Oamaru, Moeraki and Shag point lie between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand's south island.
Why should you go there
As with the Catlins and Dunedin, you are passing by while on the way from Christchurch to Fiordland. So take a break from driving and enjoy the rugged coast line, its wildlife, the famous Moeraki Boulders and one of the most bizarre museums on the planet.
Oamaru is a small little town and the final destination of the alps 2 ocean bike trail. Conveniently placed to stay the night when traveling from Christchurch to Dunedin. Its main attractions are the Blue Penguin Colony and the Steampunk HQ.
The Blue Penguin Colony
The Blue Penguin Colony is publicly owned by the people of Oamaru and located at a former quarry near the harbor, where penguins started nesting in 1990. As the name suggest, you can watch blue penguins and unlike in the wild, you can get close to their nests and from October to February, see them feeding their chicks.
There are day tours offered but the highlight is the evening viewing when the birds get ashore at dusk. During the summer this can be as late as 9 p.m. giving you enough time to have some dinner before watching the show. Don't forget to bring warm cloths as it can get very cold.
As great as that sounds, they charge NZ$ 45 for a premium ticket which is needed to get up close to the nests and penguins coming ashore. Even considering that you support the work of the station, I do not think this is an adequate price for sitting two hours in the cold and not even being allowed to take pictures using a zoom lens and no flash.
To be honest, there are lots of opportunities to see penguins on the south island for free. What makes matters worse, you will very likely come across penguins outside the sanctuary when leaving the show.
If you really want to support the survival of the penguins we suggest to help the endangered species.. The Katiki light house near Moeraki, is a volunteer sanctuary for Yellow-eyed penguins. They don't charge you for watching the birds but set up an honesty box where you can donate any amount you see fit.
The Steampunk HQ
More sculptures for you to interact and play with can be found in the Steampunk HQ. You can't miss it, driving to the harbor you can see a large locomotive and a zeppelin in front of it.
You are explicitly allowed to touch the sculptures. So don't hesitate and climb the gigantic motorcycle. You can get a first impression in our separate gallery.
Opening hours are every day from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are NZ$ 10. Plan at least an hour to play with the sculptures and taking pictures.
Moeraki Boulders & Yellow-eyed Penguins
The Moeraki boulders are the famous round pebbles at Moeraki Beach. More precisely they are concretions which took 4 to 5.5 million years to grow to their actual size of about 2 meters in diameter. They are just a five minute drive from SH1 and the turn off is well sign posted.
Right at the turn off go straight to get to the official DOC parking place and walk up the beach for about 200 m. Turning left will take you to a private parking place next to a restaurant at the beach. Walk down the stairs and you will find the boulders right in front of you. To help maintaining the stairs, the land owners have put up a small box asking for NZ$ 2 but are not enforcing it.
While also partly visible during high tide, low tide (check the tide table) is the best time to visit this spot. Then you can walk close up and see all the different shapes otherwise hidden by the ocean.
As mentioned above: If you are late in the evening and eager to see Yellow-eyed penguins, visit Katiki light house and donate any amount you see fit to support the survival of this endangered species.
Katiki Boulders & Fur seals at Shag point
Unfortunately lots of tourists are visiting the Moeraki Boulders. It starts in the morning with people meditating on the stones and continuous with busloads of tourists swarming the area during the day.
Luckily Shag point - just a 10 minutes drive towards Palmerston - offers a much more interesting and entertaining alternative: The Katiki Boulders and lots of Fur seals.
Follow the sign post off SH1 onto the gravel road to reach the headland. If you arrive in the late afternoon you might even see some Yellow-eyed penguins crossing your way.
Buried in the tidal shelf, these boulders are only visible at half tide or lower and are just as old and round as the Moeraki boulders but less frequented. You will find them along the southern end of Katiki Beach, stretching from Moeraki towards Shag point. With low tide at Shag point, walk down to the tidal shelf and then about 1 km northwards. You will find them below the seaside cottages on the road you were driving towards shag point.
Contrary to there cousins, some of the boulders even contain bone fossils of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs which have been roaming this area about 66 million years ago. Further well preserved fossils are buried in the smooth wave-worn mud stones of this headland. The largest fossil excavated in this area are the remains of an 8 m Plesiosaur, at display in the Otago Museum in Dunedin.
Take your time to walk the whole length of the tidal shelf as the characteristics of the boulders changes the further north you get.
After Kaikoura, Shag point probably is the best place to watch seals. From the low cliffs you get a great view of them sunbathing or playing in the sea. Still you are far enough away to trigger their interest an not scare them.