Otematata was built in 1958 as a base for the construction of the Aviemore and Benmore Dams. ECNZ (Electricity Corporation of New Zealand) used it as a base until the early 1990’s.
At the time Otematata was a flourishing town, with a single men’s accommodation area, family housing area, shopping area, cinema, library, recreation halls, sports pavilion and playing fields, a High School and Junior School, a permanent village for ECNZ, an industrial area and a maternity hospital. The village had more than 60 clubs, representing nearly every social and sporting activity.
Otematata was designed with safety in mind. There are no four-way intersections of the roads, but only T-junctions.
When construction of Benmore was at its peak and Aviemore in its initial stages, a labour force of 1650 was employed by the Ministry of Works and its contractors on the two projects. Otematata’s population fluctuated around the 4000 mark.
In 1996, Otematata had a population of 360 permanent residents. There are also many part-time residents, and in the summer the population swells dramatically.
Less than half the houses, a golf course (9 holes), a bowling club, a swimming pool and library, and one shop remain today from what was there during the construction of the dams.
ECNZ’s presence is now minimal, and Otematata is becoming a village of holiday homes. It is a popular holiday village with a hotel, restaurant, camping ground and basic services. Several small business have been established in recent years.
This small township has its own micro-climate, nestled next to Lake Aviemore, at the base of Totara Peak. It avoids the extreme temperatures experienced in the Mackenzie Basin, and also the cloudy, cooler, wetter weather of more coastal areas.
Otematata is surrounded by High Country Stations which farm Merino (a type of sheep bred for their fine fibre). The High Country is bleak and barren, but eye-catching. There is now a lovely scenic recreational area with lakes, trees, walks, bird sanctuary, and boat harbour. Benmore Dam (made of earth) blends into the countryside like no other. And during autumn the multi-coloured scenery is breath-taking!
History of Otematata
Surrounded by rugged peaks and beautiful lakes of the Waitaki Valley, this area echoes with tales of long ago. The earliest inhabitants were Maoris on hunting expeditions or traveling through the valley to reach the inland areas and mountain passes. The Maori name Otematata translates to ‘Place of good flint.’
In the 1800s, organised settlement of the land began and permanent settlers, with their families, moved into the valley. Many of the descendants of these pioneering rural families still live in the area.
Today the valley is greatly changed. It is no longer just a powerful river, but a series of beautiful lakes created by the building of three dams for electricity generation: Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki. From Waitaki, the oldest dam in the chain, the river flows on to the sea.
All three lakes and dams are within a few minutes’ drive from Otematata.
Otematata Places to Visit
Guided tours through the powerhouse take place during the summer months.
An excellent view of the dam can be had from the lookout adjacent to the spillway. There is a car park beside the lookout.
Visit the Benmore Centre for more information about the Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki dams.
Aviemore structures can be viewed from the road across the top of the dam and the lookout on the Canterbury side.
Information about Waitaki Dam can be found on the viewing platform adjacent to the old village and overlooking the powerhouse.
A village was built adjacent to the dam site to accommodate workers. The stone cottages are very picturesque.
This was a busy area as early as 1865. A punt service across the Waitaki River was located nearby at Fern Gully. Wharekuri Hotel was a convenient stopping place for travelers and waggoners. The remains of this hotel can still be seen.
Legend has it that two bush rangers stole money from the Wharekuri Hotel, then hid it near Parsons Rock when the local authorities gave chase. The thieves were caught, but the money was never found.
There are many pleasant walks in the area. The tracks are easy walking, and with the exception of the Benmore Peninsula and Deep Stream tracks, are easily accessed from Otematata village. Most will take around an hour to walk, more if you linger to enjoy the views or watch the bird life.
Wear comfortable walking shoes and take your camera! Be prepared for all weather conditions. This area can experience extreme weather conditions. Walk with a friend, and always tell others where you intend to go.
This reserve is a short walk from the village and has numerous tracks criss-crossing it. Autumn colours are spectacular here as many trees in the reserve are deciduous. Several species of birds can be seen, especially around the ponds and along the lake edge. Tracks lead from the reserve, past the golf course, to the Boat Harbour. In winter care may be needed as these tracks can become muddy.
Boat Harbour walks
Accessible from the main road and the Wildlife Reserve, this area has short tracks on either side of the boat harbour. The Otematata River can be reached from here too.
It is a pleasant walk along the edge of the lake from the Wildlife Reserve to Loch Laird and on to the Benmore Centre and power station. Remember to take your camera, especially in April and May, because the autumn colours are superb.
Located on the Canterbury side of Lake Aviemore, this track follows up Deep Stream from it’s entrance to the lake just above Aviemore Dam. Plan to spend at least four or more hours when exploring here. For information about the walk, check the board at the beginning of the track.
Benmore Peninsula track
Accessed from the car park above the headgate structure on the western flank of the Benmore dam, this track climbs up and around the Benmore Peninsula. Spectacular views across Lake Benmore and up towards the mountains of the main divide can be seen from the higher parts of the track. Allow about two hours for this walk and take warm clothing as it is often windy on exposed parts of the track.
The tracks around the lake edges, the Wildlife Reserve and Boat Harbour are suitable for mountain biking. Cycling these tracks is a great way to enjoy the beauty of the Otematata area. Experience a relaxing single or double track ride or a speedy cross country jaunt.
Cyclists will also enjoy the scenery visible along the roads of the Waitaki Valley.
The lake water is cold in early summer but warms sufficiently to allow swimming from mid-summer until early autumn. Loch Laird is a very popular swimming area close to Otematata.
Beaches adjacent to Te Akatarawa and Waitangi Reserves are also very popular.
The school/community pool is open over the summer months. Keys can be obtained from the Principal and/or Twinlake Stores.
Sailing, windsurfing (board sailing), power boating, water skiing, jet skiing and canoeing are all enjoyed on these lakes.
Boat mooring facilities and concrete launching ramps are provided at the Boat Harbour and Waitangi. Launching ramps and water ski lanes are provided in many of the camping and picnic areas around the lakes.
Lake Aviemore hosts the Aviemore Classic Trailer yacht race at Labour Weekend (nearest weekend to 25 October), and the national Windsurfing Championships in January.
Fishing is a popular pastime in these abundantly stocked lakes and rivers. Fishing season details and licences are available from the Otematata Holiday Park.
Visiting bowlers are welcome to play on the Otematata Bowling Club green during opening hours in the bowling season. Flat soled shoes must be worn on the green.
Otematata Bowling Club is located at 43 Buller Crescent, Otematata.
The Otematata Golf Club welcomes players any day of the week. Green fees for the well-laid out nine hole course are very reasonable. Information about green fees and where to pay them, is located beside No. 1 tee.
These areas are run on an honesty system. Registration booths and toilet facilities are provided in each area.