The Waitaki Valley that links Oamaru to Omarama and the junction of the super-busy inland route SH8, is one of the last great ‘unknown’ drives and destinations in New Zealand. It’s puffed and panted along by a growing number of cyclists on the A2O cycle trail, their eyes fixed firmly on the spot two metres ahead of their front wheel, but too few motorists know the riches and historic value of the drive.

In past centuries it was a major route for Māori going to the West Coast for greenstone. Today much of our electricity is generated in this area, and it has had a major impact on our daily lives through legislation that was first drafted here almost 90 years ago.

It’s a drive of two halves up SH83 through some fascinating country.

Along the route are three great hydro dams – Waitaki, built in the early thirties and the first major project of its kind in New Zealand; Benmore, fired up in 1965 after seven years of toil, and Aviemore, completed in 1968. The art-deco looking Waitaki is famous for not having a spillway – instead, when the lake is full, it simply runs over the nicely rounded top of the dam. There’s a local legend of a couple out for a romantic boat ride one summer night who became so involved with each other that they forgot to keep a sharp eye out and drifted over the edge. Their boat ended up a splintered wreck far below and they suffered broken bones and cuts – but lived to get married!

Three lakes are nicely dovetailed together up the valley.

When the lake behind Waitaki dam ends, up sprouts Aviemore, actually the last of the trio to be built. And then when Lake Aviemore ends, up pops the monster Benmore. Made of compacted earth, this is the largest dam in New Zealand. Lake Benmore is the largest man-made lake in the country and the second-largest producer of electric power after Manapouri.

A winter scene – farmhouse, outbuildings, Lake Benmore – and snow topped mountains. Derek Smith

Lake Benmore is fascinating. It has two arms – one stretches back into the Mackenzie country, the other heads up the Waitaki Valley, and both are connected by a long, narrow winding pass.

But there’s more to this story than just the three dams – the upper reaches of the Waitaki River and its tributaries have been redirected, forced into canals, adding another five major electricity generating stations to the total.

The result of all of this work is not just power for the nation – as the song by John Hore (Grennell) tells us – but also a bonanza for family holiday makers. There’s good fishing – trout and salmon in the Waitaki, trout in the lakes. There’s also good hunting in the hills and mountains that surround the valley (deer, pigs, wallabies).

After I moved to Oamaru nine years ago, I was startled at my first Christmas by a near-total overnight evacuation of the town. You could literally fire a 20 pounder up the main street and not hit a soul. Shops were closed and nobody was to be seen.

The Waitaki dam, with its unique overflow system

“Where’s everyone?” I asked a friend.

“Awol – gone to the lakes. It’s the same every year,” I was told.

“The lakes … Wanaka, Wakatipu, Hāwea, Pukaki, Ohau, Tekapo?” I asked.

“Oh no, the lakes – up the valley …,” like I was thick or something.

“Oh, the hydro lakes!” (Thinking – are they proper lakes?)

“Yeah!”

Bloody Aucklanders.


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