Driving through the verdant Waitaki Valley from the Victorian elegance of Oamaru towards the New Zealand high peaks, we think little of the weathered honeycomb-hued cliffs that dot the roadside among the lush pastoral farmlands. A handful of small villages break the flow of farms. With a tiny one cell jail (complete with stocks – was Duntroon a really lawless place?) and an active blacksmith shop in the main street, Duntroonis always going to bring a surprise.
Around 25 million years ago in this same area, large sharks, whales, dolphins, shellfish, fish and penguins swam contentedly 100 metres above the tiny village of Duntroon in New Zealand’s verdant Waitaki Valley. As they died, their bodies decomposed on the seabed. As the sea waters receded, the seabeds became today’s cliffs embedding a treasure trove of ancient fossilised remainsof majestic sea creatures.
The Vanishing World Centre in Duntroon hosts a fine collection of these fossils (some are casts of valuable originals stored at the University of Otago) discovered among the cliffs in nearby farmlands. The quietly spoken slightly retiring museum attendant whispers encouragement to visit the displays. In hushed scientific tones, he enthuses about various rocks finding remarkable detail in the most innocent-looking of stones reliving some highlights of past diggings and discoveries. In reverence, he describes a large toothed dolphin named Waipatia which is only known anywhere in the world by the single skull discovered in the Duntroon area.
Another fossil shows menacing clumps of sharks teeth (see top photo) demonstrating that ancient sharks were likely to be 50% longer (9 metres) and five times heavier. The attendant describes how as shark shed teeth throughout their life, it is far more common to find single teeth so to find a large collection from one shark is unusual and scientifically valuable.
The centre is littered with baleen whaleremains (relative early for filter feeders), large penguin bones (one penguin is similarly from a single fossil) and assorted fossilised sea shells. One area has various rocks along with brushes, various tools that look more suited to a dental surgery and microscopes to help visitors unveil their inner palaeontologist.
The centre also posts a Vanished World Trail of local sites of interest connected to the fossil history of the area. With the tiny road weaving aimlessly throughout the valley, the map is a requirement to help locate the various locales.
Like a herd feeding, Elephant Rocks are a bizarre sight. Large mounds of limestone hardened and weathered from the sandy seafloor now form a backdrop for peaceful flocks of grazing sheep more attracted to the lush grasses (watch where you place your feet!) while rock climbers practise their manoeuvres on the pitted surfaces. The Rocks were otherworldly enough to be a movie location for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
A fairly unexciting Maori art siteis a couple of centuries old and show ochre and charcoal rock drawings including a sail boat from early European settlers.
Duntroon is a hidden travel wonder that harbours in the Vanished World Centre a fascinating and well documented history of yesteryear’s marine fauna. Tour around and enjoy visits to some of the fossil sites on the Vanished World Trail.