Totara Estate – where history was made

If you’re interested in New Zealand’s history, you owe it to yourself to explore Totara Estate, the historic farm in North Oamaru which is credited with sending to Britain the first shipment of frozen meat to leave New Zealand’s shores. Now under the management of Heritage New Zealand, the significant landmark can be accessed via a long, tree-lined drive which, in Autumn, is carpeted in golden leaves.

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Totara Estate has been farmed since the 1950s and at one point in its long history, comprised over 60,000 hectares. It was well stocked with sheep and cattle, and also maintained a reputation for growing fine wheat, potatoes and mangold. Its grain production was such that a flour mill was built on the estate.

In the late 1800s, however, the price of wool began to plummet and New Zealand found itself producing more meat than the local population could use. With international markets a long way off, the farm’s general manager set out to find a way to send frozen meat abroad. The result was, that in 1882, a shipment of mutton left New Zealand, and our frozen meat industry was born.

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Today, the vastly reduced acreage of the estate comprises a small area of well maintained pasture land which is home to several solid Oamaru stone buildings. They can be viewed by taking a stroll along well formed paths which pass by fields of grazing sheep. Visitors are welcome to feed the farm animals which include a delightful collection of colourful chickens.

Be sure to visit to the men’s quarters, the granary, and the stables with their tack and saddles displayed on the walls. Listen to recorded stories of swaggers and slaughtermen, and when you’re ready for a snack, duck back to the farm cafe for an afternoon tea in what was the old cookhouse.

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The cafe doubles as a museum filled with vintage china, butter churns, kettles and pots and pans. Enjoy sitting at the well worn wooden tables, and drink your cuppa surrounded by walls bearing the carved initials of farm workers who once dined there themselves. In keeping with the authentic surroundings, you will be served by staff dressed in Victorian clothes, and if you feel like dressing up yourself, enquire about the costumes the farm makes available to visitors. The cafe is right next door to the quaint souvenir and gift shop where you are sure to find something special to take home.

If you’re feeling fit, and the weather is being kind, follow your visit to Totara Estate with a trek up nearby Sebastopol Hill to the Brydone Monument. The well known site recognises the efforts of Thomas Brydone who oversaw the processing of sheep for that first shipment of frozen mutton to Britain. From the monument it is possible to look out to views of North Otago’s rolling hills and the Totara Estate farm buildings in the distance.

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Perhaps the greatest irony of our meat exporting industry is that almost 140 years ago, farmers from North Otago were shipping back to Britain the very animals the mother country had first supplied them with. This was surely Kiwi ingenuity at its finest!