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The journey of New Zealand’s first UNESCO Global Geopark

The Waitaki Whitestone Geopark (WWG) had its origin in the Duntroon area, with marine fossil discoveries made by Professor Ewan Fordyce, his colleagues and students from the University of Otago’s Geology Department in the 1980s/90s. Excited by these discoveries, the local farmers were keen to share the stories of these treasures uncovered in their own backyard. In October 2000 Vanished World Inc was formed. This led to the creation of the Vanished World Trail featuring over 15 locations of geological interest spanning from Moeraki to Ōamaru along the coast, and inland through the Waitaki Valley. The Vanished World Centre in Duntroon was established – showcasing finds from the local area. These include whale, dolphin, and penguin fossils and casts. It was at this time that the idea of developing a UNESCO Global Geopark focussing on the Duntroon area was initially explored.

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In 2018 the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO invited Expressions of Interest for the first time to establish up to two UNESCO Global Geoparks in New Zealand. As this opportunity was explored, it became apparent that the Waitaki District is home to a range of potential geosites falling outside the original geographic extent of the Vanished World Trail. These geosites were identified and mapped, and the Geopark’s boundaries matched that of the Waitaki District. Because the Geopark encompasses the entire Waitaki District it was envisaged that all communities within the district should benefit from the project, and this supported the high level of local Council assistance for this district-wide initiative.

Professor Ewan Fordyce and landowner and founding member of Vanished World Inc John Hore installing the original interpretative signage at Waipata/ Earthquakes in 2005


The New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO visited the aspiring Geopark in 2018 to consider the Expression of Interest.

Professor Patrick McKeever gave a presentation to the Waitaki community during his visit in 2019

The Waitaki Whitestone Geopark Trust (WWGT) submitted its first application to the New Zealand Commission of UNESCO later in 2018. A chance presented itself in early 2019 to invite Professor Patrick McKeever, a founding member of the Global Geopark Network, to visit the Waitaki for an independent review of the application. Following his report and recommendations, the WWGT made the decision, in consultation with the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, to delay its application for UNESCO accreditation. While the basis and enthusiasm to become a UNESCO Global Geopark was there, the report detailed that the application was premature at this stage and several crucial issues needed to be addressed. 

In its early days, the Geopark strategy had a significant focus on the economic benefit it would bring to the district through increased international visitation. In 2019 the Trust, with support from the Waitaki District Council and the Provincial Growth Fund, engaged a consortium of economic and tourism consultants to develop a ‘Validation Case’ which would quantify the benefits of the Geopark in dollar terms, and proposed a model for how the Geopark could become self-funding. The Case proposed the development of three revenue-generating visitor attractions, managed by a new commercial entity which would have had the Council, Central Government, iwi, philanthropic funds and the private sector as cornerstone investors.

Several factors meant that the timing for such an ambitious investment programme was not right. The proposal necessitated a deeper relationship with iwi. The investment appetites of Council and Central Government towards visitor-related attractions had diminished since the earlier days of the Provincial Growth Fund. With hindsight, and the unexpected impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, a development path which focused more on community-led engagement and smaller capital investments was seen as the most suitable way forward for the Geopark. This is reflected in the new Geopark Strategy as it created a higher focus on providing community benefits through environmental stewardship, education, and local storytelling. 

McKeever’s report became an important guiding document for WWGT to work on issues such as a healthy budget, visibility, education initiatives, management structure, and staff. Later that year, in November 2019, WWGT had worked towards many of the recommendations and resubmitted its final dossier to the New Zealand Commission of UNESCO to be forwarded to UNESCO in Paris. The application process involves a field evaluation by two evaluators from the Global Geopark Network. These missions usually start in May the following year, however due to the Covid-19 pandemic this timeline was disrupted. Because New Zealand borders were closed and international travel restrictions were in place for about two years, the field evaluation was delayed until 2022. 

Regardless of this new timeline, the work for WWGT did not stop. During the pandemic, WWG worked with partners on interpretation and signage, targeted education programmes, and community participation through informative experiences and local projects. During this time, an additional Te Rūnanga o Moeraki member was appointed to the Trust to further strengthen the partnership with Ngāi Tahu Whānui. As a result, WWGT embarked on a significant project with Te Rūnanga o Moeraki to better reflect Te Ao Māori – the Māori world perspective - into the co-design of the Geopark. This led to rebranding the Geopark and a new Strategic Plan in 2021.

The four elements of the new logo represent the most precious aspects of the Waitaki itself: Mauka Ahuru - Sheltering mountains; Tangata - People ; Wai – River and Sea; Whenua - Fossil-rich Limestone

In July 2022 WWGT finally welcomed two evaluators Nickolas Zouros (Greece) and Anchel Belmonte Ribas (Spain) to the Waitaki District as they considered WWGT’s application. The three-day evaluation mission began with a Pōwhiri at the Moeraki Marae before visiting various sites including Te Kaihīnaki / Moeraki Boulders, Puketapu, Devil’s Bridge Wetland, Takiroa Māori Rock Art, Elephant Rocks, the Vanished World Centre, an education programme with Duntroon School, and a helicopter flight across the upper reaches of the region, just to name a few. 

Following the in-person mission, the evaluators produced and presented a written report to the Global Geoparks Council for consideration. This took place in September 2022 at the annual UNESCO Global Geoparks Council meeting. During this meeting the Council members assessed and considered nine new applications for UNESCO Global Geopark accreditation. The Council proposed 18 applications be forwarded to the Executive Board of UNESCO for its endorsement during the 2023 Spring (European) session - with Waitaki Whitestone Geopark being one of them. 

The establishment and management of the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark has been a collaborative endeavour from the start. WWGT would like to extend a special thank you to Te Rūnanga o Moeraki, Waitaki District Council, New Zealand Commission for UNESCO, Vanished World Inc, the Geology Department of the University of Otago, GNS Science, Tourism Waitaki, OceanaGold, Adair Craik Chartered Accountants, and communities of the Waitaki District as well as Geopark ambassadors for their support and involvement.

What's next? In order to ensure the quality of UNESCO Global Geoparks, they are subject to a thorough revalidation every four years to examine their functioning and quality. WWGT expects its first revalidation mission in 2026 and is working together with its partner to implement recommendations received by the UNESCO evaluators to further develop and improve the Geopark. 

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UNESCO evaluators Nickolas Zouros and Anchel Belmonte Ribas with the Geopark team upon their departure in Ōamaru

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