The wondrous Waitaki District has always been proud of its rocks, lustily exemplified by the creamy pure texture of Oamaru Stone that underpins the classic good looks of the historical town's Victorian Precinct.

Victorian Precinct.
Victorian Precinct.

But before hitting town, I ventured west into the heart of Waitaki Valley, to delightful Duntroon, with its pending designation as a Global Geopark by Unesco.

As Australasia's first Geopark, it threads together the spell-binding natural landforms, abundant fossil finds and rich cultural history of the Waitaki Valley, which was under sea when Zealandia drifted away from Gondwana. Seismic forces later thrust the ancient seabed upwards, at the same time that the Southern Alps were formed.

Robert Campbell, the wealthy landowner and runholder established Duntroon in 1864, naming it in honour of his Scottish birthplace.

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This cute-as-a-button village is home to the Vanished World Fossil Centre but, before heading there, I meet Duntroon locals Mike, Lisa and Jude, who guide me through the rustic charm-factory of Nicol's Blacksmith, one of the few operating blacksmith shops left in New Zealand.

It's irresistibly authentic, with the forge fired up on weekends and ironwork courses still held. I was staggered to discover that a distant relative, Wattie Yardley, who migrated to New Zealand in the 1890s from the Orkney Islands, first owned and operated the smithy.

It soon became the community hub, as locals swapped stories over horseshoes. The land around Duntroon was ocean floor 25 million years ago. Mike Gray led me through the magnificent Vanished World Centre which brings to life the prehistoric wealth of the region. It's a taster, a scene-setter and a trophy-room that speaks to the geological wonderland that endows the Waitaki District.

I marvelled over the displays of prehistoric dolphin skulls, whale and penguin bones, unearthed by local farmers from the limestone. All manner of discoveries have been found lodged in the region's famous limestone, which of course was created by broken down ancient marine life.

After getting to grips with the barebones geological backstory, Mike and I set off to explore some of the 40 designated sites of significance that comprise the geopark. The karst landscape and its whitestone are at the core of Waitaki's identity.

Takiora Maori rock art.
Takiora Maori rock art.

We called into Takiroa, the rock art site where ancient Maori, travelling through the Waitaki Valley for food-gathering, found shelter in the limestone overhangs, etching images of animals and early European contact into the cliff face. Elephant Rocks is a wonderfully whimsical affair, where towering limestone rocks have been sculpted and eroded by wind and water to form elephant-shaped outcrops.

The site was used in the filming of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Nearby, at Anatini, fossilised baleen whale bones have been exposed in the limestone. You might recognise the setting as Aslan's Camp from Narnia. Another awe-inspiring spectacle is strikingly called Earthquakes, where monstrous slabs of limestone have splintered off the hillside when the land slumped thousands of years ago. It's still a high rockfall risk area — so be cautious. But it's not just limestone that holds court in this geopark, there's the Moeraki Boulders, Omarama's pinnacled Clay Cliffs, volcanic cones and mesas rising above the rolling downs.

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Oamaru Township.
Oamaru Township.

Oamaru itself is built on a long extinct volcano. After getting my rocks off Waitaki's multilayered geological majesty, I headed into town, passing the glittering sweep of neo-classical limestone buildings that anchor the town's Victorian Precinct. They house a hive of temptations, from the science fiction meats Victoriana fun of Steam Punk, to the artisans, craft brewers and boutiques within the harbourside precinct.

 Steampunk Oamaru.
Steampunk Oamaru.

There are so many inter-linking strands that weave the Waitaki geopark story together, bridging the past with the present. Ancient penguin bones keep being found in the limestone, powerfully connecting with Oamaru's magnificent colony of little blue penguins. When I first started in radio in Oamaru in 1993, the colony was a fledgling visitor attraction with just thirty breeding pairs.

Oamaru penguins.
Oamaru penguins.

Today, there are more than 200 breeding pairs, so the nightly penguin parade of the birds returning home to their nest after feeding at sea, is an extravagant and intimate affair, as they scamper up the rocks like nervous Nigels, navigating their way around bellowing fur seals, to reach their homes.

It's a riveting twilight encounter.

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