The Wonderland of Oamaru: ‘I can’t believe I haven’t stayed here before’

February 2, 2020
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Background map © 2020 by Land Information New Zealand and Eagle Technology via the New Zealand Department of Conservation

TRAVELLING up to the place of light and down the water of tears, I arrived at Oamaru. It’s a town of fourteen thousand on the Pacific coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

You might think a town of fourteen thousand wouldn’t be all that distinguished. Well, if so, you obviously haven’t been to Oamaru. A town of fourteen thousand that has an opera house!

The archetypal New Zealander is often depicted as some sort of farmer or cowboy type. And people often think that New Zealand towns must be pretty rough and ready for the same reason.

Well, places like Oamaru explode these myths. For one thing, it was the home of one of New Zealand’s most famous writers, a woman named Janet Frame, who wrote novels and short stories set in town. The most famous (true) story about Janet Frame is that she was scheduled for a lobotomy at the nearby Seacliff asylum in the hope that this would cure her of highly-strung eccentricities — it didn’t pay to be either too eccentric or too highly strung in 1950s New Zealand — but that the operation was cancelled after one of her collections of short stories won a literary prize! They decided that her brains were of some use after all, and didn’t need cutting into to render her more docile. Ms Frame’s house, at 56 Eden Street, is now a literary shrine.

There’s a great early Jane Campion film about Janet Frame called An Angel at My Table (1990). These days, Jane Campion’s directing The Power of the Dog.

Plus, the Opera House is not an exception. Public magnificence was a top priority for Oamaru’s founders, who exploited nearby outcrops of limestone to craft a town nicknamed ‘the Whitestone City’.

You can see some of these outcrops on a scenic road into Oamaru, the road from Duntroon via Ngapara: they’re well worth visiting in their own right! Limestone is made from millions of seashells squashed together, and the limestone outcrops occasionally yield larger fossils. There’s even a ‘Valley of the Whales’ similar to Egypt’s better-known Wadi El Hitan, which has received a lot of publicity in print and on the TV from National Geographic and was designated a World Heritage site in 20005.

Though local scientists claim that Oamaru’s Valley of the Whales is, itself, the “richest known marine fossil record from the Oligocene epoch” (a claim also made for Wadi El Hitan), the New Zealand is nonetheless, still a working limestone quarry and definitely not on the World Heritage list. This rather casual or overworked approach to important conservation issues is one that would strike me again, at a couple of other sites I mention in this post.

Even the Whitestone City itself would probably have been bulldozed eventually if its economy hadn’t sagged somewhat after the initial construction of all its grandiose buildings in colonial times, leaving much of its downtown area in a Pompeii-like state of time-capsule preservation. These days, the town is starting to be valued as a tourist attraction: and not before time.

Looking southward on Thames Street

As well as a whitestone city, Oamaru’s also a garden city!

Photograph of a public information sign in Eden Street (‘You are Here’), artwork by Allan Kynaston Visual Communications (top right)

Formal gardens lead, by way of the Oamaru Walkway, to a lookout point from which you can gaze down onto the town.

I checked in at the YHA Red Kettle Oamaru Youth Hostel, which is right in the middle of town (not that town’s all that big) and handy to Oamaru’s aquatic centre, where you can soak in heated pools for only NZ $5 or so.

The Red Kettle’s also right next to the huge but family-oriented Oamaru Club, where you can go for a pint, some fish and chips and entertainment by a comedian or a band if you belong to any other community or sporting clubs, or know anyone who can sign you in. Licenced clubs are a big thing in Kiwi towns, just as much as in the north of England. That’s one more in the eye for the cowboy myth.

Wharves and penguins

Oamaru used to be quite an important port for the offloading of rural produce from North Otago, which is where all the money came from to build the town in the old days. It’s got a sort of industrial foreshore with lots of wharves and warehouses, all fairly disused these days other than as tourist attractions. Hold that thought, for I’ll be coming back to it!

This far south, there are lots of penguins. Lots of little blue penguins, known in Australia as little penguins and in Māori as kororā, the smallest variety of penguin, nest around the old wharves. These small and rather defenseless penguins don’t breed in great rookeries like larger sorts of penguins but secretively, two-by-two, in holes in the rocks. The rock rubble under a wharf is perfect for them. When I was on one of the wharves, I saw a man, a conservation volunteer, saving a little blue penguin that had got lost. Maybe it was a baby one, as it didn’t seem very big even by little penguin standards.

There’s also a more strictly local species called the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho in Maori, a name that means ‘noise shouter’. The hoiho only breeds on New Zealand coasts, and so it features on the New Zealand five dollar bill as a native bird.

Hoiho are bigger than little blues but also nest secretively. Their preferred nesting place is the underbrush of coastal forests. They have a piercing cry, so that members of the species can find each other among the twigs. They’re getting to be quite rare; a combination of factors such as the clearing of coastal forest seems to have driven a relentless population decline. Here’s an article that I saw pinned up in the Red Kettle: you can read the whole story online here.

There’s a lookout at a still-forested place near Oamaru called Bushy Bay where you can hear, and occasionally see, the yellow-eyed penguins that nest there. There are lots of signs up saying not to disturb them, though there doesn’t seem to be any actual enforcement as such. There are also seals at Bushy Bay: snoozing females and males that rear up if anyone gets too close. Again, this seems fairly unregulated.

Bushy Bay lookout

Tourists next to a male seal at Bushy Bay. They probably think the seal is posing for a selfie too, but in reality it’s probably feeling a bit threatened. It eventually opted to go for a swim rather than bite anyone, which was the other possibility.

You can also go on tours of (less endangered) little blue breeding sites, where seeing the penguins is more or less guaranteed, though it costs NZ$40 and I’d already seen one! In fact if you hang around this locality for long enough you’re bound to: ‘penguins crossing’ is not a joke sign, in these parts it’s for real.

Penguins Crossing sign advertising penguin colony tours at the Bushy Bay lookout

The Moeraki boulders

Further south, there are the epic Moeraki boulders, weird spherical concretions that have grown like giant pearls around some initial irritant of nature. They seem to have grown in the sand-cliffs above the beach, which are constantly being eroded by the waves. The round boulders pop out and lie on the beach.

A few of the Moeraki boulders

The beach is public but the easiest way to get down, in practice, is via a wooden staircase with a $2 honesty box for its maintenance, provided by a cafe whose owners hope you’ll spend more than that.

In spite of the boulders’ fame as a leading New Zealand tourist attraction — the beach has been rated as one of the top 50 beaches in the world because of the boulders — things are fairly low-key. And once again there isn’t any enforcement I could see to stop people from standing on the boulders or even scratching graffiti into them.

The beach township of Moeraki is also very worth visiting. Again, it’s pretty casual, but even so the popular Fleur’s Place cafe, specialising in asparagus dishes, requires booking in advance!

The industrial district

Meanwhile, back in Oamaru town, there’s a present-day industrial precinct toward the workaday northern end, where the tourists don’t go. Even this has some remarkable Victoriana amid the more recent wonders of the electric age.

Delving into history

Oamaru has a long history as a habitable spot, and was often a site of Māori encampment. As in most of the South Island, however, the permanent Māori population of this area was rather small. The crops that sustained larger Māori communities further north— notably, kumara (sweet potatoes) —had come down from the tropical Pacific with the Māori themselves, and demanded a warmer climate. Neither farming nor the development of a sizable permanent population would take place in the Oamaru locality until pasture grass and cereal crops were introduced by British settlers.

The origin of the town’s name is uncertain. If spelt Ōamaru, with a macron, it means ‘place of Maru’: a semi-mythological folk-hero to whom the name of Timaru, further up the coast, may also refer.

In the early 1850s the area around Oamaru became a British farming district. Oamaru itself was gazetted for town settlement in 1860. Development of the town seems to have kicked off in earnest from 1864 on, to judge by the dates on some of the buildings.

In the early days, Oamaru’s prosperity was mostly based on the shipment of wool and grain to Britain through its port. The grain trade declined after the completion of railways through Western Canada in the 1880s, which opened up a cheaper source of supply. But the town got a new lease of life at around the same time with the introduction of refrigerated shipping. Refrigeration had a huge impact on the New Zealand economy, as was now possible to ship frozen lamb and mutton to the Old Country, along with other perishables like butter and cheese.

Prospering mightily on the fat of the land — literally so after the coming of refrigeration — Oamaru managed to spring for two big war memorials. One unveiled after the South African War of 1899 to 1902 (the one with the lion), while a little further on down Thames Street, there’s a quietly impressive 1920s cenotaph with a statue of a WW1 soldier and a boy. One that frankly wouldn’t look out of place in London.

Or Edinburgh. For the statue is by Thomas J. Clapperton, whose effigy of Robert the Bruce guards one side of the main gate to Edinburgh Castle opposite Alexander Carrick’s William Wallace. Both Clapperton and Carrick were big names in Scotland, in their day. Yet somehow little Oamaru, at the opposite end of the world, managed to commission and pay for not one but two Clapperton statues while the artist was in his prime. The second one, called the Wonderland Statue, is in the Oamaru Public Gardens.

No doubt this tells you something about the strength of Scottish ties in this part of the country, not far from Dunedin. But perhaps because there’s so much of the gleaming ‘Oamaru stone’ cropping out of the ground in these parts, they’re big on monuments round here anyway. Even a smaller town is likely to sport something like this one: a Statue-of-Liberty-like image of New Zealand herself (‘Zealandia’) intent on future progress.

‘Zealandia’, in Palmerston (Otago), not to be confused with Palmerston North

And here’s another whimsy in the Oamaru Public Gardens, one that looks a bit more recent.

In spite of all the, the locals complain that Oamaru has “always been a drive-through place.” A town unappreciated by tourists looking for natural scenery, as well as more commercial travellers hurrying between Christchurch to Dunedin.

And so Oamaru has reinvented itself, and its oldest colonial precinct, as New Zealand’s capital of Steampunk and Victoriana.

And so the very oldest part of town has become a sort of walk-through museum of colonial days. The date ‘1864’ pops up once again.

A museum of everything from a rather impressive collection of penny-farthings . . .

. . . to paisleyish William Morris wallpaper (and souvenir coffee-mugs in the same style).

The buildings themselves are half the exhibit!

I walked through Atomic Cafe, one of the biggest cafes in the world it would seem, a whole block wide:

I visited the community radio station headquarters, where there are a lot of old radios — admittedly not Victorian in origin!

But for me the real highlight was the Steampunk HQ: the steampunk museum, if you can call an exhibition of things totally made-up a museum.

A literally underground railroad train
Oamaru Steampunk HQ — the bit at the end about the ‘Portal’ is amazing!

HMS Hunter-Cerberus, a steampunk boat

There’s also a great waterfront park area nearby.

I explored the city’s Victorian churches, all of them built in the 1860s and 1870s — another source of local magnificence altogether!

St Patrick’s

St Luke's

St Paul's

To round off, an electrical junction box has been painted up to reflect Oamaru’s literary claims to fame. There’s a little joke woven in.

Penguin — geddit?

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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