The Great Waitaki – An Iconic Valley - Part I

Alps to Ocean through the Waitaki Valley

When we talk of contrasts, the Waitaki river valley has them in bucket loads. You can attack this routeway, from either end.. either Ocean to Alps - the Pacific Coast just north of Oamaru, or Alps to Ocean from Omarama on the inland Queenstown to Christchurch highway.

Clay Cliffs in the Waitaki Valley - Location: 10km (6 miles) out of Omarama. Turn off the State Highway 83 onto Quailburn Road and then onto the unsealed Henburn Road.

We're going to head inland from the Pacific Coast on the south side of the river, which is the north of the wider Otago region, while the northern bank over the river, is the southern part of the great Canterbury area.
Confused? Well don't be, just follow the signpost, north of Oamaru, turn inland and and it's a largely straight run on an easy road.

The Waitaki river has already done an incredible amount of work, by the time you see it, a braided bed out of your right side windows.

The Waitaki hydro scheme, is arguably New Zealand's greatest. Hydroelectric power remains the primary source of renewable energy in this country, with the bulk of it generated in the South Island, yet used in the North Island. Just another reason we call the South Island, the 'Mainland'.

Some years ago, an old broadcasting colleague of mine was part of a group, that produced a song calling for 'Mainlanders' to..'cut the cable'. The notion is still popular and lends weight to what many in the south, think of big city Auckland folk, or 'JAFA'. Just another (Fabulous) Aucklander!

Though musically, even more specific to this amazing river valley, is 'The Ballad of the Waitaki'. I think co-written by another great old radio mate, long since passed, Bill Timmings and something of a hit for 'The Plainsmen', for a short period in the late 1960's. 

Rippling waters of Waitaki, sing your song of power to me
Sing of tall distant mountains, Mackenzie's lake so free..
So flow on again Waitaki on your journey to the sea
Making power for all New Zealand, better light for folks like me

There's more and it's all there on youtube. Just get your boots, brushed cotton shirt and cowboy hat sorted and crank out a few moves in the line dance..

The Waitaki system has eight power stations online from Lake Tekapo on down. A handful of significant dams, also feature, the Ohau group, Benmore on a huge man made lake, Aviemore and Waitaki itself, at the end of the line. You can get up close to these, especially the impressive Benmore dam near Otematata, as you head further inland.

Oamaru to Duntroon via the south bank of the Waitaki

Just north of Oamaru the signpost pushes you inland to Kurow, on State Highway 83. While Kurow at near 65kms is barely an hour away, there's plenty see en route.

Farmland stretches either side of the highway with irrigation units here and there and in 30 minutes or thereabouts, you're in the wee town of Duntroon, population 114 and named after the Campbell family castle Duntrune, from 1825, on Loch Crinan in Argyll, Scotland. 

Duntroon, I've a confession to make. Some years ago while on the Alps to Ocean cycle trail, I was desperate for a bathroom. It was a beautiful, still Sunday morning and the fresh, white and very clean public convenience on the main road was going to be my life saver.

After sitting for quite some time, while marveling at my luck and subsequently using 'half a tree' in the mop up process, I was horrified to learn the plumbing wasn't working! Riddled with guilt and wracking my brains for a solution, I happened upon the only people I could see about the place at Nicol's Forge and Blacksmith.

I related my quandry and the charming lady stoking the fire, said she'd put it on her list of 'things to do' for the day. 'Don't worry mate', she said, 'it's not as if I've a lot on my plate'. You will have, I thought.. Her blacksmith shop is a gem and the passage of time well recorded in the historic pieces about the place. 


Can I eat and stay in Duntroon?

The last time I was there the hotel was undergoing a renovation and was closed. Though apparently, along with the Flying Pig Cafe, it's now a great place to relax and as the town is the penultimate stop on the Alps to Ocean ride, there's also accommodation available.

What else is there to see and do?

Duntroon is a pleasant, sleepy hollow, though if geology is your thing, then you'll want to visit the Vanished World Heritage Centre, or you want to stretch your legs a stroll through the wetlands taking in the Brewery Hole is well worth it.

Alps to Ocean Cycleway

Visit the nearby Danseys Pass and hotel

As a side trip from Duntroon and well signposted out of the town, Danseys Pass is a must visit. It'll take you just over an hour to get there, as you climb the steep, winding, shingle road for just under 40kms, to 935 metres. This can be challenging in winter, though the reward near the summit in the Kakanui range, is the stunning Danseys Pass hotel. 
A genuinely historic and original pub built in 1862, it boasts a huge open fire, a holiday camp and 19 double bedrooms. 
There's a purpose built lodge and lots of parking in an amazing setting.
Just 15 minutes further on is the equally historic town of Naesby and the ice rink and luge, in season.

What else is Duntroon known for?

As mentioned the town is the penultimate stop for the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail. The trail swings into the hills behind Duntroon on the last leg through to the finish in Oamaru. This 54km leg of the trail  traverses rolling hills, steepish downs, valleys and old railway routes and adjacent tunnels. Elephant Rock, nearby fossil locations and diverse farmland operations are also part of the trail.

Danseys Pass will lead you straight to the Hotel

Duntroon to Kurow

Leaving town, passing the aforementioned white washed public toilet on your driver's side, Kurow is about 20 minutes or 23kms further up the valley. The area is still largely farmland with viticulture also creeping into the mix. Here you might sneak a coffee or even a glass of wine. There's also the Takiroa Maori rock art site and carpark, on your left hand side should you feel so inclined.

Welcome to Kurow

Kurow is another small town in the district with a population of more than 300, close to Lake Waitaki and at the bottom end of the Waitaki hydro system. 

What's Kurow famous for?

Kurow's fame has skyrocketed is recent years, largely due to one person. Aruably one of the world's rugby playing greats comes from the area. Richie McCaw was an All Black captain, who played 148 test matches for his country, winning 2 world cups. His name is legendary here and there's a statue to him. He remains hugely popular and in keeping with his family name, can apparently bang out some sounds on the bagpipes, which would sound most appropriate echoing round these highlands.  

Though there is more to this town than just the McCaw mantle. Kurow is an important service centre in the area and is closely associated with the little village of Hakataramea, just over the bridge on the north side of the Waitaki. Haka, as it's known for short, is at the confluence of the river of the same name and the Waitaki and situated at the base of the famous farming valley of the same name.

McCaw Country Kurow

Is their accommodation and places to eat in Kurow?

Easy answer is yes and the options are very good. Kurow is also on the Alps to Ocean route so the amenities are well catered to visitors. A complete range of accommodation is available from backpackers, to holiday homes and luxury lodges, with similar dining choices. 

The hotel, the Wild Sage Cafe and the Waitaki Braids Coffee and Cafe, are favourites of mine, though the selection certainly doesn't stop there.

Rather, trust the locals, they're friendly and will readily stare you in the right direction. They're also very proud of their history and standing, as far as small town New Zealand goes, where Maori, European settlement and agriculture and the hydro development, are rich elements in this town's evolution, notwithstanding nearby lakes and waterways, being very popular for water sports.

What other sports is Kurow known for?

While cycling, hiking and all manner of boating pursuits are popular in season, Kurow can also have some mini ski town moments. Behind the town and up a sporty access road is the Awakino Ski area. A budget operation for decades due to the dedication of one family, it's grown in popularity as a new generation of skiers and snowboarders discover this gem. Served by rope tows only, with a truly original on mountain lodge, Awakino is positioned where it can receive significant dumps of snow and of a winter's weekend, can by its own standards, be very busy. 

Awakino Club Ski Area

Where to after Kurow?

Traveling further up the valley will take you to the dam at Lake Waitaki. Beyond that, is similar at Lake Aviemore, with another small town on the route, Otematata, near the base of the spillway at the Benmore dam. 

Or you can cross the bridge over the Waitaki at Kurow, swing right and head down the north bank of the river to the Coast, or via the Waihao Forks to Waimate and ultimately onto Timaru and Christchurch.

Traveling the north bank, is not dissimilar to driving on the south side. Established farms on sprawling countryside. The diversion via the Waihao Forks takes past the hotel of the same name.

This pub holds a special place in Kiwi folklore, as here stands a bottle of beer with a touching story.When local farmer, Ted d'Auvergne headed off to WW II, he apparently told his mate, 'we'll drink this when I get back'. Ted never made it and the bottle has stood since in a glass display, as reminder of the many who never returned. 

Kurow's 15 minutes of fame

The 1938 act promoting 'the care and welfare of citizens was a government responsibility', which was described as the 'first comprehensive and integrated system of social security in the western world', was born here in Kurow. Sparked by a visit from the then Labour party opposition leader in New Zealand, Michael Joseph Savage, who was appalled by the conditions the men building the Waitaki dam were working in. A few later as Prime Minister, Savage and co, introduced the act designed to provide support and welfare in such situations. 

No doubt the saying, great things come in small packages! Click here to read Part II about The Great Waitaki Valley.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 2 Mar 2023 (Last updated: 2 Mar 2023)

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