Tohu Whenua

A discovery of Otago’s most treasured heritage places

Tohu Whenua makes it easier than ever to find Aotearoa New Zealand’s most significant heritage places. Otago’s Tohu Whenua are places that tell the stories of our people’s pioneering spirit, where you can see innovations born out of necessity, experience the wealth of an era,  and appreciate the industries that set us up to be the self-reliant and prospering country we are today.

Miners’ cottages, suspension bridges, inventors’ workshops and historic streetscapes – when it comes to heritage, Otago has plenty of  uniquely Kiwi landmarks awaiting discovery. Eleven of these have been recognised as Tohu Whenua, our country’s best heritage experiences. Most are conveniently located along the scenically stunning Central Otago Touring Route.


A cruise aboard iconic Lake Wakatipu’s 109-year-old steamship T.S.S. Earnslaw is hard to beat. Launched in the same year as the Titanic, the T.S.S. Earnslaw formed an integral part of Queenstown’s pioneering history, ferrying people, sheep, cattle, mail and supplies to remote  lakeside destinations in the days before any roads existed.





Best known as A.J. Hackett’s original bungy experience, Kawarau Suspension Bridge was built 142 years ago for better access to Central  Otago’s goldfields. We owe its existence to engineer Henry Higgins, who came up with innovative strengthening solutions so the bridge could withstand powerful side winds being funnelled along the rocky gorge. These days the historic bridge is a link for cyclists and hikers between  historic Arrowtown and the Gibbston River Wine Trail.


Arrowtown preserves two very different goldrush communities – the main street where wealthy European banks and merchants traded, and  the restored huts of Chinese miners who lived a much more modest lifestyle. Established during the Otago gold rush of the 1860s, this  charming town has no less than 60 heritage-listed buildings to explore. Each April the hills are ablaze with autumn colours, which is  celebrated by the Akarua Arrowtown Autumn Festival.




Featuring pinnacles and clay cliffs, the Bannockburn Sluicings resemble the Wild West. But these badlands were man-made, created 150  years ago when gold miners blasted the hills with water to flush out gold. A short walk takes you to the entrance of a narrow gully of rock  tailings, tunnels and caves where the poorest miners once lived.


Steeped in heritage, this 152 km cycle trail follows a disused railway line and takes in just about everything that’s great about Central Otago –  ever-changing mountains, dry rocky landscapes, productive farmland, spectacular river gorges, historic railway tunnels and viaducts. Stay in  traditional country towns, join the locals at charming pubs and cafes and enjoy the warm country hospitality this region is famous for.


Hayes Engineering Works is a must-see for any fan of Kiwi ingenuity. Located along the Otago Central Rail Trail, this historic rural workshop and homestead was home to prolific inventor couple Ernest and Hannah Hayes. Ernest’s speciality was inventing and perfecting labour-saving devices from wire strainers to windmills that were sought after both at home and overseas.


Built in 1904, this lavishly-decorated mansion is almost exactly as its original occupants, the Theomins, left it. The one-hour guided tour gives you a taste of how they lived, surrounded by fine furnishings, china and significant artworks. An exploration through the kitchen and domestic areas reveals many modern conveniences that were luxuries at the time.


Dating to the early 1900s, Dunedin Railway Station is an architectural masterpiece featuring an ensemble of arches, pillars, copper-domed  cupolas and an ornate clock tower that can be seen from many parts of the inner city. The interior is just as lavishly decorated. In its early  days this was the country’s busiest railway station, handling up to 100 trains a day. Now it’s at its most lively on a Saturday morning when  the carpark and platform transform into the popular Otago Farmers Market.


Larnach Castle is our nation’s oldest castle. Sited majestically on Otago Peninsula, this 43-room mansion has spectacular views, sumptuous  architecture and a tumultuous past. Built in the 1870s for prominent but unlucky entrepreneur and politician William Larnach, no expense  was spared. The current owners have in part used tourist admission fees to save the ill-fated castle from ruin and turn it into the premier  tourist attraction it is today. They offer guided and self-guided tours, a range of accommodation, high tea and more.


Ōamaru was once a majestic colonial outpost that played a key part in Otago’s industrial and agricultural heritage – and the locals are clearly proud. They’ve lovingly restored the Victorian Precinct’s ornate limestone buildings that once functioned as engineering enterprises, grain  stores and banks, and repurposed them as quirky galleries, shops and places that produce delicious food and drink. Thanks to their efforts,  Harbour Street is one of the few intact Victorian streets left anywhere in the world.


Located just south of Ōamaru, Totara Estate is the grand farm from where the first shipment of frozen mutton was sent to England in 1882.  This marked the start of an export industry that is now worth billions. Wander through the men’s quarters, stables, granary, cookhouse and  slaughterhouse to hear stories of swaggers, farm hands and the Chinese cook. Join in with farm activities, play oldfashioned games and enjoy freshly baked scones.



To start your discovery of Tohu Whenua heritage sites visit the official website, follow us on Facebook and Instagram and  pick up our regional Tohu Whenua brochures. Tohu Whenua is a partnership between Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage,  Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai and Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.