There are so many amazing small towns in New Zealand and Oamaru is one of them. I went for the penguins and enjoyed the other bits as bonus.
When you drive into town on Highway 1, there are signs to victorian Oamaru. (This part of town is also closest to the penguin colonies. ) These couple of blocks of historic buildings are home to a creative revival. There are clever shops, including a bookbindery and an old fashioned toy store, and it is the home of the Steampunk Headquarters in the self-proclaimed Steampunk Capital of New Zealand.
First, as background, if like me you are not familiar with what it is all about, you can read the Wikipedia entry for Steampunk. Or you rely on the definition in the Oamaru brochure: “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s.” Much clearer. Yeah, right.
This became a fun focus of conversation with shopkeepers as the townspeople are divided in their opinion of steampunk culture. One artist said that the arrival of Steampunk about 5 or so years ago created schisms in the art community. And then admitted that every art community has its schisms and politics. Another person said they loved the creativity and openness of Steampunk and we talked about “creating from” the historic victorian with a futuristic “Dr. Who” flair.
It co-exists alongside the purist Victorian re-enactors. Some love the steampunk fashion and others are into the art. Either way, there is now a Steampunk New Zealand festival with a kick-off event called Oamaru On Fire. The Steampunk HQ were closed on the day I tried to stop in (even though it says open 7 days a week). The League of Victorian Imagineers hosts a Fashion Show and Ball in June each year.
My curiosity is mainly for penguins, so in addition to the blue penguin colony, I rose before sunrise one fine morning and drove out to Bushy Beach to the hide and waited over an hour for a Yelllow-eyed penguin to appear.
Even though a pair of binoculars would have been handy, I could still see the lone penguin emerge from the brush and saunter across the sand and rocks to the surf. He/she then dove into the water and swam around the shoreline. The Yellow-eyed penguin is at least twice the size of a blue penguin. I left the hide and hiked the 50 yards to my car as by this time I was a popsicle. It was worth the cold and wait. And I have a new appreciation for field scientists who have to patiently endure the elements to count a species or observe behavior. I also better understood how “sampling error” can happen as it takes a person of integrity to maintain an observation post in the cold and sleet day in and day out.
When I was a kid, sometimes my favorite part of watching late night fireworks or stargazing or walking through the neighborhood singing carols, was the hot chocolate at the end. This time my reward was a delicious hot breakfast and flat white at the Bridge Cafe in Oamaru. Then a hot shower at Highfield Mews Motel before hitting the road to Dunedin.
I gave myself plenty of time for the drive back to Dunedin because I wanted to stop at the Moeraki Boulders and check out the Yellow-eyed penguin colony at the Kataki Lighthouse in Moeraki. I do not know what I expected with the boulders. I laughed at what seemed the anti-climax.
It made for a good 15-20 minute stretch of the legs. I learned from a South Island native later in the week that there used to be more boulders but that people have removed some of them. Now they are protected. It is interesting how our attitudes toward conservation have changed, thankfully. The Kataki lighthouse is automated now. Before the keepers were relocated they heroically replanted the denuded hillsides to native bush and made a much more convivial place for the yellow eyed penguins to nest. They also build and equipped a very good hide. Whereas Bushy Beach was accessible, this is only reached by a very steep path and some other obstacles that are available only to fit people. I did not expect to see any penguins as they make their appearance at sunrise and 1-2 hours before sunset. They are also more solitary and so appear one or two at a time, not in rafts. This would be a worthwhile spot to return to at the right time of day. The road to the lighthouse is gravel with just the steepest part paved in tarmac. Allow 20 minutes to drive out in one direction.
It was lunchtime and I noticed a place on my Moeraki tourist map that said, “Fleur’s Place” and boasted fresh caught fish and organic vegetables. I found it easily and walked in and requested a table. Have you ever asked for a table in a practically empty restaurant and had the hostess look at you like you were crazy? Apparently (I did not know) I was in world-famous in NZ restaurant. She deigned to find me a table without a booking. Lots more people did come in after me, but the restaurant never filled completely. The fish and veg were delicious, and pricey. I paid my bill and made a note to eat more cheaply at dinner.
I completed my drive to Dunedin fairly quickly and enjoyed this lovely University town with the heavy Scottish accent.