Monday, 21 March 2016

Clay Cliffs of Omarama


At the southern end of the MacKenzie Basin, ten kilometres west of Omarama, down a dusty gravel potholed private road there is an amazing natural phenomenon which many people are unaware of. Even though they are within sight of the main state highway far across the Ahuriri River plain. These are the Omarama Clay Cliffs. 

The cliffs are on private land but are accessible to the public along a farm road that runs beside the Ahuriri River. There's a small entry fee and an 'iron maiden' (steel tube cemented into the ground) at the gate where you can deposit your money or pay at Omarama Hot Tubs in the village. 

The 4km road was fine when we visited but I've since heard that there are a good number of deep water filled potholes. I guess it depends on the time of the year you visit, there's obviously been a lot of traffic over summer. The cliffs look pretty spectacular as we approach them...

...and even more so as we got closer. There's two car parks near the base of the cliffs; the first park is beside a closed gate near the river and I think a few thought they had to walk from there, but you can open it and drive another 500 metres or so to an upper carpark. Those with 4WD are able to venture further up a track to the very base of the cliffs.

The Clay Cliffs are huge sharp pinnacles and ridges with deep, narrow ravines separating them. The Clay Cliffs are made of layers of gravel and silt, deposited by rivers flowing from the glaciers that existed 1-2 million years ago. Compared to the nearby mountains, which are 250 million years old, the Clay Cliffs are relatively new. Today the gravel and silt layers can be seen as sloping bands as the strata have been tilted since their deposit 1-2 million years ago.

We drove to the second carpark (David left me there and carried on up the 4WD track), this was the view out over the Ahuriri River back towards Omarama on the far left.

Did you notice the lupins in the photo above? Here's the view looking south along the river, look at the ribbons of lupins lining the river braids!

And here, zoomed in, you can see how massive the lupin problem really is. This is what you don't see while you're driving along the well known and worn tourist route through the MacKenzie Basin.

At the end of the 4WD track there's a narrow opening through to the inside of the cliffs. I don't think many visitors know this, we saw a few people standing in the carpark admiring the cliffs and climbing about on the slopes nearby. They didn't walk further on, just climbed back into their vehicles and drove off. 

Inside the cliffs, there's a amphitheater of towering pinnacles and some very slippery tracks up and around a few of them. Make sure you have sturdy shoes on. Unlike us who were wearing our Crocs! 

We actually weren't intending to visit the cliffs until the next day but happened to pass the end of the road while out tiki-touring and made an snap decision to see how the road in was. And of course once we got to the end of that, why not check the cliffs out too? I wasn't too concerned because I was coming back in the morning for sunrise.

We waited for the family to pass us before moving further into the cavern, the kids were slipping and sliding over as they made their way back towards the entrance. 

And look what has managed to find it's way inside; those flamin' lupins along with their cohorts, the briar rose.

We climbed as far up the rocky slide as we dared, this is the view back down through the entrance and out over the river plain to the main highway off in the far distance. We could see tiny cars and trucks zooming along the straight road heading towards Lindis Pass or Omarama.

We clambered about taking a few different tracks up the steep ridges and checking behind a few gaps in the pillars. It was a thrill to suddenly hear the call of a NZ Falcon/karearea echoing off the walls around us and watch as it came racing out over the back edge of the cliff chasing a black-backed gull. Of course it was too far away and way too fast to get any decent shots but we watched as it did a couple of victory laps above us once the gull disappeared and then flew back over the top of us disappearing out of sight.

We took one last look around noticing a memorial plaque and mementos placed near a smaller pillar; a family remembering their parents in a very special place.

I walk ahead as David drives the ute back down to the carpark...

I let him pass so I can get a shot of the ute with the river in the background. I'm always on the look out for shots to use as my blog header. I keep a running post of all the headers I've used since the beginning of the blog. It's a great record and it always amazes me, when I scan through them, how many places we have been to. 

We take one last look at the cliffs...

and head off towards home, stopping once to check out the river for trout.

So next time you're racing along the Omarama straight on SH8 glance to the west and you'll see for yourself the Clay Cliffs of Omarama.

In this zoomed in shot you can see the loop at the end of the 4WD track, with the entrance to the cavern just behind to the left.

But wait, there's more!
My sunrise shots at the Clay Cliffs.


  1. Absolutely great shots . . . and to think I drove right past these more than once and never noticed! Grrrrr . . . . looks like a fun 4WD road too - wish I could get my Jeep there. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Mike, much appreciated. I'm sure you're not the only one that has been unaware of them all these years. The 4WD track is very short, not something I'd go our of my way to drive.

  2. We have eyes for this place but missed it twice. Glad to have your posts just before our third attempt. They really come in handy!

    1. Thanks offstone, lets just hope the weather is fine for you then!

  3. been there and enjoyed all by ourselves for over an hour exploring

    1. It's a thrill to have it to yourself isn't it. I went back for sunrise the next morning and was there for well over 2 hours with not another soul in sight. Check out the next blog for the sunrise photos. Thanks for stopping by & commenting.

  4. A must do.. We loved the rock formations.

    1. Many thanks for commenting, yes, definitely a must do!

  5. Great pics.. it's on our list to see this coming April. :) How long do think it would take to drive there from the main highway and then walk up past the 2nd carpark to the hidden bit?
    Thanks, Tim

    1. Hi there, glad you enjoyed the blog Tim, and nice to hear from you again. The Cliffs aren't that far from the main road (SH8), I'd allow 20 minutes max to get to the carpark- the drive in from the farm gate may be slow going, there were many pot-holes when I was there. And you'd need about an hour to an hour and half to explore the cliffs depending on how many photos you want to take. There are longer tracks back into the earlier cliffs, I didn't walk them as the end lot were the better examples. I guess if you allowed 2-2.5 hours in total, you be fine. Enjoy!

    2. Many thanks. We'll be travelling from Mt Cook to Queenstown...but want to make it in time for the Nevis Swing! I think we'll be OK for time then to visit the cliffs too. I've been following your blog for a while now. Great little stories and photos from your travels. Keep up the good work. :)

    3. Thanks Tim, if it's just a quick swing-by allow about 90 minutes return from SH8.


Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's much appreciated.