The hail storms and rain continued on and off as we left Christchurch in the rental car – a Toyota Corolla. Our destination was about 225 kilometers south to Oamaru. Michael is getting good at driving on the left and going 100 km (about 62 mph). The roads are pretty curvy and mostly single lane roads with regular passing lanes.
Oamaru is an interesting town. It has a Victorian heritage and has the largest collection of well-maintained Victorian buildings still standing in any NZ town. A whole section of the village looks like you've stepped back in time. The buildings now house respectable pubs in lieu of the former brothels; art galleries instead of wool storage; and chic cafes rather than whiskey warehouses. Penguins are another main attraction in Oamaru. You can watch the Little Blue Penguins come ashore right at the beach in town (from bleachers for a $10 admission) or go down the coast a bit to a DOC (Department of Conservation) track and watch the yellow eyed penguin come ashore at no cost other than a short walk. Because we saw many Little Blues on the North Island swimming in their natural environment, we chose to seek out the "Yellow Eyed Penguins." Plus the DOC option just seemed more our style. You have to get there a few hours before sunset to see the critters swim ashore and waddle up the beach. Of course, we have been here for some of the coldest April weather the island has seen in decades and the afternoon we went was mighty windy and very cold. We stood out in the cold wind for a few hours waiting. Finally we saw two on the beach. They are quite a bit larger than their "Little Blue" relatives and spent some time preening and waddling about. We were pretty far from them as they get freaked by people and will often not come out of the water if they sense humans.
We went to a local pub (former brothel) for a warm meal after the adventure. Then we headed back to our room for the night hoping to warm up. The room was quite a unique feature itself. It's called the Bookbinder's Retreat and is indeed owned by a bookbinder. It is an old Victorian cabin built in 1909 or thereabouts. The main house was built even earlier. The retreat felt like a step back in time. All the furnishings fit the era. The sinks were copper, there was an old woodstove and ink wells, hand bound books, and antiques were throughout the small space. It was set in a beautiful garden overlooking the valley and ocean. Unfortunately the weather didn't allow us to sit out in the gazebo and enjoy the surroundings. It was mighty cold and keeping the wood stove burning was critical in staying warm.
The next day we took a nice walk along the harbour (saw a fur seal on a boat launch area) and took in the "Steampunk" Museum. Steampunk is another attraction in Oamaru. In fact it holds the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest gathering of steampunks in the world – a record just garnered in 2016. A steampunk must be dressed in Victorian wear with at least one "steampunk gadget" on show.
So what exactly is "steampunk?" The word itself didn't come into use until the 1980s. It is a mix of the old and future. Machines created for one thing but re-imagined as something totally different and futuristic. For example an old steam train engine may become a futuristic alien driven tank. Think of the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne who in Victorian times had visions of the future with weird ships for under the seas or time machines. The steampunk movement was kick-started by science fiction works and now incorporates fashion, art, theater, movies, music, and more. Goggles and helmet style hats are part of the wardrobe and a multimedia mix of sound and sight make up the no holds barred style. The museum in Oamaru is in an old grain elevator built in 1883 – the tallest elevator building in New Zealand at the time. The museum is a funky place with a steam train engine modified to steampunk proportions in the front; a zeppelin creation hanging ion the side and inside a collection of weird and wacky items like the Metagallactic Pipe Organ – a pipe organ redesigned to play unique sounds with every organ key you hit. There is a room you enter that is quite magical filled with mirrors, lights and hanging ornaments and synchronized with music. On the outside of the building are giant metal flies and a Victorian man sitting on the roof fishing. It was a fun stop on a cold rainy day – in fact the day added to the overall feel of the strange place.
Oamaru architecture is also noted for the old white limestone quarried from the area that was used for the buildings. There is also one of the few remaining curved wooden piers ever built. It is in disrepair with hopes of repairing it at some point in the future. The man who owns the "Bookbinder's Retreat" has a shop in the Victorian area of town where he does bookbinding the old fashioned way.
We enjoyed our few days in this interesting spot – but would have loved it more if it was sunnier and warmer.
Next stop: Dunedin.