Discover the Blue Lake at Saint Bathans. © Radius Images

Ten awesome outdoor adventures in Otago


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1. Clutha Gold Trail 

The Clutha Gold Trail is an easy meander along the Clutha Mata-au River, across one solid day or two or three more leisurely ones. Starting at Roxburgh Dam, discover The Lonely Graves, Jimmy’s Pies, and the evolving Central Otago landscape before ending up in the gorgeous town of Lawrence. Only a short detour from there to Gabriels Gully, the site of the strike that began the great gold rush in 1861. 

2. Sutton Salt Lake

Still within the city limits of Dunedin, the schist tors and Rock and Pillar Ranges that dominate the Strath Taieri landscape feel like another planet. New Zealand’s only inland saltwater lake has no outlet, naturally refilling and evaporating as the weather dictates. Pack a picnic in Middlemarch before heading 10km out of town, it's also more than manageable on two wheels if you have them handy. 

3. Organ Pipes

The Organ Pipes provide one of those head-scratching moments of wonder only nature can deliver. A thatch of hexagonal columns that once were lava, their peak offers spectacular views to the north of Dunedin. Drive up and park at Mt Cargill, a fine vantage point in itself, and hike in from there. Allow an hour for your troubles, a little longer if you want to stop off at Butters Peak on the way. 

4. Moeraki Boulders

Araiteuru was the waka that carried the ancestors of local iwi to the South Island. When it was shipwrecked at Matakaea (Shag Point), its eel pots, gourds and kūmara were thrown overboard, turning to stone at Koekohe Beach. Around fifty of these spherical stones dominate the shoreline near Moeraki, the largest measuring two metres across and weighing seven tonnes. Kaimoana has remained central to the settler history of the village, but if you’re less of a hunter/gatherer type, head to Fleur’s Place instead. 

5. Naseby

Naseby’s very identity is forged in the ice of the Central Otago winter. The indoor curling stadium offers a reliable opportunity to get the stones and brooms out, but if the outdoor rink gets thick enough then a bonspiel is called, summoning hardy curlers, their tam o’shanters and appropriately fortifying Scottish beverages. There’s an ice luge track for the slightly more adventurous, and its preserved 19th-century architecture gives the whole place a Frontier Town Museum vibe. 

6. Orokonui Ecosanctuary 

Spread across more than 300ha, the Orokonui Ecosanctuary has been the landmark biodiversity project on Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island). You can book guided tours or wander with your best bird-spotting binoculars, getting up close with some of our most special native species: birds, eels, lizards and fungi. It may be a visitor from across the ditch, but the eucalyptus forest is home to New Zealand’s tallest tree. 

7. Saint Bathans 

The pub has been the heart of many a rural community, but few take it as seriously as Saint Bathans, where all 22 residents voted in favour of 10pm closing in 1967. As notorious as it is salubrious, the Vulcan Hotel (est 1882) is a magnet for globetrotting ghostbusters thanks to the recurring presence of The Rose in Room One. Mud brick houses are still a recurring feature – St Bathans Hall is the longest-serving such-made hall in the country – and the dazzling man-made Blue Lake reflects the minerals the pit was originally dug to discover. 

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8. Huriawa Pā

Once the stronghold of Te Wera, the fortification was under siege for months in the 18th century, one of many battles between him and his cousin Taoka. Family, eh? The 2.5km loop track is well formed and easy going, offering great views up and down the wild Otago coast. If you want your local storytelling a little more personalised, Karitane Māori Tours offer guided walking tours of the peninsula, or if you were more keen on exploring at sea level, waka tours on the Waikouaiti River. 

9. Matanaka Sea Caves

Paddle out by kayak from Waikouaiti and you can find half a dozen of the world’s longest sea caves, the eponymous one running to 1500m, including the Pink Cathedral, Caramel Cave, and Noisy. The Matanaka adventure is not for the faint-hearted and finding a local guide is advisable. Not just for safety reasons, they can also be tricky to find, given their unusual form that sees you entering through small gaps before the caves and underground beaches expand out in front of you.

10. Trotters Gorge

If you prefer your caving experiences to be a little less daunting, then Trotters Gorge offers up something more family friendly. Sculpted over time by the river flowing through it, the caves are less than a kilometre in for junior explorers. Are we there yet? Yes! If you’ve got the time and energy, it’s worth pushing on for the two-hour loop out through the top of the kānuka forest; down into the native bush and back along dry river beds.   

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