Exploring Waitaki: Elephant Rocks

Elephant rocks, Waitaki
Prefer to listen? Hit play on the audio player above.

Before moving to the Waitaki District, I didn’t even know that the region existed! It’s essentially North & East Otago, up to the Canterbury border. After thirty-odd years in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland it’s a really big change: from urban sprawl and native bush, to wide open landscapes and agricultural pastures.

While I lived in the North Island I explored a lot through day trips and mini holidays, covering pretty much every region on the island. I have the same intention with Te Waipounamu, the South Island. I’m a big believer in exploring one’s own backyard, and I am gradually uncovering more of what our new home has to offer.

Last week we went on a day trip with friends to Elephant Rocks, a scattering of humungous boulders that kinda, sorta look like elephants. Interestingly though, I was told they were actually named in remembrance of an elephant who, in 1869, tragically died there after eating one of our native poisonous plants, tutu. We seem to have a bit of a track record with elephants and tutu in Aotearoa/New Zealand: there was a second elephant death to tutu in 1956 in the North Island, and a further two elephants who were poisoned but received treatment and recovered. If you’re interested, you can read more in this article by Stuff.

Source: Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Volume 2, 1869, Page 399

We stopped on the way to see whale fossils at Anatini. It’s located on private farmland so we are fortunate to have access. As well as hosting ancient fossils it was the site of Aslan’s Camp in the 2005 film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I loved the old & twisted trees and voluptuous swathes of boulders, some with fascinating latticed surfaces from wind erosion. There’s an information board and we learned that where we stood was once 100m under water. The whale fossils themselves were slightly underwhelming but standing in that valley, enveloped by a landscape of limestone cliffs and imagining the very whales that left such fossils behind swimming miles above us – that was breathtaking.

Elephant Rocks itself is just like the pictures: a vast collection of interestingly shaped boulders. Like the Moeraki Boulders further south, and Anatini, their roots go back millions of years to when the whenua (land) was under water. It took a little imagination to see the elephants in the rocks (nothing wrong with that – and I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere). My favourite rocks were one that looked like a giant slug coming up and out of the ground, and one that had birds nesting in its ‘eye’.

While I enjoyed the landscape, my attention was quickly captured by the multitude of little blue butterflies feeding on clover flowers (I assume the common grass blue, zizina labradus, also known as ‘clover blue’). I found myself lying in the sheep-poo covered grass to get a close picture – especially as this is one New Zealand butterfly I had not yet photographed.

We didn’t quite make it to the next stop, Takiroa Māori rock art, so that is still on our list of places to visit. It’s right by the Waitaki, a braided awa (river) so we could also detour to see if we can spot some birds along there. Visiting Anatini, Elephant Rocks, and the Takiroa rock art – with a stop in Duntroon or Ōamaru for lunch – could be a really nice day trip combination.