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Otago Area Guide

Sheep grazing above Victory Beach and Wickliffe
Bay; Papanui Inlet left - ©
The beautifully diverse province of Otago in the South Island ranges over the dramatic coastal scenery of the east coast, the sun-baked interior of Central, and the blue southern lakes and mountains and the adventure centres of Queenstown and Wanaka.

Driving south from Christchurch on state highway 1 down the east coast, the broad Waitaki River marks out the northern boundary of Otago. Continue south to find Oamaru, North Otago's main city, with its solidly built neoclassical limestone buildings, historic harbour precinct, and coastal penguin colonies.

Take a break at Moeraki, 30 kilometres south of Oamaru, and walk down to the sandy beach to see the stunning Moeraki Boulders. The boulders are thought to have been formed in ancient sea floor sediments, lime from the sea accumulating over a fossil core, the concretion growing into perfectly spherical shapes up to three metres in size.

It's another hour's drive south over the hills, and down again before you see the broad vista of the Scottish city of the south, Dunedin, spread out before you. The city's name means Edinburgh in Gaelic, and Dunedin continues to be influenced by its Scottish Presbyterian heritage, providing an interesting counterpoint to the University of Otago students who flood the city during term time.

Dunedin had its heyday in the gold rushes of the 19th century, when gold was discovered in Central Otago. The discovery sparked rapid commercial expansion as gold prospectors descended on the area, hoping to strike it rich. The old gold mining towns of Central Otago are marked on the Otago Goldfields Heritage Trail, and you can still see old stone buildings, mining equipment and mining waste in places. The Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust has an excellent website about the history of the gold fields, and about the Otago Goldfields Cavalcade, an annual re-enactment of the arrival of goldminers, by horse, wagon, or on foot, to the goldfields' towns around the region.

Central Otago, or 'Central' as it's known by locals, has an extreme climate unusual in New Zealand with hot, dry summers and icy cold winters. It's a perfect place to observe the passing of the seasons: visit Arrowtown for its Autumn Festival, when deciduous trees lining the town's main streets turn red and gold; go to Queenstown for its zany Winter Festival; enjoy luscious cherries, apricots and peaches in Roxburgh in summer; or join the locals for the Spring Blossom Festival in Alexandra.

There are plenty of ways to explore the interior, but one of the nicest is the Taieri Gorge Railway from Dunedin. This old scenic rail line takes you through the rugged Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels dug by hand more than 100 years ago. On summer Sundays, the train continues to the old gold town of Middlemarch, where you can begin the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 150-kilometre route open to cyclists, horse riders and walkers. The trail follows the trackbed of the former Otago Central Branch railway line between Middlemarch and Clyde, and passes through spectacular inland scenery ranging from mountain ranges to hills and gorges and through old gold mining towns.

To the west, the southern lakes district centres on bustling Queenstown, a bungy jumping and winter sports centre set in an idyllic spot beside the deep blue serpentine Lake Wakatipu and hemmed in by the Remarkables and Eyre mountain ranges. Nearby Wanaka, its quieter sister, perches at the southern tip of beautiful Lake Wanaka, a boaties' paradise in summer, and a base for nearby ski areas in winter.

East Otago

The rolling green hills and picturesque coastal scenery of East Otago lie to the north of Dunedin, state highway 1 taking you up and over the outlying hills and down to the tranquil settlement of Karitane, and the farming towns of Waikouaiti and Palmerston.

The small fishing village of Karitane lies just off state highway 1, beside the Waikouaiti River estuary and bounded by the Karitane or Huriawa Peninsula, the site of a large Maori fortification in pre-European times. This quiet seaside holiday town is a relaxed place to go horse trekking, fishing, or kayaking on the river or estuary. The amazing Matanaka Caves, some with their own hidden underground beaches, can be explored from here on sea kayaking tours.

Nearby Waikouaiti, on state highway 1 forty-four kilometres north east of Dunedin, was to have been Otago's main settlement before it was displaced by Dunedin. The township was a major staging post for the Central Otago goldfields in the 19th century, virtually all goods coming in by sea in small coastal vessels and being offloaded at the mouth of the Waikouaiti River. The township was founded by a colourful character, the former whaler Johnny Jones, who built a homestead and settled down to farm at nearby Matanaka, amassing large parcels of land in the process. The original red wooden Matanaka Farm Buildings, thought to be the oldest in New Zealand, still stand in a glorious setting on the windswept headland above the sea. These marvellous old buildings, which comprise the original schoolroom, stables, granary, storehouse and unusual three-seat privy, evoke the spirit of an earlier time. To get to this isolated spot, turn off state highway 1 at the north end of Waikouaiti on to Edinburgh Street, then follow the private farm road up to the car park at Matanaka.

State highway 1 continues north to Palmerston, the main settlement in East Otago, and a junction town during the gold rush days, when prospectors turned west here to get to the Central Otago goldfields. Today Palmerston remains at a crossroads, state highway 1 continuing north to Oamaru, and state highway 85 following the once rough and arduous Pigroot wagon trail past historic goldmines and old goldfield towns north west into the heart of Central Otago. The Taieri Gorge Railway runs scenic train excursions on the Seasider from the Dunedin Railway Station to Palmerston and back, the railway line running along the coastal cliffs and offering stunning sea views.