The drive down the Waitaki Valley from Omarama is flanked by stark high-country scenery and merino runs, but it’s the artificial lakes of the Waitaki hydro scheme that dominate the landscape. The scheme produces one-third of New Zealand’s electricity from eight power stations. Three hydro lakes—Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki—are on this route (the remaining five power stations are in the upper Waitaki). The drive is covered by the ‘Ocean to the Alps’ heritage trail in the Heritage Trails of North Otago booklet (free from information centres).
The first lake on the Waitaki is Lake Benmore, the largest of the country’s hydro storage lakes, which is retained by one of the largest earth dams in the Southern Hemisphere (built in 1966). To reach Benmore dam turn off at Otematata. A visitor centre at the dam site makes good use of displays to describe the workings of the Waitaki scheme and electricity generation system to the North Island, but suffers from overzealous spin-doctoring about its environmental virtues. From here you can drive across the dam and around the northern shores of Lake Aviemore, returning to SH 83 at Aviemore.
Aviemore and Waitaki dams
The Aviemore dam, 19 km from Otematata, is an earth and concrete structure completed in 1969. Lake Waitaki, smallest of the three hydro lakes, filled the valley after the Waitaki dam was finished in 1934. Opposite the Waitaki dam are 12 stone buildings originally built in 1927 as accommodation for dam construction workers. They are being steadily restored, and one now contains the pleasant Café Hydro.
Kurow, with a population of about 411, is the largest centre in the valley. Many of its older buildings are constructed from Oamaru stone. From here the Waitaki River flows undammed to the sea: the trout and salmon fishing on the river is reputedly world class. The best option for lunch is the Valley Café and Bakery.
Takiroa Maori Rock Drawings
These well-preserved charcoal and ochre rock drawings are found under a limestone overhang off the highway 3 km from Duntroon. While some drawings were unceremoniously chopped out of the wall and spirited to museums or private collections, the bulk remain. Interpretive panels describe the drawings and their origins.
Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop, with its working nineteenth-century forge, the Vanished World Museum and the Flying Pig Café are worth setting aside time for a stop in Duntroon. Also worth considering is the scenic drive over Danseys Pass to Naseby and Ranfurly (SH 85, see also Dunedin–Cromwell via Middlemarch, Route 65). The route initially follows the Maerewhenua River to the Danseys Pass Holiday Park. Beyond here the road is unsealed, narrow and winding and should be driven carefully, if only to allow an appreciation of the wonderful tussock landscapes and schist outcrops on the pass. Not suitable for campervans. Allow 1.5 hours to Naseby.