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Leading the way . . Mike Gray outside Vanished World in Duntroon. Mr Gray is leading the charge to have the area's geology recognised as an international geopark. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Duntroon is well known locally for its geological history, on show around the landscape and at the Vanished World Centre. Now, Mike Gray is leading an ambitious bid to earn international geopark status. Daniel Birchfield finds out more.

Duntroon has what it takes to be internationally recognised for its rich geological history, according to the man driving a project to realise the dream he shares with others.

Mike Gray, chairman of Duntroon community group Vanished World, formed in 2000 to promote understanding of fossils and the wider geology of the Waitaki district, recently launched the Whitestone Geopark Project.

The aim is to have Duntroon, home to the Vanished World fossil centre, and other areas in the Waitaki officially recognised as a geopark.

To be considered for geopark status, an area has to be officially recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

It defines a geopark as “single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development”.

Vanished World is in the process of putting together an application to be assessed by the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco, and (hopefully) signed off by Unesco’s international arm in Paris.

Two decades ago, people started realising Duntroon had something special to offer in the form of its geology, Mr Gray said.

“It all goes back 20 years when [geologist] Ewan Fordyce was fossicking around the paddocks and on the cliff-faces, discovering these prehistoric bones and things, and by excavating, he’s discovered several magnificent fossils of animals that no longer exist.

“He was finding all these things in the district and the farmers were curious .. they started to say, ‘These are coming from our district. Why can’t we have some of these things here and take pride in what we’ve got?’

“That’s how Vanished World was formed. Ewan has always seen in the future this sort of concept of having a good centre that tells this geological story.”

Attraction . . . Elephant Rocks, near Duntroon. PHOTO: ODT FILES

He said Duntroon met the requirements determined by Unesco from a geological point of view, but it was not all about geology.

“A geopark’s bigger than that. A geopark has to have international recognition of core geology, but the word ‘geo’ doesn’t only mean geology. Its means geography.

“There’s some stunning landforms here. We’ve got the Waitaki River, Elephant Rocks and the cliffs at Awamoko Valley there.

“The locals were the ones that wanted to get in behind this and what a geopark is going to do. A geopark’s going to give everyone the story. They’re going to get the story of their land.”

Other elements included educational potential and cultural aspects.

He believed the concept had the potential to appeal to everyone, not just a select group that enjoyed geology.

“I talk about a pyramid. Right at the apex of the pyramid is the people that are really interested in geology, and the people that aren’t interested in it, as such, are at the bottom. But the thing is they are interested. They love a good scenic photo.

“Then there’s people that climb the rocks and hang off the rocks or go abseiling. It’s geo-tourism. With time, people begin to see their connection.

“Our task is that we have to give them experiences . They come in not knowing and go away knowing. That’s what excites me.”

Once Vanished World had sent its application, it would perform a self-evaluation.

If it was up to scratch then Unesco would visit to carry out its own assessment before it granted accreditation.

Mr Gray said the accreditation acted as “quality assurance”.

The deadline for applications was April 30, with decisions on accreditation made at the end of May.

He was optimistic about the group’s chance of success.

“I’m confident that we will succeed. The challenge then is the Unesco [Paris] one, and I am confident we will succeed with that. The only reservation I have is how quickly we will succeed with that. If we apply and we’re not fully ready, we’re only going to do ourselves a disservice.

“We have got to satisfy New Zealand that we have a product that is worthy of support going forward to Unesco in Paris.”

Vanished World was working with the Waitaki District Council, Maori representatives and landowners on the project.