Matanaka reddish-brown pitsawn timber farm buildings across the paddock on a stormy day

An introduction to Matanaka

Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest surviving European farm buildings is set in an exposed paddock high above the Ōtākou, Otago coast, five reddish-brown pitsawn timber structures stark against a slate-grey sea. It’s the stuff of a Graham Sydney painting – although, as it happens, that artist has photographed Matanaka Farm rather than reaching for the oils.

Founded by the original colonial go-getter Johnny Jones in 1840, Matanaka ought to be better known than it is, not only because of its historical significance, but because it’s just so darned atmospheric. Listen closely when you visit, and you may hear, below the whistling westerly, the murmured recriminations of Jones’s first immigrant families as they try to eke out a living in this isolated setting. Walk through the stables, still with its original tin roof and horse stalls, or the schoolhouse, which now houses a history display, and you’ll be transported back to when European settlement had just begun in this part of the country.

Jones was a Sydney-based sealer and whaler who parlayed a share in a Fiordland whaling station into a controlling interest in most of southern Aotearoa New Zealand’s whaling stations, with 280 men on his payroll. In 1838 he bought a whaling station and some land at Waikouaiti, near Matanaka, and a couple of years later established the farm, the first in Ōtākou, Otago, stocking it with sheep, cattle and horses from New South Wales, Australia and populating it with 12 Sydney families – the first organised settlement on the east coast of the South Island, beating Dunedin’s founders to the punch by several years. When the farm failed to fire Jones came over from Sydney to put things in order, and in time the operation began supplying food to Waikouaiti and environs, followed by Dunedin.  

Matanaka is on private land and is closed for lambing from August to October and during strong winds. From the carpark, it’s a five-minute walk (stick to the track) to the cluster of farm buildings. Start at the schoolhouse, where a set of interpretative panels tells the story of Jones, Matanaka Farm and the surrounds. Through a perspex wall you can look into the classroom, which has been set up with period school desks, maps and other furnishings for a sense of early school life. Head on to the beautifully simple and unadorned barn, the little storehouse, and the stables, with gig room, harness room, and assorted old time saddles and other horse tack. Perennial favourite among visitors is the three-seater communal privy – the ultimate loo with a view.

When you’ve finished, take the four-kilometre loop walk around Hawksbury Lagoon at the mouth of Waikouaiti River. The DOC-administered wildlife refuge is a great spot to see migratory and nesting birds, including royal spoonbills, paradise ducks, pied stilts and white-faced herons. A short drive up the coast lies Koekohe Beach, famous for its fabulously spherical Moeraki Boulders. Heading back in the direction of Dunedin, take a left at Waitati and check out the wonderful Orokonui Ecosanctuary, a 300-hectare predator-fenced reserve set in regenerating forest. You’ll see or hear kākā, tūī, kererū, pīwakawaka, takahē and other natives, and spy Otago skinks, jewelled geckos and assorted endemic lizards.