South Island | New Zealand | Small Town South | Oamaru Guest post by Jennifer Branje | Southproud.co.nz
It's Mad Max-ish, rusty, artsy & looks like an over-zealous storyteller dumped their delightful, muddled up imagination right in the middle of Oamaru!
Imagine an affluent Victorian child’s toy box, filled with brightly painted tin toys, shiny rivets, some rusty, cast characters, pullies, bizarre puppets and strings, coloured glassware and copper, throw in some gargoyles…. Now tip that toy box out and you have the Victorian Precinct of Oamaru.
Don’t let the ornate architecture of yesteryear fool you. These cobbled streets with their limestone towers will trick you into expecting top hats and tails, bows and bustles and shiny pocket watches on Albert chains, but what actually hides inside is a weird and wonderful marriage of freakish fiction & Victorian history.
The limestone caverns of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct feel weird. I reckon it’s because when you’re standing in the middle of it all there is utterly nothing anchoring you to the present. Modern motor vehicles look like they have travelled back in time and parked themselves in 1870. Cleverly designed shop signs appear rustic, weathered and antique, but they are trickery. Looking into the Dickensian alleys and repurposed grain stores you half expect ‘The Artful Dodger’ to race out, fleeing from the local Sergeant. It’s hard to shake the ‘lost in time’ feeling, but once you have your bearings, the enchantment sets in.
There are plenty of artsy shops and galleries to explore and the recently opened Whitestone City is a fantastic interactive adventure. Housed in an old grain store that was built in 1882, displays are set out in Victorian style offering a glimpse of life in a bygone era. A table resplendent with fine bone china and crystal goblets is set to seat Lords and Ladies. Bonnets, bustles and shiny buckled shoes adorn mannequins, so life like you expect them to extend a ‘good day’ to you. Meandering down the cobbled street I find cafés, more galleries, and the Scottish Hall. Like so many other buildings it was originally a grain store. Built in 1864 the hall was acquired by the North Otago Scottish Society in 1929. It’s a hive of local activity and a great building to have your wedding reception, corporate presentation, or family function. Its cleverly engineered dance floor springs up as you cross it. Imagine a good Rock ‘n’ Roll or dance evening here? Woohoo!
By far, the biggest attraction to the Victorian Precinct is Steampunk HQ! It’s not hard to find, just look for the smoke belching, fire breathing locomotive outside.
The Steampunk movement is described as an eclectic union of Victoriana & Science Fiction. If that sounds a bit outrageous, you’re right, but it works! Funk, glamour, bustles, copper, crystal and elegance come together and present an enthralling experience. It’s a lifestyle for some!
Every year, (usually on Queen's Birthday Weekend) Oamaru hosts the Steampunk Festival. This event is truly magnificent. Street Theatre, Parasol Duelling, Teapot Racing and a Fashion Show are just a few of the attractions on offer. History comes alive. This is an authentic trip back in time. Oamaru is the Capital of New Zealand for Penny, or Ordinary Cycles as they are officially called. You can also check out the Ordinary Cycle Club who love to venture out on their Pennyfarthings.
But wait, there’s more!
Located on the Pacific Coast, Oamaru lies in the Waitaki District encompassing North Otago.
Geologically, the district is full of wonders from prehistoric finds to Maori earth ovens and natural sandstone wonders. Whalers sometimes visited this part of the coast in the 1830s. Local seal colonies provided an abundance of food, oil and skins. Now days Oamaru’s marine life is preserved, protected and abundant. Little Blue Penguins, Yellow Eyed Penguins and New Zealand Fur Seals are frequent visitors to Oamaru shores with many returning to breed. Oamaru Steam & Rail will take you on a picturesque train ride along the clay cliffs of the Victorian Harbour where you’ll arrive at the Red Sheds. These are occupied by local artisans & crafts people. Here you can disembark to browse or visit the Blue Penguin Colony. The Forrester Gallery houses ever changing exhibits of art, culture and history so there is always a new and exciting range to view. The building itself is a sight to behold.
Oamaru is a wonderful little town, ensconced in history that has reinvented itself delightfully. Catering to so many interests, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. This quirky, funky, rusty and truly amusing place is impossible to describe accurately. You'll just have to go there!