The Highlights from Omarama to Duntroon
January 15, 2021 • Eleanor Hughes
6 min read
Cycling the scenic Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail from Omarama to Duntroon, I rode through small towns, alongside man-made lakes, discovered incredible geological formations and some of the region’s history. Over a distance of approximately 100 kilometres, in the South Island’s southern Canterbury region, all of the sights are also accessible by car.
Omarama is home to the Omarama Hot Tubs, ten private spas filled with mountain water heated by a wood fire. Soak beneath the sky where, on a clear night, thousands of stars twinkle. There’s little light pollution in this town of around 300 inhabitants.
The Clay Cliffs are 16 kilometres from Omarama. These pinnacles of layered silt and gravel, formed around four million years ago, can be seen from the road, but are best viewed close up. Located on private property, with an honesty box at the gate ($5/car), a gravel road leads close to the cliff’s base, where a short uphill walk delivers visitors to a narrow opening. Once entered, you’ll find yourself surrounded by soaring, spectacular, yellow, orange and pinkish jagged stalagmite-like pillars. It’s just ‘wow’!
Only 24 kilometres separate Omarama and Otematata, but take your time and enjoy Lake Benmore, New Zealand’s largest man-made lake. Created in the 1960s as part of the Waitaka hydro-electric scheme, in summer boaties fish for trout or salmon, or enjoy water sports such as wake-boarding on its deep blue water. There are a number of spots to stop for a cooling swim, such as Pumpkin Point or Sailors Cutting. You might even meet a local family who’ll take you water-skiing, like I did!
By bike, this is an easy ride, except for a short steep section up to the Otematata saddle. A shuttle could be arranged back to Omarama... or keep on riding! It’s all fairly flat to Duntroon with the majority off road.
Otematata was built for dam workers in 1958. It’s population of 200 swells in the summer with holidaymakers enjoying the surrounding lakes. The easy, one-hour Otematata Wetlands Walk provides swimming and picnic spots on the shores of willow-draped Lake Aviemore.
Otematata to Kurow
Take the less travelled road from Otematata to Kurow. Loch Laird Road leads to the top of Benmore Hydroelectric Dam where views of the dam and Waitaki River, twisting between flat land and brown hills to Lake Aviemore, can be had.
Te Akatarawa Road descends from here to follow Lake Aviemore’s northern side, dotted with camping grounds and some lovely swimming spots.
A terrific Swim spot
The picturesque Deep Stream Walking Track begins off Te Akatarawa Road, at a small, off-road parking area. An approximately 20-minute walk along a narrow path brings visitors to a viewpoint overlooking tranquil waters lying at the base of steep rock faces, a flooded canyon. The path does go further but was quite overgrown when I was there.
Te Akatarawa Road joins SH83 at Aviemore Dam, built in 1968, which follows Lake Waitaki. The road goes through what remains of Lake Waitaki Village, a historically-listed group of quaint, stone cottages built for Waitaki Dam workers in 1929, and past Waitaki Dam lookout. In summer, purple lupins make the area even more picturesque.
Kurow has antique shops, cafés, and a largish supermarket. Its museum, worth spending at least an hour in, is packed with local history, relics from farming, antiquated household items... you’ll probably have no idea what half the stuff is! Homage is also paid to Richie McCaw, an ex-All Black captain, who grew up just outside the town.
Kurow Hill Walkway gives amazing views over the snaking, blue Waitaki River and township. It’s a little steep, the 1.1km track taking around 25 minutes one way, but armchairs on the way provide a great resting spot!
Main Street Kurow
Between Kurow to Duntroon you’ll come across the Takiroa Maori rock drawings on limestone cliffs on SH83. Some drawings are rather faint and there aren’t a lot of them but it’s worth stopping for a quick look and to read the information. Drawings at Maerewhenua Rock Art Site, situated 500m south of SH83 on the Livingstone-Duntroon Road, are slightly easier to see.
The rock art is part of the Vanished World Fossil Trail, which includes whale fossils, Elephant Rocks and around 20 other geological sites extending to Oamaru and the Moeraki Boulders. Most however is centred nearby Duntroon and a trail brochure can be purchased at Duntroon’s Vanished World Centre.
Vanished World Centre
The surrounding area of Duntroon once lay below the ocean and at volunteer-run Vanished World Centre fossils of shark-toothed dolphins, giant penguins, whales, sharks and shells, as well as rocks, gold and minerals, all found in the local area, are displayed. It also has a great selection of geology and history books.
This town of less than 100 inhabitants was established around 1870. The 1890’s blacksmiths, now named Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop, still stands, classified as a Category One historic building by Heritage New Zealand with items like the forge, bellows, anvil, and horseshoes still there. In working order, demonstrations and courses are available during weekends or by arrangement.
Also on the main street is the Duntroon Gaol, originally built in 1910, with stocks outside.
Elephant Rocks lie in a paddock on private land on the Island Cliff-Duntroon Road, around six kilometres from Duntroon. These massive, grey, limestone boulders featured in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It’s possible to walk amongst them, for free.
The Omarama Top 10 Holiday Park is located on the main road, a large, quiet camping ground surrounded by trees, and a few metres from Omarama Hot Tubs.
Sailors Cutting has basic camping facilities run by the Waitaki District Council. It can be full between late December and mid-January.
Otematata Holiday Park and Lodge offers various types of accommodation and a swimming pool, while other basic camping grounds are available on the southern side of Lake Aviemore, run by the Waitaki District Council (open from September through to May).
Basic camping grounds on the northern side of Lake Aviemore are run by Waimate District Council.
Kurow Holiday Park is situated on the Waitaki River, offering various types of accommodation and kayaks to use. It’s a short walk from the town centre.
Duntroon Domain Camping Ground is run by Waitaki District Council and offers cooking, laundry and shower facilities.