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Exploring New Zealand

Twizel Area Guide

High country station gate and road with the snow
capped Benmore Range behind - ©
The small town of Twizel, 161 kilometres inland from Timaru, was built in the 1960s to house workers on the massive Waitaki hydroelectric power project, but since then the town has found a new role as a base for travellers wishing to explore the area's turquoise lakes and visit New Zealand's highest mountain, Mount Cook, a 45-minute drive away.

Twizel lies in the heart of the Mackenzie Country, a beautiful inland basin created in the last Ice Age, with its wide open spaces, blue lakes and broad expanses of tussock grassland giving way to the foothills of the southern alps.

The drive to Twizel from Christchurch, or via Timaru on state highway 8, takes you past the lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki, the turquoise colour created by fine particles of rock suspended in the water which cause it to refract light. The Mount Cook lookout at the southern end of Lake Pukaki is the place to stop for stunning views of the mountain and the peaks surrounding it, the lake in the foreground.

The town of Twizel was planned in line with a Scandinavian layout, its streets radiating out from the central ring road, Mackenzie Drive. The Twizel Visitor Centre is on the northern side of Market Place, with the shopping centre across the car park providing the town's focal point.

The magnificent scenery around Twizel brought Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson here to film the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and most of the town's residents were involved in the film in some way, many working as extras. The Twizel Visitor Centre takes bookings for tours to the high country merino sheep farm Ben-Ohau Station, where the final battle scenes in The Return of the King were filmed.

Three kilometres south of Twizel on state highway 8 is the Department of Conservation's Kaki/Black Stilt Visitor Hide, a conservation project aimed at saving the world's rarest wading bird from extinction. DOC conducts one-hour tours of the hide during spring and summer when you can see these unique native birds with their distinctive black plumage and long red legs.

Continue south another 24 kilometres to the junction of state highways 8 and 83 to find the small settlement of Omarama, or 'Place of Light' in Maori. Omarama has one of the best gliding environments in the world, and its clear skies and unique thermal air currents have attracted gliding pilots from all over the world, including American billionaire Steve Fossett, who has set a gliding speed record here and made altitude-breaking record attempts. The Visitor Centre will advise on scenic gliding flights.