Aerial view of the main Totara Estate building made of Ōamaru stone, picnic tables with red umbrellas and people sitting beneath them

An introduction to Totara Estate

It doesn’t look much like a hub of disruptive innovation, no Silicon Valley. But in the late 19th Century, the North Otago sheep farm of Totara Estate was at the centre of a technological leap that transformed Aotearoa New Zealand’s economy – frozen meat. The shipment that left Totara in February 1882 was a world first, and when it arrived safely in London three months later, it changed the future.

A visit to Totara Estate is not solely about mutton and markets, however. The four Ōamaru stone farm buildings are a visual treat – hard lines against soft country – and the colourful history is brought vividly to life. When you finish your guided tour of this landmark site you’ll have a head full of colourful anecdotes and a belly full of traditional country baking and tea.

It’s a Scottish tale, the story of industry at Totara Estate. The Scots-owned New Zealand and Australian Land Company (NZALC) bought the land in 1866, adding it to 15 farms it possessed in the South Island plus a similar number across The Ditch. As per the economics of the day, this was a substantial enterprise – 17,000 sheep at peak, on 15,000 acres of rolling country near Ōamaru – growing wool to feed the “dark Satanic mills” of Britain. And meat? Mutton was virtually a waste product, and it remained so right up until the bottom fell out of the wool market and the country was plunged into depression. Suddenly, the search was on for a new earner.

The company’s General Manager William Davidson, a canny operator who was posthumously inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame, cracked the nut. In partnership with the Albion Shipping Company, he had the immigrant ship Dunedin refitted with a steam-powered Bell-Coleman refrigeration plant. The NZALC chose Totara Estate to be the proving ground for its bold experiment. It built a slaughterhouse and hired a team of butchers. Working in shifts, they processed 250-plus carcasses a day, which were railed to Port Chalmers in ice-filled wagons. That first successful shipment was a game-breaker. Within a few years freezing works had sprung up near coastal towns in both islands, and a whole new industry was born.

In keeping with that theme of action, the property is surrounded by a working farm – a busy borrowed landscape for a heritage site that is given an animated interpretation. The buildings, all restored in the 1980s by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) in partnership with the meat industry (the site was officially reopened on the 100th anniversary of the Dunedin’s sailing), have been set up like the men had just headed outside for a smoke. You’ll find their bunkroom graffiti left untouched – well, the G-rated stuff – and the cookhouse is still a warm, welcoming hub where you can share fresh scones and tea (hospitality is a big thing at Totara Estate). Once a month, the cookhouse is transformed into Victorian tearooms, with the serving staff in full garb. There’s a costume box for visiting kids, too, if they want to get in character.

Speaking of characters, Totara Estate had its share. One regular visitor was Edmond Slattery, aka ‘The Shiner’, a tall, gaunt, trickster of a swagman and something of an early Aotearoa New Zealand celebrity. The farm was on the Shiner’s rounds, and he had a habit of stopping off at the end of the year en route to the Caledonian Games at Ōamaru, where his Irish jig was legendary. Another swaggie you’ll hear about on the guided tour is Barnie Whiterats, so named because he entertained his hosts with a troop of performing mice. Then there’s the farm’s Chinese cook, Jimmy Hoey, whose image has pride of place in the kitchen.

Totara Estate was the prototype for the modern meat works. Check out the slaughterhouse and the relics of the killing shed – the blood gutter might be a bridge too far for vegetarians – along with the stables and granary. Outside, hand-feed the estate’s heritage breed sheep, or take a walk up Sebastapol Hill, which is crowned with a monument to manager Thomas Brydone, who oversaw the farm’s transition from wool to meat. The view takes in a quiltwork of North Otago farmland and the distant Kakanui Range.

Visiting with a group? Totara Estate has a special experience for bigger groups, including costumed tour guides, billy tea over the fire and freshly made scones. Or indoors in the original cookshop if the weather is not so good. Group tours require a pre-booking.

Later, take a driving tour. From Totara Estate, head up the Waitaki Valley to the ancient towering boulder field of Elephant Rocks, then on to one of the local wineries in Kurow. Or head down the coast to Moeraki – more boulders – and lunch at a local eatery. And, of course, spend plenty of time exploring Ōamaru’s well preserved Victorian precinct. In the evening, visit the nearby Blue Penguin Colony. If you come on a Sunday then include nearby Clarks Mill in your tour, open for two hours in the afternoon.