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The joys of camping are too many to mention, but near the top of our list would be simplicity. In a world that too often seems frenzied and superficial, it’s welcome relief to reach a quiet, unspoiled place and just relax. New Zealand is full of such havens, and long may they last.
Indeed, to visit many of its holiday parks and campgrounds is to take a step back in time, to days divided by mealtimes with little more than fresh air in between. These are the bush camps and seaside camps, those along the river and around the mountains. They are places where there’s little to do but pursue our pleasures at a leisurely pace – a little fishing or boating, walking, swimming or playing a good game of bat-down.
Waitaki Waters Holiday Park is a classic camp of this kind, a stone’s throw from the Waitaki rivermouth north of Oamaru. It’s a wild and dramatic place where mighty boulder banks shift at the whim of the river, while the beach is pounded by the Pacific Ocean waves. Here anglers stand ever hopeful, looking to land salmon, trout, kahawai and cod. A photo board in the camp kitchen re-tells the tales of memorable days and the ones that didn’t get away.
This sweet little camp was showing its age when bought by Derek Chapple in mid 2010. His vision was to revamp it without losing its simple, salty character.
Derek the dynamo has worked like a whirlwind. He’s tidied up the grounds, spruced up the old cabins, rebuilt an amenity block and installed new bathrooms and a kitchen. It still has the same spacious, park-like feeling, but with modern comforts such as high-pressure hot water and genuine customer care. Even the old-timers are happy with the improvements, and no doubt appreciate that the camp fees have stayed modest. In 2012 Derek was awarded the Holiday Parks Association Spirit of Hospitality Award. ‘It’s been one person with a bit of help, but I really enjoy what I do.’
Located on the southern side of the Waitaki Bridge, just three kilometres off State Highway 1, the holiday park is a great base for exploring the Waitaki District. For a starter, one of New Zealand’s best restaurants is just five-minutes’ drive away. The refreshingly down-to-earth Riverstone Kitchen is set in a barnlike building in a farmyard sporting a rustic potager garden and on-site butchery from whence many of its provisions emerge. The airy dining room is elevated to a state of refined elegance by the likes of plush leather sofas surrounding a roaring log fire, while beyond the slick concrete bar sharp-looking chefs whisk around in their whites. Fine local produce is transformed with silky kitchen skills into generous, full-flavoured dishes – the epitome of modern, New Zealand cuisine.
The capital of the Waitaki District is the fascinating town of Oamaru, 20km away, resplendent with imposing local limestone buildings. Twenty-three are registered Historic Places, with many significant examples standing shoulder to shoulder along the narrow lanes of the Victorian Precinct. The grand old bank chambers, hotels, grain and wool stores are now home to a quirky collection of jewellery, clothing stores, craft and curiosity shops, art galleries, a milliner, bookbinder and the charming Slightly Foxed bookshop. Locals in period costume sashay and stride to and fro.
The precinct also boasts a bakery, pub and tearooms, along with the ‘Loan & Merc’ tavern owned by lauded restaurateur, Fleur Sullivan. (Her fabulous fish café can be found near the famous Moeraki Boulders, 40km south of Oamaru.) Sharing the 1882 grain store premises is the New Zealand Whisky Collection where you can savour a wee dram in particularly fitting surroundings, while adjacent is Holmes Wharf and a pleasant new public park.
A fantastical old building on edge of the Victorian Precinct is where Oamaru stakes its claim as the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand. Fronted by a steam train inclined to fire up at night, Steampunk HQ is a science fiction fantasyland of gothic horrors, a place of dank dark dust, light bulbs in skulls, engine parts for body parts, and twisted humour with spooky static for a soundtrack. It’s an industrial purgatory dishing up new ideas for nightmares, but with creativity, ingenuity and engineering skills that will leave you totally in awe. Don’t miss it.
At the end of the spectrum are the impossibly cute creatures in Oamaru Harbour. The Blue Penguin Colony is a nesting site for the world’s smallest penguin, and while the visitor centre, shop and daytime tours provide an excellent background to the colony, evening viewing is the real drawcard. Pull up a pew with a grandstand view at dusk as the penguins return from their day’s fishing and toddle up the stony beach to their burrows.
There are many other attractions within the town, but also beyond. Heading inland from Waitaki Waters Holiday Park is the Waitaki Valley, a little travelled route that takes in unique sights and surreal scenery on its way to Omarama – the crossroads leading south to Wanaka and Queenstown, and north to Twizel and Mt Cook. The valley’s waterways and strikingly blue hydrolakes are legendary for fishing and boating, while the newly opened Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail from Mt Cook to Oamaru will allow visitors to explore this quiet, scenic part of the country at an appropriately slow pace.
For more information:
Waitaki Waters Holiday Park, 305 Kaik Road, Oamaru, www.campingoamaru.co.nz
Visit Oamaru (official visitor site) www.visitoamaru.co.nz