While on our 3 week road trip in New Zealand last spring Kathleen and I decided to cut Milford Sound (due to horrible cold and rain-for-days forecasts). This gave us some extra time to fill. After a bit of googling we decided to head on over to Oamaru: New Zealand’s Self Proclaimed Steampunk Capital of the World. Now neither of us had any particular interest in Steampunk but our Dad does so we thought why not pop in so we could tell him all about it and also – there were penguins.
Here’s how our experience went:
We arrived into the small town around 1:30 pm on the 9th of May. Almost instantly we were struck by how weird and empty the place felt. Lonely Planet describes the town as having a “wellspring of eccentricity bubbling under the surface” and of having the potential for “extreme Kookiness.” Well, I can tell you that extreme kookiness doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface…
When we got to our hostel (The Empire Backpackers) there was no one at the reception booth so we rang the bell. The middle-aged man who eventually came down the stairs to help us check in was toothless and enthusiastic but a bit off putting. He gave us a knowing look and said “you’ve come for the Penguins…”
The hostel was peculiar. No free parking or internet (as advertised) but complimentary towels (which were supposed to be for hire). It too was eerily empty but it was clean and generally nice enough, but for its strange ambiance.
The first stop on our whirlwind tour was a ride on Oamaru’s very own steam powered train which took us down to the harbour. The ticket man was very jovial but also odd.
The sea smelled bad.
The train dropped us off at the city’s famed Blue Penguin Colony and then we walked back along the harbour. It was all very empty. At the foot of the harbour was a steampunk cafe made of rust. Here we had a terrible coffee. Across the way was a very unusual playground with a penny farthing swing set, a giant barrel that was rather like a human hamster ball and a zipline that had a stopper at the end that forced you to stop so suddenly that it almost flung you off! Obviously we played on everything.
Then our adventure took us down this very old and empty Victorian street full of neat artisan shops with steampunk style clothing and accessories. This was our favourite street in this strange seaside town.
Next it was time for Steampunk HQ which looked rather promising from the outside but ended up being largely unimpressive but, of course, incredible odd. It reminded us more of a strange haunted house then anything steampunk related. Though, “The Portal” – a small mirrored box with a fancy futuristic light show of creepy skulls was pretty cool. As was the weird organ that played all sorts of odd sounds instead of music when the keys were pressed. There was also a backyard full of, well, weird stuff.
And after all this we still had about 1 hour to kill before it was time to head back to watch the penguins. We wandered aimlessly for a bit and then got some ice cream (salted caramel popcorn) which was delightful. Again, it was a very friendly but odd fellow that served us here (and the uneasy sense of foreboding just kept getting stronger)!
Watching the penguins come in from the sea was certainly the highlight. We saw about 20 of the 1 foot tall, blue and white little gentlemen come home and make their way awkwardly up the rocky shoreline to their burrows. They’d swim up in little groups of 5 or 6 and then clumsily scramble up the rocks. Once they made it to the grass they’d waddle at top speeds to their houses. Super cute.
All in all I can honestly say that Oamaru is the single most bizarre place I’ve ever visited. Kathleen said it best when she stated that it had that same creepy feeling that cities sometimes have in TV shows like Supernatural where there’s some horrible curse on the town and everyone overly friendly during the day to lull you into a false sense of security and then they steal your souls at night. Oamaru had exactly this kind of feeling to it. Even now, writing about this I find myself surprised by just how wondrously odd it all was.
The next day we woke up early and escaped.
Thank you for reading!
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Want to read more about New Zealand? Check out this post about my time in Abel Tasman