The excerpt covering Oamaru in Lonely Planet does not do it justice. I was expecting a little rinky-dink town with a few heritage buildings. My takeaway from the guide book was that wildlife viewing was the main draw for this little hamlet. Oamaru has a blue penguin colony set up for viewing as well as a few pairs of yellow-eyed penguin. As we had already seen the little blue penguins coming in to nest the previous evening, our plan was to go in search of their much rarer yellow-eyed cousins.
The rain that had provided us with such a beautiful rainbow in the afternoon decided to continue ceaselessly throughout the evening. Poor weather coupled with the difficulty of seeing these shy birds even in the best of conditions, had us scrapping our penguin plans. We opted instead to just grab dinner in town. This was when Oamaru’s true appeal revealed itself. We popped into the local watering hole, the Criterion Hotel, a remarkable piece of Victorian architecture beautifully restored to its former glory. As we walked through the front doors we were immediately greeted with patrons decked out in full on steampunk fashions. Top hats, monocles, breeches, corsets, bustles… it was a colorful 19th century sartorial free-for-all.
We had a pleasant enough meal, although the highlight was certainly the people watching. We were unfortunately seated in an overflow room across the hall from the main bar and musical entertainment. But, they wouldn’t be the last Oamaru-ians to put my disheveled backpacker garb to shame.
We had a rainy night’s sleep and awoke the next morning to a gloomy day – both physically and metaphorically. It was time for us to part ways with J’s parents. They were off to Christchurch to return their camper before beginning the long journey back to Alabama. After two weeks of caravanning around New Zealand’s South Island, we were sad to see them go, but still excited for our upcoming adventures. We kicked it off with a day filled with happy surprises.
For anyone not familiar, Steampunk is a personal aesthetic born out of literature… the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk is where science fiction and fantasy meet the steam powered mechanical world. It imagines a future in which Victorian fashions and inventions have carried over, yet adding a whole new level of imagination. This retro-futuristic styling has spread from the page into fashion, fine art, film and design. I haven’t been exposed to it that often, but always found it fascinating. And our little visit to the Steampunk capital of the world, where citizens are literally walking down the street in their steampunk finest, has me wanting to drop everything and run away to Oamaru to live with the steampunk elite.
Oamaru is also home to the Steampunk Headquarters, a museum celebrating the steampunk vision. The exhibitions on offer range from found object art to immersive light experiences and larger than life sculptural pieces. My favorite aspect has to be the “time machine,” which drops you straight into the Dr. Who-niverse. If you’re looking to inject a little quirk into you’re NZ road trip, this is the place to do it.
A stroll down Harbour Street.
From Steampunk HQ we took a turn down Harbour Street. This little laneway behind the main street of Oamaru is a beautifully restored example of 19th century architecture. I like to think that the bunting is a permanent fixture, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it was all in celebration of the Queen’s birthday, which just so happened to be the day we were there. In honour of the Queen Mum, we splurged on a sweet treat, Deja Moo. This local ice cream shop had the most inventive flavors I’ve seen in a while. I had a scoop of caramel corn, with actual popcorn kernels and a scoop of vanilla pinot noir. Both were fantastic. Jason, ever the Irish cream fanatic, got a double scoop of Bailey’s.
We continued to meander down the street, popping in a variety of shops, including two of the absolute coolest secondhand bookstores IN THE WORLD. Adventure Books is dedicated solely to, you guessed it, books about adventure. There is a wicked travel section and shelves upon shelves covering everything from mountaineering to white water rafting, sailing and going on safari. The owners, fellow Yanks from the Lone Star state, have been residents of Oamaru for decades, and couldn’t be happier to be missing out on all the chaos back in the States. Amen to that. My favorite feature of Adventure Books? The full sized sailboat right at the entrance!
Needless to say, we spent a lot of time perusing the bookcases. This unfortunately didn’t leave us much time for the rest of the treasures along the street and beyond. We did pop into another fantastic used book store, Slightly Foxed Books. I had a mad dash of book lust and fell in love with an Alice in Wonderland themed children’s reading nook… it was really more like a fort. Seriously, how does such a small town get so rich with awesome book stores?
Onward and, well, onward.
I feel like this is a recurring sentiment on here, but I wish we’d had more time. I easily could have spent a day or two just soaking up the awesome vibe in Oamaru. But onward we had to go. After two weeks of non-stop travel, we were ready to take the pace back down a few notches. Wanaka and Queenstown would be the perfect area to hang around for a while, so off we went.
A fun reality series to catch if you’re interested in Steampunk is Steampunk’d, a competition show where creators compete in challenges transforming the ordinary into steampunk art. Check it out!