Did you know that Oamaru, New Zealand (population 14,000) is the self-proclaimed ‘Steampunk Capital of the World?’ Do you even know what steampunk is? I didn’t, but it was time to learn, since Oamaru was our next destination.
Steampunk wasn’t originally on our radar screen for Oamaru. Rather, we had a singular goal for our visit – watching little blue penguins come ashore around sunset. Oamaru is home to one of the largest colonies in New Zealand, so we booked an overnight stay.
At just 113 km (70 miles), it was a relatively short drive from Dunedin to Oamaru, so no rush to leave early. We stopped along the way to check out the Moeraki Boulders, described on the visitor website as “one of the most fascinating and popular attractions on the South Island.” Curiously, it didn’t even score a mention in my Lonely Planet guidebook.
Well, here they are!
After we looked at each other and shrugged, perhaps accompanied by an eye roll or two, we ventured down to the beach for a closer look.
Those boulders on the beach were simply not in the same league as countless other South Island attractions. But true confessions – we had fun climbing and posing on these unique rocks, and other visitors appeared to be having a great time as well.
My advice about visiting the Moeraki Boulders – check it out if you are in the area, but no need to make a special trip.
Out and About in Oamaru
Oamaru is a pretty town situated on a lovely bay. In addition to penguins, the town is known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture.
Having arrived a couple of hours before check-in time for our Airbnb, we headed for the town’s second leading attraction (penguins are #1) – Steampunk HQ.
The term steampunk was coined in the 1980s to describe (according to dictionary.com) “a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world.”
Crystal clear, right? A shorter and decidedly more straightforward description is “wrought iron meets science fiction.” (quote is from the article referenced in the next paragraph)
Development of Oamaru’s steampunk culture began around 2010 – you can read more about the town’s subsequent emergence as “Steampunk Capital of the World” here.
Every nook and cranny of Steampunk HQ – inside and outside – was filled with outlandish inventions, each more quirky than the last.
I enjoyed wandering through the displays, but quite frankly, it was a little overwhelming and just didn’t resonate with me. My travel companions, however, thoroughly relished the steampunk experience.
Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
After checking into our lodging for the night and relaxing over a fine dinner at Cucina Restaurant and Bar, we were excited to get on with the main event for the day – premium viewing seats for the evening’s homecoming of little blue penguins.
So called because they are the smallest species of penguin, little blues stand about 13″ high (33 cm). Unlike yellow-eyed penguins that prefer to live in solitude (see previous posts from the Catlins and Dunedin), little blues cluster in groups, or colonies, when they are on land.
We arrived well before the program was scheduled to begin and passed the time watching a pod of fur seals lounging on nearby rocks.
At 8:00, the first group, or raft, of penguins came ashore after feeding all day at sea. They waddled and hopped across the beach, over the rocks, past the seals, and onward through the grassy area between the viewing stands to their respective nesting sites, where they settled in for the night.
Over the next hour, additional rafts announced their arrival with loud squawks (penguins are surprisingly noisy!) every 10 minutes or so and made the same trek. Spectators were not permitted to take photos or videos because of the disruptive impact on the birds, but what an amazing experience! The official count was 132 penguins coming on shore for the night.
Was it worth the time and money? You bet!
From Oamaru to Twizel
And just like that, our short stay in Oamaru ended the next morning as we headed inland once again. Our destination for the day – the small village of Twizel, gateway to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
We made a couple of quick stops along the way. First at Takiroa, a limestone rock shelter that contains ancient Maori art drawings. Sadly, most of the artifacts were removed many years ago prior to the site’s protection as a place of historical and cultural significance.
We also took a scenic drive around Lake Benmore, New Zealand’s largest artificial lake that was created in the 1960s with the construction of an earthen dam.
By far, our most interesting side trip of the day occurred when Steve (who was driving) spotted a highway sign with an arrow pointing to something called the Omarama Clay Cliffs and unilaterally decided we should check it out. It was a fantastic judgment call.
The Clay Cliffs look much like the Badlands of South Dakota, with impressive towers and pinnacles comprised of claystone, sandstone, and silt. We explored the area for well over an hour before continuing on to Twizel.
Yet another example of super interesting things to see in New Zealand no matter where you are!
One final photo from the Clay Cliffs – the view shown below is looking back toward the plains. The Ahuriri River is a good example of a braided river, so called because it contains a network of ever-changing river channels separated by small islands called braid bars. New Zealand’s South Island has an extensive system of braided rivers, along with Alaska, Canada, and the Himalaya.
That’s it for this installment of our adventures in New Zealand.