Waimate is my new favourite destination. Perfectly positioned as a touring base – halfway between Oamaru and Timaru, halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin – I never knew this unassuming town had so much to offer.
As soon as you turn off the highway and drive the 6km inland, you are struck by the beauty of the countryside surrounding the township. With its wide streets, wealth of restored historic buildings and eye-catching art on the big grain silos, Waimate is fast reinventing itself from its early days as a dairy farming mecca.
I spent my first night in a comfortable cabin at the Victoria Park Motor Camp, which is a really tidy site with great facilities. From here you can walk into Victoria Park and the arboretum with its disc golf and access the tennis courts. If you bring your bikes along, take a turn around the velodrome – I was already gobsmacked that a town this size – population 6000 – has such great facilities and I had barely started.
Jake Blades, the new Parks and Reserves Supervisor, who moved here a year ago, agreed that there is so much to explore. He said it’s the community, though, that is the real prize. “I’ve just been overwhelmed by the community spirit of Waimate and the welcome I’ve received,” he said, telling me there is a club for everything you can think of.
Outdoors enthusiasts are spoilt for choice with a huge network of hiking and biking tracks and a beautiful golf course that only had two people on it when I visited. If it’s raining, head inside to the events centre with its badminton courts and indoor climbing wall.
Dinner that first night was at the Town Friar and I was delighted to find I could have a gluten-free burger and chips.
The next day I met up with a friend to explore beyond the township. The Waimate district is quite large, encompassing four rural towns – Waimate, Glenavy, Makikihi and St Andrews – all set in a stunning landscape. We drove out to the beautiful Waitaki lakes area, about an hour out of town en route to the Mackenzie Region and Central Otago.
Part of the Waitaki hydro system which powers much of the South Island from water captured in the Southern Alps, the lakes are beautiful in all seasons. The area offers four camping grounds that are a favourite with families who come back year after year. I was eyeing up a spot for a future visit and I fell in love with a lakeside stretch that appears to be popular with retro caravans.
The river that feeds into these lakes, the braided Waitaki, was once New Zealand’s most popular destination for salmon fishing. They are still present, but in smaller numbers. You stand a better chance of catching a good trout.
You’re close to Richie McCaw country here too. The famous All Black heralds from Kurow, a small lakes town popular for off-road mountain bike tracks through high country tussock.
Of Moa and Men
On the way out to the lakes we passed by the Waihao River Walkway, where you can look for ancient fossils. In fact, most of the moa bones in Canterbury Museum were found here.
I vowed to return with time to fossick and to visit the Waihao Forks pub to see New Zealand’s most unusual war memorial – a bottle of beer that Ted d’Auvergne left behind when he left for WWII. He never made it home, and today his bottle is still behind the bar.
Back in town we grabbed lunch to go from the bakery. Probably one of the largest and most beautiful in the country, it is housed in the lovingly restored former ANZ bank.
We set out on bikes to try a couple of the local tracks (and yes, I did take a turn around the velodrome but I didn’t quite look the part on the chunky tyred e-bike that I had borrowed for the trip).
We got back to town in time to have a poke around the second-hand shops – Waimate has a wealth of great ones. I picked up a set of lawn bowls (there’s a thriving bowling club here, of course) and a little vintage flag advertising the West Coast to hang from my rear-view for the next stage of my roadie.
My next two nights were spent at Ahava Bed & Breakfast, which offers luxury self-contained accommodation. The first night I opted to eat with owners Ina and Frank, and my decision was richly rewarded by a delicious three-course meal.
The newly built apartment is beautifully kitted out with the particular aim of being wheelchair-friendly and has a supremely comfortable bed. The second night we dined at The Barn, where again my gluten-free status was no barrier and I enjoyed some of the best blue cod and chips ever.
Jumping for Joy
Waimate is known for its wallaby population, and to make your own mind up whether they are pests or the cutest creatures on earth, be sure to visit Enkledoovery Korna. The name gives a wee clue that this is the passion of one of the town’s colourful characters, Gwen Dempster-Schouten, who has been raising orphan wallabies since 1977 and opened to the public in 1999.
After a lesson on how to correctly approach and feed a wallaby, I went from paddock to paddock offering them something resembling cat kibble. Getting up close with these tame wallabies offers a wonderful personal encounter, their little muzzles tickling your hand as they gently take the food. It’s a must for families. Back at the visitor centre I experienced a treat when Gwen put a joey into my arms – an orphan someone had delivered to her care.
Down to the Wire
Sticking with the ‘now for something completely different’ theme, I headed to the Chicken Wire Creations sculpture garden at Willowbridge to view the impressive works of Michelle Aplin. The former nurse discovered a new career when out fencing one day; she started fashioning a goat out of chicken wire. The pliability of the material got her imagination going and she hasn’t stopped making impressive creations since; she now fills orders from across the country.
“It’s galvanised so the sculptures can stay in the garden year round,” she said.
“All I use is a pair of pliers, some cutters and my hands.”
Some of the works are flights of fancy – a flamingo, swans and an eagle sit alongside a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Others are based on local history, including a man waiting for a train in the old Willowbridge railway waiting room (relocated to the site by the previous owners) and a life-size jumping horse to commemorate the first New Zealand Grand National held here in 1875.
Horses are in the DNA of Waimate. Shortly after that steeplechase the Waimate Racing Club was founded in 1880 and yes, the small town has its own racecourse. The local horse trekking company has won tourism awards. Adventure Horse Trekking specialises in multi-day treks, staying in musterers’ huts and historic cottages along the way. Such is the importance of the horse to the town that in 1968 the now iconic White Horse monument was erected high on the hill above the town, affording magnificent views over the rolling countryside and out to the Pacific ocean. I was particularly drawn to the white horse as I’m from Sussex in the UK, where the white horse of Litlington was created from six tonnes of chalk back in 1836 – the original inspiration for the Waimate version.
History on Every Corner
Waimate is perhaps most known for the Waimate 50, New Zealand’s longest standing street race and most important motorsport event with four days of racing. The race held its 60th meet in 2019, with record attendees way above the usual 10,000. Taking place on Labour Weekend, the event was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid, but things are looking hopeful for this year.
Another landmark building is the former Waimate hotel, now simply The Waimate, where I enjoyed a beautiful meal on the final day. Yet another testament to the locals’ belief in their town’s progression, the hotel has been extensively restored at what must have been a huge cost. It is worth the price of a beer just to see the inside.
Before I headed out of town, I had a quick look at the Waimate Museum, which – with 11 historic buildings including the 1879 courthouse, the police station and a pioneer cottage, complete with original wallpaper – deserved a much longer visit. I caught the tail-end of a book sale and ended up with a boxful for $10. No matter that I only found reading material on my final day; in a gem of a place like Waimate, why spend your time with your nose stuck in a book?
The grain silos have become a distinctive and much loved feature since 2018 when their owner Waimate Transport director Barry Sadler commissioned local artist Bill Scott to adorn them with the portraits of Waimate’s most prominent characters. Norman Kirk, prime minister in the 70s, born and buried in Waimate; Eric Batchelor, a decorated war hero from World War 1; the town’s founding father Michael Studholme is pictured with Chief Te Huruhuru, memorialising a peaceful meeting by the two in 1854. The last face to be finished was that of New Zealand’s first female doctor, Margaret Cruickshank, born in Waimate and registering to practise in 1897. Though the silo art is undoubtedly the star of the show, Scott has other notable works on walls around the town. Close to the silos and still on Waimate Transport grounds is his tribute to a local rugby supporter Stella Chamberlain, depicting her pegging out the kit that she washed every week for decades. On the corner of Queen and Paul Streets, there is a vibrant mural of the Waimate 50 and then there’s the March Hare on the wall by Waimate Motorcycles on Queen Street.