Let's look at the time of islands and shallow seas, some 25-30 million years ago. The Waitaki Valley was under a sea, full of life. Shark-toothed Dolphins swam in large shallow bays supplied by nutrient-rich waters. Marine life included plants and animals, large and small, soft or with skeletons. Their remains broke down after death to form white limey sand on the seafloor. As the sand was buried over time, it hardened, gradually forming limestone - the “Whitestone” of our region.
in THE VALLEY OF the whales
....with Gondwana, a southern supercontinent that broke apart into new lands near the end of the age of dinosaurs. One of these fragments was Zealandia - 'the 8th continent' and the foundation of modern Aotearoa New Zealand.
our story begins...
By 5 million years ago, an active plate boundary developed, late in the history of Zealandia. The stunning Southern Alps rose, growing as fast as fingernails.
In the last 2 million years, southern glaciers carved the majestic wilderness of Fiordland.
More recently, this limestone with its history of fossils, was rapidly forced to the surface by the movement of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.
Uplift and erosion have formed outcrops of rock in which we can see the fossil evidence of the past.
a land of moa hunters
oN a vanished world
Along An ancient super highway
Zealandia drifted from Gondwana into the Pacific, carrying with it some ancient lineages of flora and fauna that have survived to the present. Plesiosaurs patrolled the shores. Dinosaurs - originally here - have gone, but kauri and beech forests, and wrens and tuataras, are amongst the survivors on modern Aotearoa.
As Zealandia drifted, it was stretched and thinned by geological forces, so that it cooled and submerged. Wide shallow seas surrounded low islands. Volcanoes erupted at weaknesses in the earth's crust, with activity ongoing today. Rich marine faunas were fossilised in limestone.
The mighty Waitaki River provided a natural route for local Māori as they travelled back and forth between the East and West coasts of the South Island leaving a Rock Art legacy on the limestone.
A penguin paradise
Diverse birds thrived on the mountains and plains, and in the grasslands and forests of Zealandia, just before humans arrived. Flightless birds include the kiwi, moa and adzebill. Flying birds ranged from tiny wrens to the mountain dwelling parrot, the kea, and the Haast’s Eagle. Our pre-human shores were a penguin paradise, home to the Kairuku penguin, as tall as a man.
The arrival of humans to our region over 500 years ago was to change the landscape forever. Our earliest settlers arrived on a landscape where enormous Haast's eagles preyed upon moa, towering flightless birds.
The Waitaki river mouth was the location of one of the largest ancient Māori settlements in New Zealand with evidence of extensive moa hunting and moa ovens.
The next wave of settlers from across the globe found fertile alluvial flatlands and pockets of rich volcanic soil, a land naturally suited to agriculture because vast areas were treeless and little clearing was required. Wheat initially brought prosperity to the region and the world's first frozen meat industry followed.
There are fossils in the limestone and other rocks. The challenge is to find them! Fossils have been extracted and examined by scientists to help understand the origins of modern species. Other important fossils now bear names from the local area. “In situ” fossils – whales in the rock - can be seen at Anatini and Earthquakes. These are stunning unique geological sites that take the viewer's imagination back through deep time.
A story without an end...
...the opportunities are there, and like the fossils, they are waiting to be discovered.
A city of whitestone
To get products to overseas markets required a town and a port. So grew Ōamaru – a unique Victorian town full of grand neo-classical limestone buildings. This was truly a Whitestone City in its heyday.
Why does this tiny town have so many grand limestone buildings? The choice was simple. There were few trees and the abundant limestone was easy to cut and shape and proved to be a durable building material.
A geological wonderland
The Waitaki region has diverse geology - It is not all limestone! Ōamaru town is built on a long-extinct volcano. The Moeraki Boulders are massive rock spheres eroding from a coastal outcrop. At Ōmarāmā, there are the eroding bad-lands of “Clay Cliffs” while near Duntroon are the huge limestone hummocks of ”Elephant Rocks”. Many interesting and varying geological features form a “trail” for you to see and explore.
The richest Earth
Diatomite is one of Waitaki's prehistoric jewels. Formed 35 million years ago when the area was under the sea, these deposits contain microscopic fossilised organisms. In the late 1800s, Victorian era scientists and enthusiasts would extract the world famous Ōamaru microscopic diatoms and display them in exquisite arrangements on glass slides that could only be seen under a microscope.