I spent the first 10 years of my life in Timaru, a nondescript little city about halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin. Oamaru is about an hour away from Timaru, and we always regarded it as our ugly, boring little brother. That is the case no more; Oamaru has reinvented itself as one of New Zealand’s best preserved old towns and the place to go for all things steampunk. Here’s what we got up to on a day trip to Oamaru from Dunedin.
The Victorian Precinct
New Zealand isn’t known for its historical architecture, so when you get the chance to explore a town like Oamaru you need to take it. The Victorian Precinct is a small area (just a few streets) full of well-restored old buildings made of limestone (called Oamaru Stone in these parts). It’s a cool place to walk around but the streets are also full of cars – they should really block some parts off to traffic. Some highlights of the Victorian Precinct include the tiny railway station, the bank and the old warehouses (most of which have been turned into shops and galleries). You’ll also see people dressed in Victorian outfits and there’s even a penny farthing bike to get your photo taken on. Oamaru was founded in the mid 1800s and was once quite a big deal. It faded into obscurity, which is probably why a lot of the old buildings survived as no one needed that space to build anything new.
Steampunk galleries/shops in Oamaru
Firstly…what is steampunk? Let’s consult the wise, all knowing entity that is Wikipedia for the answer.
“Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery”.
Steampunk has taken over Oamaru. The old town is full of shops and galleries which embrace the steampunk theme – they’re full of Victorian art, strange contraptions and science fiction memorabilia. You can also try on cool hats and other props in some of these establishments. Some of the displays are pretty creepy. The Grainstore Gallery is full of weird looking faces, as well as other bizarre pieces. It’s like walking into an old-fashioned nightmare (in a good way though). There is also a steampunk museum (we didn’t have time to look inside) with a demonic train outside. Put a dollar in and watch it freak out — it might scare the kids though. Speaking of kids, Oamaru also has a steampunk playground — why was this not around when I was young?
FURTHER WATCHING: If you’re looking for a movie which embodies the steampunk aesthetic, check out “9”
Lunch by the sea
Oamaru is more than just old buildings and people playing dress-up – there is also a nice area just outside of town where you can grab lunch and spot seals and little blue penguins. We didn’t visit during penguin season but we did see lots of seals, and eating lunch with a view of the sea is always a good idea.
If you’re visiting Oamaru on a day trip from Dunedin (or on your way to Dunedin from Christchurch) you should stop off at Shag Point to spot some seals. It was a bit cold and grey when we were there but it’s always nice to see these dogs of the ocean.
Moeraki, located about halfway between Oamaru and Dunedin, is home to one of New Zealand’s most unique beaches. Dozens of massive boulders are strewn across a small section of the beach – they look very out of place and there have been all sorts of theories about how they got there (the most likely one is quite boring though). It’s a great place for a photo but it’s probably best to visit at low-tide. We got wet trying to climb on the some of the boulders close to the water. There are some walking tracks near the beach and also a visitors centre / cafe.
You probably won’t see Oamaru in any “Highlights of New Zealand” articles. Most foreign tourists who visit New Zealand won’t hear about it, let alone visit it, but it’s definitely worth checking out this little town full of history and steampunk weirdness.
Have you been to Oamaru? What is your favourite steampunk movie? Let me know in the comments below!
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