Waitaki: An introduction

The Waitaki region is a place of scenic contrasts and haunting landscapes, from mysterious boulders to windswept beaches and ancient Māori rock art.

Waitaki's landscape is defined by the Waitaki River as it flows east from the Southern Alps to the vast Pacific Ocean. The wide river valley is bordered to the north by the Canterbury Plains and by the rolling hills of the Otago region to the south. 

To the north is the town of Oamaru, distinguished by its 19th century whitestone buildings and one of New Zealand’s oldest public gardens. Two penguin species have colonies in Oamaru, and it's the perfect place to enjoy a close encounter with the rare yellow-eyed penguin and the world's smallest, the little blue penguin, in their natural habitats.

The diversity of the Waitaki region continues further inland, where snowcapped mountains and the Waitaki River provide a startling contrast to the barren hills rising from the valley floor.

Nature and wildlife

On the central part of the coastline is the small fishing town of Moeraki and the geological wonder of the Moeraki Boulders. Strewn the length of the beach, these ancient spherical "stones" were formed by the natural phenomenon of concretion, exposed through shoreline erosion from the coastal cliffs that stand watch over the beach.

Along with the Moeraki Boulders, the Waitaki region is a haven for geological tourism. The town of Duntroon is home to the Elephant Rocks, a series of ancient limestone formations and fossil sites that have been preserved by local landowners. 

The Clay Cliffs near Omarama present an otherworldly scene of towering pinnacles separated by deep, narrow ravines. They were built up as layers of gravel and silt deposited by rivers flowing from ancient glaciers.  

For nature lovers, the chance to see Hector’s dolphins – the smallest and one of the rarest dolphins in the world – at play in the ocean waves is a must.

With two penguin colonies, Oamaru is also a great place to see the world’s cutest penguins – the little blue and yellow-eyed species that make their home on the Oamaru coast. Tours run daily to the penguin colonies, but the best time to see these special creatures is at night as they return from a day of foraging in the surrounding sea.

Shag Point is an ideal vantage point for native birdlife and observing New Zealand fur seals basking on the rocks. 

Heritage 

The Moeraki area is sacred to local Māori, whose legends tell of the canoe Āraiteuru, believed to have carried the ancestors of the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu tribe to the area.  According to mythology, the boulders are the remnants of calabash (squash), kumara (sweet potato) and eel baskets washed ashore after Āraiteuru was wrecked at nearby Shag Point.

The coastal port town of Oamaru is centred around an historic precinct defined by grand Victorian-era whitestone buildings, including the imposing Grand Opera House. As well as having one of New Zealand’s oldest public gardens, the town is also home to the quirky annual Steampunk Festival. The festival is New Zealand’s largest and longest-running, with four days and 18 events celebrating imagination, creativity and “tomorrow as it used to be”.

Oamaru's annual Victorian Heritage Celebrations, re-creating and reliving the town's Victorian past, draw people from far afield.

Adventure / outdoors

Kurow, in the centre of the Waitaki Valley, is an ideal base for outdoor pursuits such as cycling, fishing, camping and water sports. From here, visitors can also explore unique Māori rock art or the geological site Earthquakes – another impressive formation of limestone cliffs and ancient fossils.

One of the best ways to experience Waitaki's ancient wonders and eclectic towns is along the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. This eight-section trail, starting in Aoraki Mt Cook and ending in Oamaru, takes several days to complete. 

The last section of the trail takes riders from Duntroon through Elephant Rocks, along quiet country roads and an old railway line and via Oamaru Gardens before ending at Friendly Bay on Oamaru Harbour. 

Not only does the cycle trail give visitors the chance to explore a slice of rural New Zealand at their own pace, it also allows visitors to sample some of the region’s delicious eateries, boutique accommodation and award-winning wine producers along the way.

And by the way...

  • Each year, the town of Oamaru transforms into a Victorian-era fantasyland with the annual Steampunk Festival. 
  • The Waitaki River is home to three hydro-electric dams, Waitaki, Aviemore and Benmore – one of the largest earth dams in the southern hemisphere. The Waitaki Dam was built by hand in the 1930s.
  • Waitaki is the birthplace of New Zealand's frozen meat trade, at Totara Estate.
  • Clarks Mill at Reidston is the country's only surviving water-powered flour mill.