If every rock has a tale to tell, those of the Waitaki District on New Zealand’s South Island would fill a library. This is a land of limestone, sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone — basic sedimentary rock. Yet from this simple matter, time, wind, and rain have composed a wondrous story.
The narrative is in the Elephant Rocks, giant dollops of limestone scattered among grazing sheep on a farmer’s field. Their scooped shapes take on different forms, depending on where you stand and at what elevation. (Yes, visitors are allowed to scramble all over them.) These are the remains of shells, sea urchins, coral, plankton, and diatoms that drifted down to what was a seabed 25 million years ago, forming thick sheets of limestone. If you perch atop one of those boulders as the sun sets, the otherworldly landscape makes it clear why director Andrew Adamson filmed scenes from 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe here.
Near the town of Ōmārama, you can take in more fantastic features at the Clay Cliffs, a mix of clay, gravel conglomerate, and sandstone from an ancient lakebed. Wind and rain have eroded the original deposit into Seussian spires and box canyons, leaving what looks like a drip castle rising from the bush. Meanwhile, the Valley of the Whales, with its cross-bedded and creamy limestone slabs, is a cake of frozen time.
The story continues along the Pacific Coast, with the Moeraki Boulders, also known as Te Kaihīnaki, the Māori word for “food baskets.” These mudstone concretions seamed with caramel-colored alcite resemble spherical buoys washed ashore. They rose along the sea bottom millions of years ago and continue to emerge from the shore. Farther along this wild coastline is Campbells Bay, where a multitude of shrimp burrows dug into Ototara limestone vectors out to sea. Erosion has expanded the burrows, and they now resemble miniature versions of the Elephant Rocks.
In May of 2023 in Paris, the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council designated the Waitaki District the Waitaki Whitestone Global Geopark — all 2,785 square miles of it, from the Pacific Ocean to nearly the Southern Alps. This makes it 1 of 19 such parks in the Southern Hemisphere, and New Zealand’s first.
For UNESCO, a global geopark is a single, unified geographical region, with what they deem to be “landscapes of international geological significance.” They are created to foster education, protect natural features, and promote sustainable development of the land. Containing 42 geological, cultural, and paleontological sites within its boundaries, the new geopark now joins the likes of such places as Spain’s El Hierro, Germany’s Swabian Alb, and the United Kingdom’s North West Highlands.
That the area was something special was known to Indigenous people for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the wider world started to become aware of the district, when paleontologist Ewan Fordyce and his colleagues in the Department of Geology at Dunedin’s University of Otago began extracting unusually well-preserved fossils there.
In the early 2000s, local landowners and community groups, with support from Fordyce, founded Vanished World Inc., a company which today oversees the Vanished World Trail, a 21-mile self-guided tour that begins in the town of Duntroon and passes through 20 sites on public and private land. Then, in 2018, the Waitaki Whitestone Trust was established to manage the entire district and pursue the lengthy application process for global geopark certification. Part of this involved hosting two UNESCO evaluators for several days.
“We had a big supporting team working on this and are absolutely thrilled to be a global geopark,” says Helen Jansen, chair of the trust. “What began as a mostly volunteer operation is now allowing us to put a magnifying glass for the entire world on an important part of New Zealand’s whenua,” she adds, using the Māori word for “land.”
Evidence of how the land and its people embrace one another is ample. The Waitaki Valley was a robust hunting ground for the Māori people, who left rock paintings dating back to 1400 C.E. in red ochre and charcoal. It is home to Macraes, New Zealand’s largest active gold mine. Ōamaru is the Waitaki District seat; its historic buildings are made from limestone quarried nearby that glows hazily in the evening sun.
The geopark is easily accessible by car or bicycle and is a popular part of the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail. This takes riders from Aoraki, New Zealand’s highest mountain, along Lake Pukaki, with its liquid-sky surface, and through the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest reserve of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Light pollution is radically reduced here, unveiling a night sky salted with stars.
The educational hub of the geopark is the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon, where visitors can view and learn more about some of the Waitaki’s larger fossil finds. This includes shark-toothed dolphins, the remnants of massive whales, and evidence of other marine creatures who lived during the Oligocene epoch, as much as 30 million years ago. A “Discovery Room” contains trays of Waitaki rock and soil, suffused with minute fossils throughout. Budding paleontologists can sift through and extract their own genuine fossil to take home. Down the road is the Vanished Trail’s first geosite, Brewery Hole, the unassuming entrance to a sunken limestone cavern created by an underground stream. The cavern spreads out under town, determining where houses can and cannot be built. In theory, you could swim under Duntroon.
The University of Otago’s geologists works closely with the Vanished World Centre’s educational efforts and continue to pluck fossils from the limestone. The geology building itself is made from Ōamaru limestone. The department’s paleontological curator, Marcus Richards, is all enthusiasm when it comes to the Waitaki District. “I love the place to bits! This limestone makes my heart sing,” he says, picking a sample of the stone off the table to show a visitor. “We find pristine bones and sometimes complete sets of teeth.”
Richards describes a time about 25 million years ago when Zealandia, the landmass that broke away from the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, had been reduced to a sprinkle of islands. This happened because the land stretched and cooled to such an extent it lost buoyancy and submerged beneath an ancestral Pacific alive with marine lizards and plesiosaurs.
At that time, a sheltered sea lay above the Waitaki District. Richards says this made “a great place for marine life to give birth, and for predators to follow.” He describes a time when dawn baleen whales drifted to the sea bottom and those shark-toothed dolphins chased Kairuku, an extinct giant penguin. Eventually, the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates ground together, thrusting New Zealand above the waves, bringing the limestone and the ancient fossils it contained along with it. Visitors can view remnants of this ancient time at the small museum in the geology department at the University of Otago, which has more than 60,000 fossils listed in its catalogs.
Of course, travelers to the geopark can also see fossils out on the Vanished World trail itself. Anatini (“place of many caves” in the Māori language) is a gorge littered with limestone boulders. There, displayed beneath Plexiglas, are the fossilized jawbone, shoulder blade, and vertebrae of a baleen whale from 25 million years ago. Visitors can also take a scramble on the so-called Earthquakes, giant limestone slabs sheared apart in a block slide, now lying in a jumble on the canyon floor. The rock contains fossilized brachiopods and mollusks — but keep an eye out for the wavy sutures that signify whalebone.
The Vanished World, the Waitaki Whitestone Trust, and residents of the Waitaki District embrace their new Global Geopark status. A small gathering in Ōamaru in May 2023 marked the UNESCO announcement. A few months later, in October, they celebrated their new identity with a district-wide Geopark Festival, when community groups and businesses put on their own events.
A fixture and supporter of the park since its inception is Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher. He knows the place well and even spent several weeks at Anatini working on the first Narnia film.
“We look forward to telling the stories of this land,” he said. After all, “This has been a long time coming — some would say it’s been 25 million
This story was originally published in our March April 2024 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.