While Ōtepoti (Dunedin) has long been recognised for its Scottish influence, the wider area is rich with Māori history and stories of Kāi Tahu whaunui the manawhenua that settled here long before Europeans visited these shores.
Ōtepoti is the Māori name for upper harbour area where Dunedin city was developed. The modern city boundary also includes the papatipu runanga at Ōtākou (at the end of the Otago Peninsula) and Puketeraki (in Karitane).
Today you can gain insight to the traditional life of the manawhenua visiting the excellent exhibitions at both the Otago Museum and Toitū Early Settlers Museum, which coincidently is named after the Toitū stream, which runs through and beneath central Dunedin.
Around the region, there are a number of historic pā (village) sites at Pukekura (Taiaroa Head), Mapoutahi (Doctors Point) and Huriawa Peninsula (Karitane) they were important settlements for both defence and food gathering. These are beautiful places with views for miles over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and well worth exploring independently or with one of the excellent Māori tour operators - Blue Penguins Pukekura or Horizon Tours.
You can learn more about the Māori place names and historical sites of significance with the Ngai Tahu Atlas.
Ōtepoti Exploration Trail
1: Otago Museum
The fascinating collections in the museum’s Southern Land, Southern People and Tāngata Whenua galleries feature numerous artefacts and displays depicting the history of the Maori people in the Dunedin area and further afield. A thoroughly absorbing way to spend a few hours.
Situated on top of the Port Chalmers Flagstaff lookout is a secret hidden garden. Built in 2005 fulfilling the wishes of well-known Maori artist Ralph Hotere, it marks the return of four sculptors to their home at Observation Point including 'Black Phoenix II' by Ralph Hotere
Catch one of the newest pieces of local street art - a double-story likeness of Hotere by Tyler Kennedy-Stent on Carroll Street. A fitting tribute to one of Dunedin’s most notable artists.
Head to Blue Penguins Pukekura at Taiaroa Head for an up-close experience with Kororā, Little Blue Penguins. Watch from a specially built viewing platform as the penguins come in from fishing at dusk and head home to their burrows. Blue Penguins Pukeura is a conservation project between the Korako Karetai family and Otago Peninsula Trust with proceeds going towards habitat conservation and penguin care.
Horizon Tours specialise in Dunedin’s unique wildlife, coastal character, Māori and European history through stories that bring our natural landscapes alive. Their Southern Skies Stargazing Tour makes the most of the renowned dark skies of the Otago Peninsula to share Maori tales of the celestial bodies, complete with comfy chairs, blankets and warm drinks.
Notable Māori poet Hone Tuwhare made Dunedin his home for over 20 years and was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship and named Te Mata Poet Laureate during his lifetime. Today he is a feature of the Dunedin Writers Walk in the Octagon, which features a plaque bearing his name and a poem titled Snowfall.
The coastline north of Dunedin is majestically beautiful and still largely unpopulated. Head out to Doctors Point and take a stroll along the beach at low-tide which will lead you through rocky coastal archways towards Mapoutahi Pa and Canoe Beach. This secret Shangri-La is well worth the walk, just make sure you head back well before the tide turns.
Huriawa Peninsula at the north end of Karitane beach was the site of a historic fortified Māori pā where, in the 18th century, chief Te Wera and his people withstood a six-month siege. It’s now a reserve entered through a carved archway leading to the paths offering views to coastal rock stacks, down the cliffs and into blowholes.
A museum, but not as you know it. Toitu’s fascinating collection of interactive displays includes the Ara i te uru exhibit which delves into the history and culture of Otago’s early Maori population. Distinctive elements of tribal culture, such as the mokihi watercraft tradition, are showcased, while the Whatamatauraka information station offers an interactive storehouse of knowledge about Māori in Otago.
10. Koru Gallery
Shop for pounamu, bone carving, korowai, ceramics and visual art by a range of leading Maori artists from Dunedin and the wider region.