“What is that?” I asked. “Would you believe it is a shark-toothed dolphin?” he answered. We were in the middle of South Island farmland 400 metres above sea level miles from the ocean.
Millions of years ago the cataclysmic geological past of New Zealand provided us with some of the most unique and fantastic natural wonders on earth. The sea deposited layers of marine sand and mud seventy million years ago in what is now the Waitaki Valley region when it was under hundreds of metres of water. As time evolved volcanoes created deposits and then eroded. Limestone formed in the shallow seas of 25 million years ago. Fish, penguins, dolphins and whales, that were the local inhabitants, died and their remains came to rest in the sand and mud. The most exciting geological wonders on earth have been uncovered in the Waitaki Valley north of Oamaru.
A very dedicated group of local residents in partnership with the University of Otago have created a Fossil Trail that everyone can follow and actually experience all in close walking distance from your vehicle. The world-renowned discoveries by the Department of Geology are on display at the Vanished World display in Duntroon. Through the efforts of dedicated and hard working local volunteers the opportunity to get an up close and personal look is available. Many of the people involved own the farms where the fossils have been unearthed and can give you a very personal story about the activities in the area. All of them are extremely well versed in all phases of the fossils and the time line involved.
So let’s begin our adventure through time. First I suggest you go to the Vanished World building in Duntroon to see the displays have a talk to the people in charge and then take the trail as provided. It is a self-guided drive but the major sites have on-site signposts with information relative to where you are and what you can see. There is a map provided at Vanished World but it does not provide good instructions or directions on the roads to take so I will lay it all out now in order to make it easier for you to find the best way to experience everything.
First if you are coming south on route 83 after touring the Mckenzie Country eighteen kilometres south of Kurow you will come to Duntroon. If you are driving south on Route One there are two turn-offs. Thirty-eight kilometres south of Timaru past the town of Makikihi turn west on route 82 to take a back country tour so as to have the opportunity to visit Waimate the Wallaby and Strawberry Capital.
The road continues south to the Waitaki River then turns north to cross the river at Kurow. Great spot to freedom camp on the south side of the river by the way. Then turn east until you reach the town of Duntroon. Another way to get there is to either continue on Route One from the north and turn west on route 83 at Pukeuri or from the south on Route One take the same turn-off nine kilometres north of Oamaru.
After your visit to the Vanished World display the trip through the area begins first with a visit four kilometres north of Duntroon on Route 83 to limestone cliffs where early Maori cave drawings were discovered and are still evident on the cliff walls. At the north end of Duntroon turn on to Earthquakes Road, located behind the Oamaru stone church, where the journey through time begins. The road is sealed at the beginning but soon becomes gravel. The roads are well maintained throughout the twists and turns of the entire backcountry region and are easy driving.
From here on the entire area is a fascinating world of strange geological formations. It is three kilometres to the first information sign and parking spot for the Earthquakes area so named because it was once thought the large house size boulders must have been dislodged by earthquakes but in reality were split away when the land that actually slumped thousands of years ago. Fossils are quite visible in the limestone where rare whalebones are signs it was once an ancient sea. Continue along Earthquakes Road, cross the bridge (six kilometres); turn left on to the tar-sealed Livingston-Duntroon Road then turn right to the next and most fascinating area in the entire journey - Elephant Rocks. A stroll is a must through these giant limestone rocks sculpted by eons of erosion where this valley full of remarkable visuals cannot be experienced anywhere else in this abundance. It is a kilometre along the road from Elephant Rocks to the sign posted Anatini area.
Within a short walk you will find baleen whale fossils exposed that were originally buried at the bottom of the sea in waters 100 metres deep somewhere around 25 million years ago. A recent event of note was this is the valley where filming of the great battle scene in the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia” took place. Three kilometres along you will be driving along the Awamoko Stream that has formed the “Valley of the Whales”. The limestone along this stretch contains many shells plus the remnants of dolphins and rare whales. At the next road junction (2 kms) a turn to the right will head you toward Dansey’s Pass Road. On this route you will discover three varieties of rock formations. First, on Pryde’s Gully Road, you encounter the remains of an old quarry of “Waitaki Stone” different than the well-known “Oamaru Stone”.
Forty million years ago molten basalt thrust into the mud of the seafloor and today forms the spectacular columns on Dip Hill Road. At this point in your trip it is a good time to continue on to the Dansey’s Pass Holiday Park one of the most tranquil and beautiful settings in all of New Zealand. The owner, Neil Thorpe, can regale you for hours, in his Scottish brogue, about the geology of the area. A real experience is to walk along the Maerewhenua River on the edge of the camp and see first hand the quartz rich Otago schist outcroppings in the riverbed formed over 150 million years ago.
Many a gold miner in the early days found it was indeed gold bearing schist. No doubt the lucky can still find gold not to mention perhaps a trout or two that calls the large river pool home. Now lets back track to where we turned off on to Dansey’s Pass Road and head toward Ngapara a town that once was a thriving community. An old mill of local limestone dominates as you pass through. Six hundred meters to the southeast coal and quartz gravels formed about 55 millions years ago are visible. Sixteen kilometres you will come to the small town of Enfield and enter the Waiareka Valley as you come to Weston the home of Oamaru stone. Turn right then jog left and you are on the road to Oamaru.
While in Oamaru be sure to take the time to see one of the most spectacular wildlife events to be experienced. After a day in the fossil fields head out to the Blue Penguin colony where just after dark you will enjoy the return of the blue penguin adults from a day’s fishing. How’s this for a lifestyle? They leave before daylight and swim 25 kilometers out to sea where they may dive over 1000 times to a depth of 100 metres to feed. These 30cm little birds then swim back to land, climb a steep bank, and scurry to their demanding chicks for the nightly food feast. A not to be missed occasion. While at the Blue Penguin Colony take a cliff side trek along Graves Track, a short distance, where what is known as pillow lava occurs. It is the result of masses of molten lava hardening on the sea bottom. You probably will get to see Boris the resident fur seal while there. After Oamaru turn left on the edge of town and drive along the coast road taking a left through Kakanui about ten minutes away.
This side road leads to a beach and an area where 34 million years ago dark crystal laden mineral breccia erupted from deep in the earth. Makes a very interesting shoreline that is easily investigated. Thus we have taken the opportunity to visit an area few ever see with the exception of international geologists who arrive regularly to pick away at new discoveries.
It is almost an unexplored world by the normal traveler. If you enjoy the thought of seeing life preserved in limestone, as it was 25 million years ago, plus driving through dramatic countryside off the beaten track try this one. It is an easy drive and one with a lot of special reasons to experience. Just imagine…………a shark-toothed dolphin in the world of Narnia.
Duntroon Vanished World Information:
Summer hours - Open 7 days 10 am –4pm (October – April inclusive).
Winter - 11am –3pm, weekends.
Reservations or Questions: State Highway 83 Duntroon P O Box 8 Waitaki Valley
Phone:(03) 431 2024