Whitestone City is a modern take on Oamaru’s history, encouraging visitors to see the past through the eyes of 19th century settlers.
I hoped to go there for the opening event of the 2016 Victorian Heritage Celebrations, but work wasn’t completed in time. The event was transferred to Smith’s Grain Store and I was cruelly denied a sneak preview of the town’s newest visitor attraction.
Eighteen months later and keen to make up for lost time, I headed down Harbour Street with high hopes. I paid the admission fee and was introduced to my guide. Why, if it isn’t Quirky Tours guide Miss Cense!
‘Former Quirky Tours guide,’ she corrects me. ‘I work here now!’
How lovely: and what a delight to see her dressed to the nines as a Victorian lady.
Yvonne Ballantyne – that’s her real name – led me to the far end of the grain store, where the tour begins. ‘Imagine you have newly arrived after a long, dangerous and uncomfortable voyage half way round the world,’ Yvonne said. ‘You come ashore in a boat like this,’ (she points to a perilously small boat) ‘and present yourself to the immigration staff behind this counter.’
If you are lucky, your meagre possessions will have survived the voyage from Europe. I feel for those who watched their trunks being lowered from the ship into a surf boat, only for the trunks to be tipped into the sea by a wave.
Yvonne showed me samples of freshly-cut limestone from Parkside Quarries. Running a finger across the stone left a white residue, underlining the point that it takes time to dry and harden enough to be used as a building material.
We moved on to Thomas Forrester’s office, where the great architect bent over his drawings. Next door, a ghostly paper boy told us about the Oamaru Mail. Across the way, there is a pharmacy and a grocery store, both stocked with authentic products.
Yvonne left me to browse at my own leisurely pace. I paused to look at 19th century portraits: last time I was in town, Helen Stead told me how these digital copies were made from the originals hanging in the Early Settlers Hall.
Turning round, I found myself next to a carousel equipped with penny farthings in place of horses. A dapper gent in a top hat stepped forward, asked my inside leg measurement and guided me to one of the smaller bicycles. He showed me how to mount the thing: good job it was bolted to the floor. Then we’re off, round and round, with me peddling furiously. A bit pointless, given that the wheel was a couple of centimetres off the ground, but good fun. The dapper gent took a couple of pictures with my camera, and I dismounted with as much grace as my tiny legs could muster.
Yvonne re-emerged and guided me and two other visitors into a school room. Waving an intimidating cane, schoolmistress Ballantyne instructed us to copy a picture of a cat onto a slate, checking to see if we have captured every detail. Of course not! There is a line missing!
Slipping out of character, Yvonne introduced me to the dapper gent. His name was Mike Gray and I now wish I’d met him in 2016, because he has a story to tell.
Mike was born in Australia and moved around a lot before finally settling in the Waitaki district. More specifically, he put his heart and soul into changing the fortunes of Duntroon, a township (barely a hamlet, actually) inland from Oamaru.
As Mike puts it, Duntroon was dying on its feet. In 2000, a few locals got together and decided to take things into their own hands. They believed they could turn an old blacksmith’s shop into a tourist attraction, which would give people a reason to stop on their way up or down the Waitaki valley. I’ve been there: nicely done, it stands right next to State Highway 83.
Next came the Vanished World Trust. In some ways, this took a bigger leap of faith. Would people be interested in local geology? It turns out they would if it includes lots of fossils and rocks that look like dragons’ eggs.
The Vanished World Trail starts with the Moeraki boulders, takes in Elephant Rocks and includes fossilised whale bones protected from the elements (and tourists) by Perspex covers. There’s more to see and do at the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon itself, before heading further up the valley to see the Maori cave paintings at Takiroa.
I had seen a lot of this in 2016, but somehow failed to bump into Mike until now. We made up for it by talking for the best part of an hour, interrupted occasionally by pesky tourists asking questions or wanting to see inside the impressively realistic 19th century pub.
Vanished World has been moderately successful, but Mike isn’t done yet. He wants the whole world to know about Waitaki’s unique geology – and quite right, too. Even as a non-geologist, I appreciate that there is a lot more going on than just the limestone cut from the ground at Parkside Quarries. Volcanoes left basaltic ash and lava-flows; then there’s mudstone, not to mention mica-schist and altered argillites (whatever they are: have I told you I’m not an expert?). The result is a fascinating and varied landscape.
So much so that Mike has helped develop a bid for international recognition; if it succeeds, Waitaki will become the first place in New Zealand to become a Unesco Global Geopark. This is a really exciting development, and seriously big news.
Mike told me more. The bid was discussed at length with local landowners, the Department of Conservation, Ngai Tahu (representing all Maori iwi in southern New Zealand) and many other interested parties before being submitted to the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco at the end of April. The bid was formally submitted by Waitaki District Council, but was only made possible by the meticulous groundwork carried out by Mike Gray and a team of committed volunteers.
Mike was clear about the benefits Unesco status would bring to the area, not least for tourism. ‘The thing is, it’s about a lot more than geology pure and simple. Some people will visit for that alone, I’m sure, but …’
I interrupted Mike to tell him about my brother-in-law, Andrew. He is a geologist by profession; now retired, he delights in showing people some of the tunnels dug into in the white cliffs of Dover. I am sure he will visit Waitaki for the geology (and because I told him to, obviously).
‘Sure,’ said Mike, ‘but “geo” also stands for “geography” and “geotourism”. People love climbing and clambering over rocks – not to mention a good photo opportunity. Have you been to Elephant Rocks?’ I have. ‘Moeraki boulders?’ Yep. It seems I’m a geotourist.
Mike went on to talk about Maori taonga – a word which describes anything treasured in Maori culture, including memories, artefacts, heirlooms, landscapes and natural resources. The Waitaki Whitestone Geopark will give the Ngai Tahu community a brilliant opportunity to share knowledge and appreciation of local taonga.
(Incidentally, I wrote about the Willetts collection in Penguins under the Porch: it’s a prime example of taonga meticulously recovered from land farmed by Alan Willetts and his family, and donated to North Otago Museum on condition that it be kept together in perpetuity.)
Mike and I could have carried on talking for the rest of the day, but I was distracting him – and in any case, I had somewhere I needed to be. I cantered round the rest of Whitestone City (loved it) and beetled off to Steam Café in Thames Street, still thinking about Yvonne and Mike.
The good news is that the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco liked the initial geopark bid and an expanded version will soon be winging its way to Unesco’s headquarters in Paris. All being well, there will be a site visit – and a decision – in 2019. For the latest news, visit www.facebook.com/waitakiwhitestonegeopark/