New Zealand / Travel

Oamaru: A Step Back in Time

After staying in Burkes Pass, not too far from Lake Tekapo, Toby, Grace and I were offered the chance to house sit for a friendly couple who lived in the house next to the one we were renting. They were who we rented our AirBNB cottage from and were going away for the weekend, and needed someone to look after their animals. We agreed, although it meant saying goodbye to Clare and Tim 24 hours before we had originally planned. We stayed in rural Burkes Pass (not far from Tekapo) for a weekend. We walked their two dogs, fed their alpacas and highland cow and collected the chickens’ eggs. We still had no car so we couldn’t actually go anywhere! We then returned to Christchurch for a couple of days, where we met up again with our American friends, Rob and Dan, who were soon to be leaving New Zealand and were looking to sell their car. We are now the proud owners of a green Nissan Primera called Kermit.

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Our first trip in Kermit was from Christchurch to Oamaru. Dan and Rob joined us in our new (and their old) car, and the five of us spent a few days in Victorian Oamaru before they headed off. Oamaru is situated on the east coast, about two thirds of the way south from Christchurch to Dunedin. We hadn’t had the chance to venture this way with Clare and Tim, so we now had the chance to fill in the gaps, and visit some more of the South Island. Oamaru is an unusual town, and is famous for two things: penguins and steampunk.

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We were told that the best time to see the Yellow Eyed Penguins on the local beaches was about an hour or so before sunset. We ventured 10 minutes out of town to Bushy Beach on two occasions. The aim was to arrive to see the penguins make their daily exit from the sea and walk across the beach to the bush area, where they would sleep under the shelter of shrubs. The first afternoon we went with Rob and Dan, but I think we must’ve arrived too late, because the penguins were nowhere to be seen. Shortly before we left we spotted one little penguin who was stretching in a small opening in the bushes. We waited a little longer, but as the evening drew in we decided we had missed it (much to the dismay of Dan in particular, a penguin enthusiast). The second day, just Toby and I went back to the beach, to a lot more success. We were slightly earlier, and after about 30 minutes of waiting on the blustery platform above the coast, we saw the first couple of penguins make their way out of the water. They looked very small and a fellow observer lent us a pair of binoculars. The penguins waddled slowly across the beach, and as more emerged from the sea, they called out to each other and ran to greet their other penguin friends. It was very sweet, and definitely worth the wait. We returned the binoculars to the local man and he told us that sometimes Penguins would wander around the town after dark, which must be very surreal.

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Oamaru is a surreal town anyway, even if you don’t catch a glimpse of the penguins wandering the streets. As I said, it is also known for its passion for steampunk. It’s an idea of a future inspired by the past, where ancient steam-powered machines are repurposed and people celebrate the ethos of ‘tomorrow as it used to be’. The Victorian precinct of Oamaru is the heart of the town. It’s full of quirky cafes, wood panelled second hand book shops and small art galleries, situated in old Victorian buildings. The area attracts ageing writers, artists and antiquarians, and the atmosphere is unusual (to say the least), but also brilliant. It’s rare that a New Zealand town has so much character. During the 1880s, when the buildings in the Victorian precinct were built, the town of Oamaru was growing steadily, and was the same size as Los Angeles was at the time. But hard times fell on the town and the beautiful buildings stopped being built when the town was on the verge of bankruptcy. The sprawling residential areas around the city centre have little of the Oamaru charm, but the town centre is enough to still pull in both tourists and kiwis alike.

We bought books in kooky second hand book shops, and after spending a while wandering around the town, headed to the steampunk playground by the seafront to play basketball. Rob and Dan are two very tall Americans, with a keen interest in basketball, so Grace, Toby and I were an embarrassment in comparison. We then taught them netball, and then redeemed ourselves by playing a little better!. We then returned to our hostel a bit puffed after some impromptu exercise, and relaxed with dinner and a beer. Rob and Dan then headed back to Queenstown and the three of us made our way to Dunedin, our next big city stop, where we would be collecting the fourth member of our traveling squad, our friend Matt, which we were all excited about. So, next time: Dunedin!

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