Oamaru and Moeraki: Heritage and geology

We’ve spent the past few days in Oamaru, a town of about 13,000 residents, just three hours south of Christchurch. It’s known for its high concentration of original 19th-century buildings, although — since the Victorian precinct is hidden away from the main road — people who drive through might never know it. Apparently, in the late 1800s, the town was poised to become a bustling urban center, but hard times hit (as they did all over the world during that period) and that fate never materialized. So Oamaru was built to last, using local limestone, but its fine buildings then sat empty for ages — setting the stage for the more recent revival. Unlike other heritage towns, there aren’t reenactments and “living history,” but neither are the old buildings merely facades for modern businesses. The place is a fascinating blend of deliberate homage to the past, and modern reinvention. Andย penguins.

This video captures the local flavor:

One of the local figures interviewed in the above video is Michael O’Brien, the town bookbinder. He has a lovely shop in the historic precinct, but he also rents out a cabin on his property, and that’s where we stayed. It’s a gorgeous place, perfectly in keeping with town character.

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Backyard with chicken coop and distant view of the sea:

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Every day his cat Noisel greeted me by sitting on my lap and purring. He reminded me hugely of ourย Tisha.

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Sketches from the yard, now adorning the cover of my notebook:

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From Michael’s place it’s a short walk to the historic precinct, past homes and yards and old trees.

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One of Oamaru’s newest destinations is Steampunk HQ, established two years ago. (Best read up on steampunk if you don’t know what it is.) There’s an eclectic, atmospheric collection of machinery and exhibits both inside and outside the building, and the man who was working when we visited was very friendly and willing to chat with us. If you approach it as a museum, you may find the $10/adult admission fee a bit high, but we thought of it as an expression of support for the artists who keep the place a work-in-progress. And we appreciated the hands-on nature of the machines; the man told us, “Do whatever you like!”

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Later that afternoon, we visited the info center to learn where we could see penguins. There are two colonies in Oamaru, one of blue penguins and the other of yellow-eyed penguins. The blue penguins are more numerous, but you have to pay to view them. So we opted for the yellow-eyed. Like the blue penguins, they spend the day at sea, and come to shore around sundown. But unlike the others, the yellow-eyed penguins are quite shy, and will not approach if they see or hear humans or dogs. So the viewing area is a lookout high above the beach.

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While waiting for the elusive birds, I did some sketches.

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We stayed maybe an hour, and spotted a few sea lions and about a dozen penguins. They would float in on the waves — mostly one by one — struggle to their feet, then awkwardly trundle across the sand toward the bushes. Some would stand still, raise their heads, and shriek to the sky. The Maori name for them is hoiho, “noise-shouter,” and they really are absolutely loud. We got to see three of them engaged in a disagreement and that was rather fun. Lots of shrieking and flipper-slapping.

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We had dinner at a hotel pub. I was reading in a tourist magazine that the hotel was once a brothel — consequently the guest rooms are quite small! I enjoyed my lamb shank pie and my strawberry-lime cider, which came, of all places, from Sweden.

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Normally we’d go home after dinner, but Michael mentioned a live music show his friend had recommended, so we went to the Penguin Club (yep!) to check it out.

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It’s a lovely, intimate venue with a very welcoming vibe. The performers, an Auckland-based duo called Tattletale Saints, were great as well, though not what we expected — we were very amused to find ourselves listening to bluegrass/country-inspired original songs, and covers of Patsy Cline and Etta James. But we enjoyed them so much, we left with two CDs.

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The next day we drove half an hour to Moeraki to play on their strange spherical boulders. The day was overcast and as I shivered across the sand I said, “This is the coldest beach I’ve ever been on!”

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Rather eloquent sign:

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Near the boulders, at the old jetty in town, there’s a restaurant that’s said to be world-famous. Michael had mentioned it to us when we first got in, and when I checked their website it said “bookings essential.” I wasn’t sure if we had to reserve for a weekday lunch, but just in case, I called as we were driving out to the boulders. Indeed, when we had lunch around 12:30, every table was full.

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Bacon-wrapped local blue cod:

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After our enormous lunch, there was nothing for it but to go home and rest (and it was starting to rain anyway). Erik napped and I sorted photos, then we went out for another large meal at another highly-regarded restaurant north of Oamaru. I used to eat like this, but I really can’t do it anymore. Two big meals with no walking in between — it was too much. But we ended our day with a long chat in Michael’s kitchen while Noisel napped on my lap and then on a chair by the fire.

Today we drive further south to Invercargill, one of the southernmost cities in the world.

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