A Vanished World in Northern Otago

The van was loaded with a dozen people from my writing course. Enthusiastically, I squeezed my buttocks between those of my classmates in the rear row, where space was limited and conversations inevitable — but that was easy to deal with because I was with good company. Nevertheless, a scent of competition was in the air. At least that’s what I hoped it was. We left Dunedin northwards and followed the windy road along the coast.

The further Lloyd, my professor, drove away from the narrowness of the city, the more pleased I was. I cannot imagine what it’d be like to live a life out here in Otago’s countryside. Neither can I imagine what life was like some 25 million years ago when most of Zealandia was underwater, filled with ancient sharks and other scary sea predators I would soon learn about. It was peaceful now, as quiet as the mouse that welcomed us through the window of a shed where Lloyd would park the van later on.

Our group checking out some valley walls

We passed open spaces of farmland, where sheep and cattle grazed and smaller birds danced on fence poles. I noticed Australian magpies guarding their favourite berry field, and I was lucky enough to spot a spur-winged plover. To the right, red-billed gulls waited for their breakfast on estuaries meeting the South Pacific. My classmate Aaron sat next to me, and we spent the drive theorizing about Otago’s hinterland, nature, and history.

We continued on the road towards Palmerston; it runs parallel to parts of the coastal railway which were formerly used to transport coal, timber, limestone, and gold. We passed larger flax patches, groups of old man’s pines, and logged hillsides. Establishments such as the Do Pop Inn and Sue’s B&B underlined Otago’s isolation, and in fact, I wasn’t even able to find any of these icons on the web later on. Snow-capped Mount Buster reigned over the Waitaki Valley and followed us just like Mona Lisa’s eyes throughout this entire drive.

Lloyd decided to take a quick break in Oamaru — town of the Oamaru Stone, a penguin tunnel, and the “steampunk weirdness” as Jess, our local and spontaneous tour guide from the row in front of us, had eagerly informed us. Jess added that this really was all we needed to know about Oamaru, so we aimed for our first destination – the Vanished World in Duntroon.

Our van in a valley

We took a left in Pukeuri heading for the village of Duntroon, the gateway for Central Otago, and a must-do for any New Zealand-based palaeontologist. It reminded me of one of those secluded, desert-like places along Route 66 that are points of departure for cheap Hollywood horror productions — just substitute cactus and agave with tussock and gorse. Duntroon consisted of only a few buildings, which included the Vanished World Geology & Fossil Centre, the shed, and the tiny Duntroon Hotel. The rest, I assumed, were properties where people rightfully pissed from their verandas because nobody seemed to care here in Otago’s outback. We ignored the book/souvenir shop and went straight to the little museum, where one of the Vanished World volunteers was already awaiting us. Lloyd, as well as this gentleman’s handmade name tag, introduced him as John Hore.

Mr John Hore in his element

“Welcome to the Vanished World, and yes, it is a lovely world,” John said and went on to perform his routine introduction. He was a half-bald, older gentleman and a true Kiwi spirit, of course, holding a cup of tea in his hand, casually but a little shakily. He told us that he had been volunteering in the VW since its inception some 17 years ago. And I believed he did so passionately, as I observed a photograph of John on a flyer, grinning between the jaw of the Centre’s most precious piece – the skull of an ancient shark-toothed dolphin that died about 25 million years ago here in the Waitaki Valley. “If it could, it would have bitten me,” said John jokingly. Indeed, it could have eaten him.

Shark-toothed dolphin (Waipatia maerewhenua)

From my conversation with Aaron, I knew that New Zealand’s geological history is quite complex. Nevertheless, John explained it to us in a nutshell, showing us his favourite fossils and rocks, as well as three or four, illustrated posters, the designers of which John couldn’t remember. He told us how Zealandia separated from the supercontinent Gondwana about 83 million years ago, and how this continental drift almost fully submerged it, except for a few landmasses that still carried some of New Zealand’s terrestrial ancestors. Kiwis speak of Moa’s Ark. John then referred to a massive Moa egg that was once found near Duntroon and offered to cook it for us. “Do you like your egg soft or hard? Well, come back tomorrow,” he said light-heartedly.

Most of the fossils in the Centre date back 25 million years ago, when Zealandia benefitted from a shift in tectonic movement, specifically, as the Pacific Plate began to move under the Australian, causing the sea floor to lift again. That is why the South Island (including John’s backyard) is filled with buried treasures such as giant penguins, shark-toothed dolphins, some of the first baleen whales, and who knows what else. Since tectonic movement is still a threat in New Zealand, earthquakes tend to expose such fossils or even promote their formation – the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, for example, lifted the seabed by more than a meter. “We are overdue,” John explained, because geologists expect a major quake to occur in the Alpine Fault, and it is likely to do so within the next 50 years.

John moved on and pointed to a panorama showing the famous limestone deposits called Elephant Rocks which we would visit in the afternoon. He told us to take a closer look at the valley walls on our way there. They consisted of visibly layered Otekaike Limestone and Kokoamu Greensand, remnants of the late Oligocene Era, which were displayed in the glass box that John was standing next to. I later understood why John was so passionate about Elephant Rocks – besides them being a geological phenomenon, it’d be a very peaceful place to be at.

Elephant Rocks Panorama
My own Elephant Rocks panorama

Later that afternoon, our group followed John’s recommendation and we were fortunate to have only a few clouds and lots of sunshine above us. Once we got out of the van – and this is something I love about New Zealand’s countryside – you suddenly find yourself in a soothingly calm environment that is music to the ears and medicine for the mind. We listened to the wind going through the maze of limestone blocks, the birds that nested on them, and the sheep that grazed around them. No wonder why John seemed so vivid for his age, the air he is breathing is fresh and clean.

Moeraki Boulder Panorama
Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach

John mentioned that limestone structures usually form around a dead organism, similar to the process that created the Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach. “There are many boulders in New Zealand but these are special,” John said proudly. And he was right, not just because they have an almost perfectly spherical shape, but these septarian concretions contain calcite-crystals and are formed in mudstone. We visited Koekohe Beach as our last stop of the day, and we were able to see (well, if no other tourist blocked our view) a few boulders being born in the mudstone, slowly excavated by the erosion of the sea. John had saved the best for last, telling us all about New Zealand’s largest intact fossil, the plesiosaur, and how it was found near the boulders at Shag Point. In fact, the plesiosaur, as well as many other fossils, are displayed in Dunedin at the Otago Museum, and it is totally worth a visit.

A boulder being born in the mudstone
Calcite-crystals of a boulder exposed

Due to an exhaustingly long, but informative day in Northern Otago, the van was rather quiet on our way back home. We did not speak as much. I believe we had to process what we had heard and seen during the day. I stared through the window trying not to miss out on anything, but I was lost in my thoughts and almost too tired to talk. I thought about John and what it must be like to live here forever, in Otago’s tranquillity with dinosaur bones in the garden and a Mona Lisa visible from one’s veranda. Aaron had just recently told me that he bought a house on Dunedin’s Peninsula.

All of that was something that I had to keep in mind for my own retirement. Of course, I’d like to have my own veranda and a backyard full of treasures someday. I mean, who wouldn’t? But before I’d make any step in that direction, I knew I had quite some years left. There is still plenty to explore and discover, right? The same decent mindset, I thought, of the professionals and hobby palaeontologists home to the Waitaki Valley.

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