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Badlands of Omarama

Jess Brien is a performer, writer, host of the That’s So Chronic podcast and is currently based in Auckland. Post-lockdown she made a New Zealand travel wishlist. On that list was a hidden gem of the South Island and a trip to Kaikoura — a town that is still picking up the pieces, but the residents wave and smile.

On the outskirts of Omarama are the otherworldly Clay Cliffs — towering pinnacles of clay that no picture can ever do justice to.

I wouldn't be surprised if they get crowned ‘New Zealand's Most Surprising Destination' one day. I would also just like it to be known that I am happy to take the reins on that competition and explore all of New Zealand's hidden gems if you would like.

If you've ever travelled by road from Christchurch to Queenstown, chances are you have driven through Omarama. It's a popular destination for buses to stop for a coffee, toilet and souvenir break, and I'll put it on the record now that the cafe does make a great chai latte.

I had driven this road countless times and never once looked over my shoulder to see the Clay Cliffs, which apparently you can see from State Highway 8. Recently I had noticed pictures of the cliffs popping up on the internet, so I decided to put it on my Post-Lockdown Travel List. I needed to see this place for myself.

I had spent all of the lockdown isolating on my parents' farm just outside of Fairlie, so it took just under two hours to drive there. Omarama is a part of the Waitaki District and on the edge of the Mackenzie District. Both are full of activities and sightseeing opportunities. It's easy to incorporate the Clay Cliffs and make an adventure day of it, with lakes, hikes, and mountains all close by.

The Clay Cliffs are on private farmland, just off Henburn Road. Follow the signs for the Clay Cliffs on this unsealed gravel road until you get to the gate. $5 per car in the honesty box will get you in. Just don't forget to close the gate on your way through.

From the carpark, it's a short 10- 15 minute walk to the towers of clay themselves. Here you are free to explore to your heart's — and fitness level's — content. Just note that there are no public toilets here.

Like I said before, the pictures will never do this place justice. However, you won't be able to stop taking them. Remember, as tempting as it may be, drones are illegal on private land without consent.

The information board states that this area is known as a “classic example of badlands terrain.” If like me, you are not a geologist, I've done a quick google for us. Badlands terrain is formed by wind and rain erosion. The experts are unsure how long this process takes, but they can assume it's been happening at this location for over 2 million years.

It goes on to say that the grey and white sandstone and claystone were formed in an ancient lake that once existed here. The yellow and brown layers are gravel with silt layers, deposited there by an ancient river many years ago.

Interestingly, the active Ostler Fault zone runs in front of the Clay Cliffs. It has a slip rate of around 1-2mm per year, which has also shaped the cliffs into what we see today.

The Clay Cliffs have been compared to the hoodoos in Utah, just on a smaller scale. I've never been to Utah, and I don't think I'll be getting over to the US for a while, but from what I've seen online, I think the New Zealand version would give them a run for their money.

And the best part? Hardly anyone knows about it. So you will probably have it all to yourself. After watching a feature about the town on TVNZ1's Sunday programme, it was decided: Kaikōura was at the top of my Post-Lockdown Travel List.


Having grown up in the South Island, it is still baffling to me that I had never been to Kaikōura. The town is home to some of my favourite animals (seals and whales) and my favourite things (mountains and the ocean) and is only two-and-a-half hours from Christchurch. I couldn't wait for the lockdown to end so I could go and explore.

Booking a trip in winter does have its challenges. Even though it was grey and rainy for my entire stay, I was not disappointed.

I had just lost my upcoming work due to the virus, so I was a tourist on a budget. I found a private room at the local backpackers that came with an ensuite . . . and a fire alarm at 8.30am the following morning. A backpacker had burnt their breakfast sausages which in turn set off a fire alarm that then propelled me out of bed and dispatched the local fire brigade. It also caused me to put my track pants on the wrong way around as I hurriedly exited the room remembering everything I learned in my primary school fire drills: “leave your bag!” “don't run!” It was quite the wakeup. Don't worry though, I'm assured this doesn't happen every morning there.

While Whale Watch Kaikōura is open again now with Level 2 protocols in place, when I was there they had yet to reopen. Unfortunately, I missed out on seeing the whales. However, what I lacked in whale action, I made up for with seals. There were so many seals. If you're planning a visit, make sure you head to the colony at the end of Fyffe Quay, but also make an effort to drive 26kms out of town to the Ohau Point Carpark. This is an amazing free activity that is perfect for families. Here I saw hundreds of seals with their pups frolicking in the rock pools. I know we are getting a lot of practice at the physical distancing thing at the moment, but whatever you do, it's important that you keep your distance and do not disturb the seals. The official sign says to stay 10 metres from the non-breeding seals at the Fyffe Quay colony, and 20 metres or more everywhere else. Seals can spend up to three weeks out at sea hunting and living their best lives, and only come to shore to rest. When provoked they can leave a nasty infected bite, which I don't believe anyone has time for right now!

Another highlight of Kaikōura has to be its museum. While it isn't the biggest museum I have ever been to, I did learn a lot. I learned that New Zealand frogs don't have ears and that's why they don't croak but they are not to be mistaken for the Australian ones who do have ears. (Australia. Always trying to be better than us.) I also learned that Kaikōura has an underwater cliff face only 500m from the shore which is one of the deepest underwater canyons in the world. And then there was the earthquake exhibition.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know a lot about the earthquake previously, so it was a humbling experience learning more. For only $12 for adults, $10 concession, $6 for children, and $30 for families (2 adults and up to 4 children) it's a nice way to kill a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon.

Then, of course, there's the food. If kaimoana is your thing, you must have fresh local seafood at one of the many restaurants here. I'm a vegetarian so I have had to take my partner's word for this one, but he said it really is like no other. I can say though, speaking as a gluten-free vegetarian, I was certainly not disappointed with the local cuisine. There is something for everyone, even the fussiest of little eaters.

If it isn't on there already, I suggest adding Kaikōura to your Post-Lockdown Travel List. You won't be disappointed.

Because it's Kaikōura. The town that has undeniably been through a lot. The town that is still picking up the pieces. The town where everyone waves and smiles.

GEOLOGICAL WONDER: The Clay Cliffs of Omarama. All pictures by Jess Brien
WHAT A SIGHT: Jess Brien enjoys the view from the dizzy heights of the Clay Cliffs at Omarama.
Seal alert: Signs warn visitors to keep their distance.
TAKING A BREAK: A seal having some time out on the boardwalk.
MAKING LIKE A SEAL: Jess tests out the seals' habitat.