The sleepy hamlet of Tapanui is a film star in its own right writes Elisabeth Easther.

Where is it?

On SH90 in West Otago, at the base of the

Tapanui Ranges

(aka the Blue Mountains), 90 minutes drive from Dunedin.


Origin of name: There are several theories — possibly it's a contraction of Te Tapuae-o-Uenuku ("the footstep of the rainbow god") or it means the "edge of many" or perhaps it refers to the Tapanui carving pattern.

Population: Nine hundred, give or take.

Claim to fame: Parts of the new Disney movie Pete's Dragon were shot in and around Tapanui, catapulting the town into the global spotlight.

Town motto: Edge of the Forest.

Old news: Tapanui gained notoriety in the 1980s when local GP Peter Snow noticed that some of his patients who were unusually exhausted also worked closely with animals. With colleagues from Otago University, Snow studied the symptoms of what came to be known as Tapanui flu, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In remembrance: There's a memorial to Dr Snow in the main street that includes a moon rock and a plaque — the moon rock being symbolic of Dr Snow's belief that a meteor collided with the moon in 1766, scattering debris right across West Otago.

Famous locals: JB Gordon (Former Minister of Transport), John Crawford (Maori All Black), Murray Kane (national small-bore shooting champ) and all the townspeople who starred in Pete's Dragon.

Best website:


Big business: Back in the day, Tapanui was a milling town, with the first sawmill built in 1886. Today it's kept afloat serving the region's farms.

Town fiestas: The annual A&P Show each November is a festival of competitions, displays and country fun. The Christmas Parade, running for more than 60 years, gets bigger each year. Fashion Fantasia is a biannual event fast making a name for itself.

Tractor dance at the A&P show. Photo / Supplied
Tractor dance at the A&P show. Photo / Supplied

Best reasons to stop:

To embrace nature, go fishing or play a round of golf. And the locals take such pride in their gardens; Tapanui is a treat for botanical types.

Kids love: Black Gully, there's so much to explore including some dandy historic play equipment. As for the wide-open spaces — nippers relish the freedom they get here.

Locals love: The West Otago Operatic Society puts on super shows with Footrot Flats in November sure to be a hit. Their beautiful theatre seats 200 and is the envy of thespians across Southland.

Best playground: There's a beautiful new playground in the centre of town with slides for older and younger children, swings and a big dizzy round and round thing.

Best facilities: There are flash new toilets at Tapanui Centennial Park, where there's also a shelter with picnic tables and in summer it's always busy. The community centre is also impressive with squash courts, a gym and a library.

Best walks: In Whisky Gully the walks take anything from 15 minutes to five hours, with the two-hour walk to the first waterfall especially popular. Hike all the way to the top of the mountain and on a clear day you can see Stewart Island. Or try out the charming new walk connecting Whisky Gully to Black Gully, well worth making the effort.

Best view: When you come in to Tapanui from Gore or Rae's Junction, you're up quite high and the views down the valley are stunning.

Best swim: The local pool is covered and heated (but not in the depths of winter). Or in summer head to Leithen Glen on the banks of the Pomahaka River — the lavish lawns and stone barbecues make it perfect for a day of play, paddling, fishing and swimming. There's a sweet riverbank walk there too.

Best museum: The West Otago Vintage Club has a collection including vintage tractors, a steam engine and myriad historical records in the reading room.

Stay a while: The local camping ground is a very pleasant spot to while away a few days with all the bells and whistles for motor homes or tenting — you can even take your pets.

Top shops: Blue Mountain Nurseries is famous for rhododendrons and camellias or pop in to Whitechapel Gifts in the old Anglican church where you'll be faced with many temptations.

Cream of the coffee: Top Nosh is always good, ditto the Forest Lodge Hotel. And a new place opened recently in the old National Bank called Cola Culture, which is a super quirky cafe.

Best food: Top Nosh's baked potatoes are just the thing on a winter's day, they also do superb caramel slices and custard squares — and on Fridays it's fish pie day.

Wet your whistle: Forest Lodge Hotel has a beer garden, decent food and is welcoming to families. Or check out The Town and Country Club's quiz night on the first and third Mondays of each month with various local organisations reaping the rewards.

Best cycling: There's lots of snazzy road cycling round the region with two mountain bikes available for hire from Whitechapel Gifts.

Best adventures: Go hunting in the mountains, or spend a day on the banks of the Pomahaka River casting for trout because this is one of the finest fishing rivers in New Zealand.

Fancy a round: Tapanui's 18-hole golf course is said to be smashing.

Wildlife: Birdlife includes korimako (bellbirds), tui and healthy populations of the mohua (native bush canary), plus pigs, deer and trout.

Bellbirds are a feature of the local wildlife. Photo / Greg Bowker
Bellbirds are a feature of the local wildlife. Photo / Greg Bowker

The verdict:

All that's good about small town New Zealand can be found in Tapanui.

Thanks to Barbara Hanna for spilling the beans.