Looking for penguin love in New Zealand? Holiday Goddess Editor Tamara Pitelen visits  Oamaru. It’s New Zealand’s bastion of Victoriana, but it’s also a great place to eat cheese, ride a penny farthing and see the world’s smallest penguin.

A local blue penguin in Oamaru

There’s a very special, unassuming little town that sits on the east coast of New Zealand, about two thirds of the way down the body of the South Island.

The town is called Oamaru and, when I was growing up in New Zealand in the 70s and 80s, this was a ‘pass through on your way somewhere else’ town.

People from Christchurch who were on their way to Queenstown or Dunedin would make a pit stop in Oamaru to stretch their legs and take a break from driving. Generally, this involved buying a stale egg sandwich at a tea rooms, the kind where the white bread crusts were starting to curl up, and wash it down with a cup of tea. These were the days before even your Earl Greys and English Breakfasts – never mind your fancy Vanilla Rooibos or Chai Spice. Back then there was just one flavor and that was called ‘tea’. It was served in mass produced small white cups and some of the tea always – always – got spilt into the saucer and dripped off the cup every time you lifted it.

I revisited Oamaru this year, while at home in New Zealand visiting family over Christmas. Admittedly, I was once again passing through on the way to Queenstown but instead of just stopping for half an hour, my partner Adrian and I decided to stay for the night so we could spend the evening with one of Oamaru’s main attractions, its Blue Penguin colony – the smallest breed of penguin in the world.

Adrian has had a deep love for penguins since being stationed in the Falkland Islands where he would sit on hillsides surrounded by hundreds of them.

I’m glad we lingered in Oamaru because I discovered that, in the years I’d been away living overseas, a new, vibrant 21st Century Oamaru had emerged from the chrysalis of its 1970s self.

One of its other claims to fame is the fact that Oamaru is New Zealand’s only Victorian town. The architecture at the heart of the town is frozen in the late 1800s. At that time, Oamaru was booming thanks to the gold rush. Money was flooding in, faster than people could spend it and the town grew overnight into a city that was in contention to the country’s capital.

Most of the historic buildings were built between the 1865 – 1885 from locally quarried limestone. Known as Oamaru Stone, or White Stone, the ease with which it could be carved lent itself to the creation of the elaborate Neo Classical style preferred by the townspeople of the day. New Zealand’s nod to ancient Greece.

Just as quickly as it started, though, the gold mines dried up and Oamaru’s money tap turned off. The glorious buildings were abandoned and left untouched for the next 150 or so years.

Today, they’re the inspiration and the backdrop for Oamaru’s eccentric arts community, a tight-knit group of artisans and craftspeople with a unique brand of irreverence and humour.

Much of this is encapsulated in the town’s Steampunk movement, a fascination among the townspeople with what would have happened if British society had done a right turn instead of a left turn in Victorian times. What emerges is a strange, otherworldly, Jules Verne meets punk gothika take on society.

Steampunks in Oamaru alarm local penguins

Visitors to the town can visit Steampunk HQ, an alien-tinged, industrial arts museum before heading into the historic part of town for a walk through the Neo Classical buildings that have been turned into arts and crafts workshops, whisky shops, wood turners, galleries for just about every craft you can think of. This is where you can ride a Penny Farthing bike, take a horse and carriage ride and chat with locals dressed in Victorian garb.

But let’s get back to the penguins.

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony belongs to the people of Oamaru and the area where the penguin colony is located was once a quarry for rock used to build Oamaru Harbour. The quarry ceased operating in the Seventies and the site was abandoned. After this, the penguins began coming ashore and nesting in the old quarry.

After much debate about what to do about the penguins and the quarry, it was decided in the 1990s to clean the area out and set it aside as breeding habitat for the little blue creatures.

Today, there are more than 130 breeding pairs live in the colony during peak season with an additional 130 breeding pairs in a special wildlife reserve nearby.

Visitors can take guided tours in the day or an evening viewing at 9.00pm. This is where you sit quietly in an outdoor viewing grandstand and watch the birds return home from their day’s fishing. They wait at the edge of the water till there are enough of them to make what’s called a raft and then a group of them run as fast as they can up across the beach and up a stony ramp into the safety of the colony and their little individual havens.

While you’re watching and waiting, colony staff give a commentary about the penguins and their lives but when a raft is about to make a run up the beach, the commentary stops and all humans are firmly told to sit down, be quiet and do not take any photographs or video. Visitors quickly get the message that they are not the stars here – the penguins are paramount and their safety and comfort is top priority.

The night that Adrian and I sat in the viewing seats waiting for the little penguins to waddle up the beach, their wings flapping, it was freezing cold and pouring with rain. We huddled together in our big coats under umbrellas. It was magical; to see these beautiful little creatures up close while they went about their normal, penguin lives was a privilege.

Afterwards, we drove back to our B&B past the town’s alcohol shops. We wanted to pick up a bottle of Baileys for a nightcap. No such luck. Everything in town was shut. It was a reminder that some parts of New Zealand haven’t changed much since the Seventies – this is one place where late night shopping and 24 hour malls are unknown. And long may it last.

 LINKS AND SECRETS FOR YOUR OAMARU TRIP

  • See the blue penguins – go to www.penguins.co.nz
  • Buy cheese – locally made Whitestone Cheese is a delight – blue cheese, feta, vintage, soft, semi-soft… www.whitestonecheese.co.nz
  • If you need a B&B, try the Oasis on Orwell. Run by husband and wife Dave and Liz, these people take hospitality and care to whole new levels. Can’t recommend them highly enough. www.oasisonorwell.co.nz
  • Visit Steampunk HQ here.
  • Wander around the galleries and shops of the Victorian precinct and ride a Penny Farthing (or ‘try’ to ride a Penny Farthing)!

 

 

About Holiday Goddess Editors

Holiday Goddess. Travel for Less.