina's heritage and culture, and a bit of Kiwi ingenuity too.
On the feasting menu on a cold winter's night there were pork and apple empanadas, burnt cauliflower and labneh. There was home-made chorizo sausage and rib-eye branded with scorch lines and finished with ash from the fire. For dessert, churros hot from the oil, and flame-torched marshmallows. Draw the meal out, eat slowly, enjoy the feast. When we leave, the town clock is ringing in 10 o'clock. Cucina's speakers pipe music into the dark streets as we stumble home, fat and unbalanced as little blue penguins.
How to bring a town back to life
Not many people have heard of Duntroon, a half-hour up the road from Ōamaru. This tiny town may sound like a ghost town in the Scottish Highlands or a frontier outpost of revolutionary America, but in Waitaki, it's a town reborn.
In Duntroon (population: approx 114), smoke and fire are part of what is bringing the town back to life. Here you'll find Nicol's Blacksmith, a smithy named after Duntroon's last working blacksmith, Nicol Muirden. Muirden retired in the 1960s, and the smithy lay empty for years. But thanks to some enterprising local farmers, the building was saved and restored, and the business resurrected.
International visitors were never the main part of this 130-year-old blacksmith's trade. It's Kiwis who want to bang and hammer in front of the hot coals of the forge. Nicol's offers courses for visitors - for just $90 for a half day's training, a volunteer blacksmith will guide you through using the bellows, heating your metal, bashing it into shape. The smell, the heat, the glow of the instruments, and the noise of the hammers blowing down is intoxicating. It's hard, satisfying work, and in an hour or two visitors can have their own hammered, twisted and beeswaxed poker, a keepsake from a job well done.
70 million years in the making
New Zealand… rocks!!! went the old Flight of the Conchords joke.
Around here, rocks are serious business. Duntroon is hemmed in by the Waitaki geopark, a 7200sq km area of geological and scientific interest in which visitors can drive from site to site (most areas are on private land, but are viewable from the road) on their way through Waitaki.
The park is a series of phenomenally well-named geological sites. The limestone cliffs of the Earthquakes, the alien shapes of Elephant Rocks, and the beautiful Valley of the Whales are all must-stops along the Vanished World Trail - a heritage trail that takes you through 75 million years of history - from the fossilised remains of fantastic creatures to extinct volcanoes and crumbling limestone cliffs.
Geologists think a bit differently from the rest of us. As the park's educator, geologist Sasha Morriss, shows us around, she refers to the Southern Alps as "new" (they began to rise up about five million years ago). She walks us around the Elephant Rocks and explains how limestone is merely compressed fossils - just layer upon layer of ground-up giant penguins and shark-toothed dolphins and other prehistoric animals (think of that fact when you're gazing up admiringly at Ōamaru's limestone architecture).
As she guides us through the Valley of the Whales, we learn that what we are standing on was once solid ocean floor, eroded away by water and wind over millennia into what we see today - although what we see varies. Where some see elephants, I see giant boots and persimmons and honeycomb, seemingly fallen from space. We stand atop the building-sized rocks and picture sea creatures swimming above our heads. With a little imagination, it's awesome.
The area's fascinations don't end there - around the corner, historic Māori rock art; back in Duntroon, the enormous remains of a toothed dolphin with jaws that would easily take your head. Waitaki is gunning for Unesco geopark status, aiming to be the first of its kind in New Zealand.
From gravel to grape
The Waitaki River starts up at Lake Benmore and is the natural boundary that splits Otago and Canterbury. It is on this complex and ever-changing braided river that we're taking a spin.
Jetboat driver Ron picks us up just outside of Duntroon. We take in the braided channels, and wind our way up the river, towards the Waitaki hydro station. In freezing and dangerous conditions, 1200 men built this dam. Ron explains the work that went in, and points out the endangered species that nest on these precarious ever-moving islands. He takes it easy until we're comfortable, then waggles his finger in the air to prepare us for 360-degree spins that make our heads bob around like dashboard hula girls. The water is six degrees, and the splashes from the river water we receive are face-numbing.
The fix? Go straight from gravel to grape. A trip down the river can be tailored to you, so why wouldn't you choose a vineyard as your hopping-off point?
Waitaki has one of the longest growing seasons in New Zealand, and the seam of limestone that runs through the region lends special character to its wines. With the cold air from Ōamaru acting as the valley's natural air-conditioning unit, with cool nights balancing out warm days, this is a spot to enjoy pinot gris, pinot noir and chardonnay, as you overlook the vines they came from.
River-T Estate prides itself on stocking not just their own wines, but the largest collection of Waitaki wine in the world. The reason is that many producers in this area are so tiny, this is the only shop in the country they are found in. You don't get more local or more boutique than that.
Enjoy a tasting paddle from a warm seat in the sunshine overlooking the vines. And grab a bottle to go, because you won't find these, or any of Waitaki's incredible treasures, anywhere else in the country.
How to make the most of a visit to Waitaki
Take in the Steampunk culture at Ōamaru's Steampunk HQ
Soak your bones in fresh mountain water at the hot tubs at Omarama. These private outdoor tubs overlook beautiful scenery including Benmore Peak.
Visit Duntroon's Vanished World Centre to see the remains of a 25-million-year-old toothed dolphin, and get your hands on a real-life dig kit.
Stay at Duntroon's Black Cabin, which is perfect for two. Here, every detail is thoughtful, with stylish black fittings, clever storage features, and everything you need for a warm and cosy night and wholesome breakfast. blackcabin.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com