The magic of the Moeraki boulders

July 13

New Zealand’s South Island is home to many, many gems, but the Moeraki boulders are extra special. They’re a treasure trove of history, mystery, and alleged alien eggs. What more could you want? The North Otago coast has become famous for its massive, calcite rock spheres (or boulders) which are scattered along the coastline. They’re beautiful, of course, but the biggest appeal of the Moeraki boulders is the mystery: no one knows how they got here.

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What is there to do in Moeraki?

The coast, its beaches and the little village of Moeraki are absolutely gorgeous, but most people come to see the boulders. The natural, spherical rocks weigh a few tones each, and are scattered across Koekohe beach near Moeraki, between Moeraki village and Hampden on the North Otago coast. They’re not technically boulders, either, but septarian concretions (hardened mineral matter and mudstone found in rock and soil) formed into round boulders over millions of years of pounding waves. Boulders, septarian concretions, whatever you want to call them, these spherical stones have stood guard over the east coast of North Otago for millions of years, making them famous around the world. They’re well worth a looksie, and certainly a photo or three.

You can see the boulders on Koekohe beach from miles away, and they’re a favourite spot for family outings, picnics and photography. So yes, the boulders are the main drawcard. But there are other things to do once you’ve gawked at these (and come up with your own theories to explain their existence).

From the Moeraki boulders at Koekohe beach, it’s a quick drive to Moeraki village, where there are a few great seaside cafes, but nothing quite as iconic as Fleur’s. Fleur’s place is arguably one of New Zealand’s best places to eat fresh seafood. It’s a rustic, sea-worn place that almost feels like it’s been washed ashore, and the food at Fleur’s is sophisticated and delicious.

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The Moeraki boulders are only 40 minutes south of charming Oamaru, and about an hour north of Dunedin. The South Island, New Zealand is a well explored part of the world, but there’s something about the coast of Otago that feels other worldly and somehow undiscovered. From the boulders, head south to Timaru to Te Ana Ngāi Tahu, where you can see ancient Māori rock art sites.

What is the meaning of Moeraki?

Moeraki means to “a place to sleep by day” or “drowsy day” in Te Reo, the Māori language. This is because, according to one legend, Kupe left some of his people at a place he called Moeraki when he was exploring the South Island and the rest of New Zealand.

Why are the Moeraki boulders famous?

The Moeraki formation is probably most striking for the sheer size of the mudstone boulders – some up to three metres in diameter, and weighing several tonnes. They’ll dwarf even the largest of humans – talk about a piece of humble pie.

These crazy spherical boulders are probably most famous for their mystery, though. They look like they’ve been coughed up by a wild and ravaging sea, rolled forth from the bottom of the sea floor, or are perhaps alien eggs dropped from the stratosphere; there’s no shortage of theories and explanations for them. To add to the dramatic effect, the cracks in the big rocks (caused by the minerals of the concretions) make them look like giant turtle shells.

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What caused the Moeraki boulders?

There are more theories behind the mysterious Moeraki boulders than there are boulders themselves, but the agreed consensus is that they’ve been there since at least 60 million years ago. One theory is hatched alien eggs. Another (and more popular) is based on geology; that they are septarian concretions formed by the cementation of the mudstone of the Moeraki Formation, which was then eroded by the sea to form boulders on what’s now known as Koekohe beach.

Another is that they were formed as part of a limestone reef, which was uplifted from its original position at the bottom of an ancient sea floor. Other possibilities include volcanic activity, earthquakes and glaciers. And that’s just the geological scientific approach. According to Māori legend, the calcite spheres are the remains of eel baskets, calabashes and kumara washed ashore from the wreck of a large sailing canoe, Arai Te Uru. The legend explains that the petrified hull of the canoe remains today as the rocky shoals that extend from Shag Point, which is at the end of Koekohe beach. The legend explains the cracks and patterning in the rocks, too, as being remnants of the canoe’s fishing nets. Shag point is also a great place to see fur seals and, if you hang around for long enough, you might catch a glimpse of the dolphins and wales that often pass these ways.

What is the cultural value of the Moeraki boulders?

The Moeraki boulders of the South Island of New Zealand are situated within the Shag point or Matakaea area, which has been occupied for hundreds of years and is the site of multiple burial grounds and sacred sites for Māori. The legend of the Arai Te Uru is also significant, as this was the canoe which the Kahui Tipua people sailed on an expedition to Hawaiiki, the mythical land, to find sweet potato. The spherical rocks represent the eel baskets and other gourds, preserved forever in giant concretions.

Māori culture is strongly governed by principals of guardianship and custodianship of the land, and the huge spherical stones at Moeraki are no exception. Each boulder is under the protection of the local Moeraki village, and people are not allowed to remove, damage or graffiti them. Throughout the late 20th century, there was an ongoing debate in New Zealand about whether or not it was okay to take boulders from the beach and place them in museums for tourism and heritage reasons. There were arguments both for and against removal: on one hand this would help to preserve the amazing phenomenon, but on the other hand would remove them from their place in nature.

Can you see the Moeraki boulders at high tide?

Not really. They’re best seen at low tide, when the waves recede. Be sure to plan ahead and check the tide charts!

How long have the Moeraki Boulders been around?

The boulders are thought to have been around since at least 60 million years ago. That’s a hot minute.

How have humans impacted the Moeraki boulders?

Humans love to explore, but we can be kind of dumb sometimes. After people began decorating the boulders on the beach with graffiti, the local people upped the protection. The idea of stealing a ginormous boulder might also seem ridiculous, but the Moeraki boulders were subject to vandalism and theft that peaked in the 70’s in New Zealand. Fortunately, many of the boulders were saved and they are now under 24-hour surveillance. We have, thankfully, progressed since the late 1860’s, when some of the beautiful concretions were crushed up to be made into cement.

The best thing you can do when you visit? Be awe-struck and take photos, but be gentle and leave no trace – same goes everywhere in New Zealand.

Are the Moeraki boulders disappearing?

Whilst there are still plenty of these incredible spherical boulders on the beach to feast your eyes on, the wild and pounding sea is slowly reclaiming them. If you’re on a tour to see them before they go (which will be millennia, so don’t fret), there are similar boulders scattered across New Zealand’s North Island, too. At Koutu up north, the boulders get even bigger than at Moeraki.

How do I get to Moeraki boulders?

From Oamaru, follow the main road south for half an hour. You can’t miss Koehoke beach. From Dunedin, head north along the coast for an hour. Compared with Queenstown and Fiordland, Dunedin is one of the lesser explored parts of the South Island. It’s a charming place, though, with its wild seas, historic museums and grand old villas reminiscent of the first Gold Rush of New Zealand history. Just excuse the wild weather.

Are dogs allowed at Moeraki boulders?

Dogs are allowed on leashes at Moeraki. Like many places in New Zealand, there is delicate flora and fauna worth protecting.

How many people live in Moeraki?

Moeraki is just a wee village, with a population of about 70 people. But it’s not a bustling metropolis you’re visiting for; here, nature and seafood take centre stage.

So, looks like it’s time to plan a trip to Moeraki boulders, New Zealand. After all, how often to you find a beautiful, secluded beach scattered with alien eggs ?

 


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