The mysterious vortex at Steampunk HQ. © Camilla Rutherford

15 intriguing things to discover in Otago's Waitaki District

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Stretching inland from the North Otago coastline, the Waitaki District is rich in heritage and internationally significant geology. From Victorian architecture to fresh seafood, hot tubs, cycle trails and cheese, we’ve picked 15 unique things to discover. 

1.Clay Cliffs

The Clay Cliffs on the outskirts of Ōmarama are an incredibly photogenic, geological marvel well worth the short detour to the end of a gravel road. From a distance, the cliffs rise into the sky as if a giant has broken a chunk off the hillside. As you get up close, they tower above you in improbable spiky peaks, like landforms from another planet. Venture into crumbly gullies, enclosed by soaring layers of stacked gravel and sediment to get a real sense of scale. 

2. Deep Stream Track

Alongside Lake Aviemore you’ll find the Deep Stream Track. A lovely walking trail in its own right, with a well-formed track and a few sections of stairs, it’s also a beautiful spot for a dip in the hot summer months. The ‘deep stream’ is a flooded canyon of rugged rock filled with dark green water. Generally sheltered from the wind, it’s also a great place for kayaking and paddle boarding away from the buzz of motorboats on Lake Aviemore.

3. Fleur’s Place

The matriarch of New Zealand coastal dining, Fleur Sullivan runs her eponymous restaurant from a seaside spot on the Moeraki coast. In fact, the site was once an old whaling station, so fishing boats literally unload the catch from the restaurant’s own quota on the doorstep. It doesn’t get any fresher. The menu is likely to feature the local favourite blue cod, but depending on the day there’s usually a selection of moki, bluenose, gurnard, sole, flounder, hapuku and even crayfish.

4. Takiroa Rock Art

Not far from Duntroon you’ll find a limestone cave and rock formations decorated with ancient art works. Takiroa is a significant landmark for Ngāi Tahu, showing how the first people of this area travelled and lived hundreds of years ago. Paintings made from charcoal and red ochre depict abstract forms, birds, animals and people. While the first origins of the rock art are unclear, it is believed they were created in two distinct time periods, pre- and post-European settlement. 

5. Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is New Zealand’s longest ride, stretching 300km from Aoraki Mount Cook to the coast at Ōamaru. However, you can tackle one of the shorter sections that run through the Waitaki region. In Ōmarama, hire bikes from the team at Trail Adventures, and ride the easy section along the shores of Lake Benmore. The team will be waiting when you arrive at Sailors Cutting, so you don’t have to cycle all the way back. Unless, of course, you’d prefer to.

6. Elephant Rocks

There are no prizes for guessing how the Elephant Rocks got their name. The rocks, along with the Clay Cliffs and Moeraki’s famous boulders are all part of the 7,200 square-kilometre Waitaki Whitestone Geopark – where karst landscapes with their underlying limestone does weird and wonderful things above the surface. At Elephant Rocks, the bulbous boulders pop out of the grass like a herd of their namesake animals and you can climb over them or marvel and the sheer scale of these rocky formations.

7. Ōmarama Hot Tubs

One of Ōmarama’s most famous attractions is Hot Tubs Ōmarama – outdoor wood-fired hot tubs. Nestled in private corners of cleverly designed landscaping next to a small lake, the chemical-free hot tubs are utterly luxurious. Freshly filled for each group of visitors and heated by fragrant wood fires, each hot tub is complemented by a private changing room, carafes of chilled water and serene mountain views. It’s the ideal way to wind down after a day of adventuring. 

8. Ōamaru Victorian Precinct

First settled in 1853, Ōamaru was a popular spot with its sheltered port and flat, treeless plains. By the late 1800s, 6,000 people lived here, making the city the same size as Los Angeles at the time. Today, the most remarkable aspect of this historic town is the Whitestone architecture, forged from local limestone. Visiting the Victorian Precinct really is like stepping back in time, as some locals even dress in full Victorian clothing and ride penny farthings to work. Make sure you check out the quirky shops, art galleries, cafés and breweries that line the streets here. 

9. Moeraki Boulders

Head to Moeraki, just south of Ōamaru, to see the famous collection of about 50 round boulders strewn along Koekohe Beach; some perfect spheres, some fracturing along veins of quartz, others eroded away to little more than a pile of rubble. Up to two metres in diameter and best viewed at low tide, the Moeraki Boulders are rightly one of the region’s Must-Do’s. Rumour has it that back in the 1800s there were hundreds more boulders here, but people used to take them home as garden ornaments. 

10. Cucina

Set in another of Ōamaru’s historic Whitestone buildings constructed in 1871, Cucina is a contemporary fine-dining restaurant filled with South American, Spanish and Italian flair. Run by husband and wife team Pablo and Yanina Tacchini, the menu is centred around fresh, handmade pastas and generous portions of locally-sourced meat prepared with rich South-American flavours. The sumptuous dining room is also a treat for the botanically-minded, with more than 350 plants filling the space.

11. Anatini Fossil Site

Just up the road from the Elephant Rocks in Duntroon is another lesser-known, but even more remarkable attraction: the Anatini Fossil site. Reached by short walk through farmland you’ll find the fossils embedded in the limestone and preserved under a perspex canopy: the jaw bone, scapula and some ribs of a baleen whale. Because, once, this part of Waitaki was deep under the sea. The remains suggest that the whale would have been eight to ten metres long and after it died its bones were preserved in the Otekaike limestone more than 20 million years ago.

12. Steampunk HQ

Steampunk HQ is a weird and wonderful world of wacky creations. A mashup of mystical and macabre, it's Mad Max meets mad scientist. Inside, the HQ is dark and otherworldly, with displays like intergalactic organs, tinker workshops-slash-laboratories and the must-do Portal experience with it’s Instagram-friendly lights and mirrors. Check out the yard outside for bigger displays made out of Frankenstein tractors, train carriages and other rusty hulks that kids (and adults) can clamber into, on top of and through. 

13. Tōtara Estate

Another fascinating heritage site in the Waitaki Region is Tōtara Estate – a historic farm where New Zealand’s first ever shipment of frozen meat was prepared for transport to Britain. The Ōamaru stone buildings here were once part of the homestead on a 15,000-acre estate. Today, they’ve been restored to house displays telling the story of the area’s agricultural history. Meet friendly sheep, have a cup of billy tea and learn about farm life in Victorian times.

14. Blue Penguin Colony

Little Blue Penguins or Kororā established their colony on the rocky Ōamaru foreshore in the 1970s with 30 breeding pairs setting up camp. Today, thanks to conservation efforts the colony is now home to 190 penguin pairs. Every night the birds return home from the ocean as the sun begins to set. Watch quietly from grandstand seats as hosts provide informative commentary, explaining the lifecycles, habits and behaviours of the little blues. Visiting in the winter months is ideal, especially if you’ve got kids, as the ‘show' begins as early as 5.15pm, rather than 9pm in peak summer. 

15. Whitestone Cheese

Founded in 1987 Whitestone Cheese has grown from humble origins to become a household name. Take a tour of the Ōamaru factory that produces 25 different types of cheese across four categories – semi-soft, soft white, blue and fresh cheese – using between 14-17,000 litres of Friesian cow milk every day. Get a glimpse of the intriguing steps of the cheesemaking process and, of course, finish with samples and even more varieties to take home from onsite café and shop.

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