After Christchurch we took State Highway 1 and drove straight South, toward the small town of Oamaru.
With just under 15,000 inhabitants, and located about 2/3rds of the way down the East Coast of NZ’s South Island, Oamaru has geared itself for tourism – part due to its current artsy movement, and part for its active role in the history of NZ’s colonization. Back then, Oamaru became an important trade port, mostly supporting the local agribusiness. At some point, it also became a supplier of a very clear type of limestone – aptly called “Whitestone” – which came in vogue for façade-building during the Victorian era. Not coincidently, the town counts with a number of Victorian white-façaded buildings, most of which have been preserved by a local Heritage Trust.
None of these were the primary reason for our visit there, though. Our draw was the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
Technically known as the Little Penguin, they are the smallest species of such birds, and inhabit most of NZ’s coast – where they are known as Blue Penguin. In Oamaru, an observation center was created around a colony of Blue Penguins. A bit touristy, a bit pricey, but the proceeds all go toward the preservation of this animal which, albeit not considered an endangered species yet, has seen important declines in its population over the last decades.
As the NZ name suggests, the birds are indeed covered in a blue-ish plumage on their backs (the belly being white, as Penguin’s are supposed to be). Perhaps even more interesting is the fact they are extremely punctual – to a point that the observation center has a set time for the animals to appear – 5:30pm during Winter. That’s the time when they return home, after spending the day fishing out in the raging ocean.
We arrived a few minutes before opening, a bit dubious that the Penguins would show up for there was a big swell rolling, exploding with gusto on the rocky shoreline. But, as the hostess of the place assured me, with a bit of wit I should say, “ the Penguins have never stood us up in over 30 years”. And indeed, as soon as dusk turned into night, little by little the small creatures started to show – unaffected by the crashing swell, the half-dozen sea lions which stood there, or the hundred-or-so-humans who sat quietly observing. We stayed for one hour – as much as our bones could cope with the frigid cold weather – and saw 74 penguins parade in front of us, on their way home. If more came from the sea that night, we never knew, for we ran to our own warm place after that.
The observation center understandably asks that no pictures be taken, but do take a look at their website, where there is a short clip of a raft of Penguins coming up the rocky beach – and trust me when I say the animals are indeed little, and blue !
Anyway, not wanting to push on another long drive, I decided to stay in Oamaru the next day – quite hesitantly, I should say, not knowing how the kids would react to the planned activities: the Steampunk Headquarters and the Whitestone City.
The former presents a collection of quirky artforms and “experiences” made of rusty iron junk. To my surprise, both Paulo and Raquel already knew what Steampunk meant, and were quite enthusiastic to get in.
Paulo was particularly interested on the decaying steampunk jeep at the courtyard …
While Raquel spent a long time trying to decipher the Metagalactic Pipe Organ, a contraption described as “… a device for capturing sounds and signals picked up by the HQ time travel officers when visiting alien worlds”:
But what we really raved about was The Portal – a “travel to a new dimension of sight, sound and wonder”. Pretty cool indeed:
The unexpected success of this first attraction made me even more anxious about the next one …
… the Whitestone City – basically a small museum established in an original grain house in Oamaru’s historic center, aimed at providing immersive experiences of the victorian era lifestyle. I was really going out on a limb with the kids on this one.
Not surprisingly, Paulo protested profusely at the entrance. Raquel was iffy and I decided to give it a go. And what a score it was.
The staff is supper friendly and staged a welcome to us as if we were immigrants arriving by ship to Oamaru’s beach back in the mid-1800’s.
Raquel was at home dressing in the time’s fare…
… while Paulo forayed into avant-garde fashion pioneering the double hat:
They spent a long time playing cards and pretending to be drinking booze at the replica saloon …
… with a brief stop at the local barbershop …
… arriving slightly late to the classroom, which caused Paulo to have to wear “the silly hat”:
We rounded up our visit to the Whitestone City with a long ride in the Penny Farthing Carrousel …
… thus completing a surprisingly enjoyable experience in Oamaru.
But we had to go, for other, quite different places beckoned with fresh experiences.
And that is the subject of a new story – to be published soon.