Story: Otago region

Gold and Presbyterianism were the foundations of Otago, settled by canny Scots and hopeful gold miners who soon outnumbered the local Ngāi Tahu. Around 1880 Dunedin was New Zealand’s largest and wealthiest city; its university and medical school still have a strong reputation. The dramatic inland basins and ranges of Central Otago once swarmed with gold miners – these days they attract tourists, artists and winemakers.

Story by Malcolm McKinnon
Main image: Winter in Ophir, 2007

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Landscape and climate

Otago’s varied landscape includes the inland ranges and basins of Central Otago, the southern peaks of the Southern Alps, coastal lowlands, and the Catlins hill country. Central Otago records some of New Zealand’s highest and lowest temperatures, and its lowest rainfall; coastal areas are cooler and wetter.

Māori history

Around 1250–1300, Māori arrived in Otago, where they hunted the flightless moa and burnt much of the inland forest. The first tribes were Waitaha, then Ngāti Māmoe; later Ngāi Tahu were dominant. They intermarried with the first Europeans in Otago, who were sealers and whalers.

The Otago settlement

In 1844 Ngāi Tahu chiefs sold land to the New Zealand Company. From 1848 settlers, mostly from Scotland, began arriving to live around Otago Harbour. They founded the town of Dunedin.


In the 1850s people began farming sheep for wool. After the first refrigerated meat was sent to Britain in 1882, sheep were farmed for meat too. Fruit orchards were planted in Central Otago.


In 1861 Gabriel Read found gold near the Tuapeka River, at a place now called Gabriels Gully. Miners from Australia and around New Zealand rushed to Central Otago, and more gold was found at Cromwell and on the Arrow and Shotover rivers. Towns full of gold seekers developed quickly, including Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu.


Many Otago settlers were Scottish and belonged to the Presbyterian church. They valued education and set up public schools. They also campaigned for the rights of women and workers, and for temperance (not drinking alcohol).

Changes over time

Around 1880, thanks to wool and gold, Dunedin was New Zealand’s largest and wealthiest town. One-fifth of the country’s population lived in Otago.

By 2013 Otago had less than 5% of New Zealand’s people. Dunedin was still well known for its university and medical school, and tourist towns like Queenstown and Wānaka were growing fast.


Many poets and artists have lived in Dunedin, or been inspired by Central Otago’s dramatic landscapes. Poet Hone Tuwhare lived in Otago for many years; writer Janet Frame spent her childhood in Ōamaru. Well-known Otago-based visual artists have included Ralph Hōtere and Grahame Sydney.

In the 1980s, guitar-based Dunedin bands like the Clean, the Verlaines and the Chills developed a distinctive ‘Dunedin sound’.

Sport and leisure

Otago’s forests and rivers are popular for hunting and fishing. In summer, people enjoy swimming, boating and waterskiing on its lakes; in winter, they ski, skate, or (in cold seasons) go curling – a kind of bowls on ice.


How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Otago region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 8 May 2009, updated 1 May 2015