Over the new year, I embarked upon a wee adventure through some areas of New Zealand I’d never previously visited. After our hike around Stewart Island, top of my list was Oamaru – the steampunk capital of the world, which is kind of a weird thing to be when you consider that New Zealand isn’t exactly known for it’s glorified past of Victorian innovation.
Oamaru has always been a popular tourist spot thanks to its blue penguin colony and preserved Victorian street front. Many of the buildings are made from the beautiful Oamaru sandstone, which is quarried just outside of the town. Despite these attractions, Oamaru experienced a long period of depression, as its port became defunct and it plodded along as just another rural service town.
Around 2009-10, some interesting things started happening. Spurned by the growing popularity of the genre overseas, some local Oamaruians (Oamaruvians? Oaumaruii?) began to adopt the steampunk subculture. You had Iain Clark (known to many as Agent Darling), dressing as a dandy English gentleman with pockets filled with gadgets, and you had the artist Chris Meder, who drew inspiration from the industrial revolution and science fiction when building his enormous metal sculptures. Chris was behind the Steampunk Art Exhibition at Oamaru’s Forrester Gallery in 2009, which is sort of heralded as the start of the whole Oamaru steampunk craze. (Sadly, Christ died in 2010 and much of his work is now in private collections).
A museum/art installation/room filled with junk called Steampunk HQ took over, and soon the shops in the Victorian precinct were adopting a noticable steampunk flair. Every year Oamaru hosts a steampunk festival, and also offer many other events throughout the year (such as the unusual teapot racing, which is now a game played by steampunk fans around the world).
The idea that such a place exists in my very own country and I, a writer who dabbled in steampunk, have yet to visit it was just NOT ON. So after we returned from our hike, John, Olya and I drove up to Oamaru to investigate.
Our first stop was our AirBNB, Lear House. I chose this house because the description made it sound as though it were a NZ La Chascona, and I wasn’t far off. The home was built in the 1950s by the owner, the son of famed English poet Edward Lear, who was himself an artist. Built by hand from Oamaru stone, the quirky layout includes lots of dark wood and up cycled features, and a claw-foot bath and wonky floors and a spiral staircase. Just look at my pretty room!
Our hosts, Joy and Austin, were huge music fans, and over glorious breakfasts regaled us with tales of their adventures. There was even a fat pudding of a cat who loved belly rubs. Basically, it was perfect.
We had two nights and one full day to explore Oamaru, which is enough time to do a pretty thorough exploration of the Victorian precinct.
It’s a beacon!
Of course, when we discovered that a NZ whisky distillery had a residence in Oamaru, we had to stop in for a tasting. It would basically be rude not to. We discovered quite an interesting story about NZ Whisky Collection while we were merrily getting tippled at 1PM in the afternoon.
In 1997 the last whisky distillery in New Zealand was closed down, and the hundreds of barrels of Cask Strength whisky auctioned off or mothballed. 80,000 litres in 443 barrels had been stored in an old aircraft hangar, and basically forgotten about. In 2010, the now NZ Whisky Collection purchased the barrels, moved them from Dunedin to Oamaru, and have been doling out these stunning drops to whisky drinkers ever since. Apparently, there are less than 10,000litres left, but they’re already building the facilities to revive distillation, making this distillary once again the world’s southern most whisky distillery.
We each had a fall of four whiskies, and tried to guess the flavours before reading out the notes on the cards. We were about 60% right, which after four generous drams, let me tell you was actually a bit of a shock.
Drunk with exhuberance and also alcohol, we clambered up rickety staircases to explore hidden art galleries, tried on corsets and boots and necklaces made of cogs, chatted with booksellers about Victorian adventurers at Adventure Books (and somehow talked myself out of buying an original set of the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe from the 19th century, a move I now regret), and ate a LOT of treats.
This is an ice cream shop called Deja Moo.
“Teeth artistically extracted”
No trip to Oamaru would be complete without a visit to Steampunk HQ, which is housed in a grain store built in 1883. The building bears the scars of a devastating fire in 1920, which gives it this slightly sinister appeal. I really enjoyed Chris Meyer’s sculptures, but some of the other exhibits seemed a bit … ill-conceived. I prefer a machine designed as an art piece to have a context and a story, and a lot of them seemed without this. Because of that, some of it came across as … “here’s a pile of junk.” BUT, you could tell the displays were being tinkered with and improved all the time, and from the ecstatic faces on all the kids we had to weave through, the place clearly knew it’s target demographic.
Playing a “steampunk organ.” I think it would have been cooler if you could make more actual music on it.
I loved the quirky art galleries everywhere, chief among them the Grainstore Gallery, set up by local artist Donna Demente, whose recognisable style is EVERYWHERE in the town.
There’s a brewery called Scotts, which does excellent wood-fired pizzas and even more excellent locally-brewed beer and cider. After dinner we walked around on the waterfront, in the bleak grey mists, and played in the steampunk-themed Friendly Bay playground.
If you walk a couple of streets over, you come to the real main street of Oamaru, which looks just like the main street of any other NZ town, complete with McDonalds and a Subway and otehr chain stores. Personally, I liked pretending it wasn’t there at all.
Are we sad because we are inprisoned in these stocks or sad because this is a very poorly designed public punishment, with a wee bench seat and all.
We did go to the penguin colony, but we were running late and didn’t think we had time to go back to the BNB to get my binoculars. This meant that John and I couldn’t see the penguins coming in from the ocean. We got up to leave after fifteen minutes after realising it was a waste of time, but on the way out we discovered an area you could stand and watch the penguins head into their nesting boxes. We saw several little blue penguins and one even waddled past right in front of us, before falling on its belly and sliding inside a box!
I really enjoyed my visit to Oamaru, and am considering returning for the steampunk festival. I love how the town has embraced this quirky subculture and made it their own. Like all things labelled “steampunk”, some of it is awesome and some of it I didn’t really get, but all of it showed an ingenuity, creativity, and spirit that was pure Oamaru.