After my big 4 days journey of crossing the South Island from Motueka to Oamaru by hitchhiking and by train, I finally arrived in Oamaru in time for the Victorian Heritage Festival, a 5 days festival which is this year placed under the sign of Alice in Wonderland! Oamaru is a beautiful coastal town in the south of New Zealand’s South Island, in the Otago region. I’m very curious about this town because it’s well known for its Victorian Heritage, its Steampunk museum, its nice climate and weather, but also because it’s possible to see some penguins in their natural habitat!
VOLUNTEERING AT KRISTIN AND JOEL’S
I arrive at Kristin and Joel’s, with their two dogs Mischa and Reign, their cat Molly and their two young chicks. I’m doing a HelpX here to help them with the garden. Kristin is German and she met Joel while on her Working Holiday Visa in 2013. Now, they’re living together in a beautiful house with a garden in Oamaru. Joel is an electrician and Kristin takes care of their AirBnB and the house arrangements. She’s really skilled in finding amazing second-hand stuff. She’s also refurbishing old furniture, sewing curtains, pillows, clothes… She always has brilliant ideas to make her house comfy!
It’s been Springtime for a while now and Kristin and Joel’s garden needs some good old maintenance. It’s like a jungle over there. And Kristin is hoping to have a beautiful garden by December for her birthday barbecue. I guess she has also always dreamt of a December barbecue like me, which is actually possible in New-Zealand where the seasons are reversed compared to the Northern hemisphere! I’m going to spend 2h30 a day cleaning, weeding, rooting out, raking and cutting. At the end of the week, I’m quite proud, the garden looks way better!
In exchange for my gardening duties, I’m hosted in a big bedroom with a double bed. I can also wash my clothes, take a bath in Kristin’s very vintage bathtub while drinking tea (thanks again Kristin, I had never done that before!) and we also cooked the best strawberry/rhubarb/meringue pie ever. When we hang out together, we often talk about our lousy backpacking adventures, our driving anxiety and our first scary steps into the solo travelling world. She brings me all around the old Victorian Precinct of Oamaru and we walk the dogs to astonishing places like Cape Wanbrow, Herbert Forest and the Moeraki Boulders. Those lasts are quite famous here, they are big round-shaped rocks lying on the beach. Apparently, the erosion is responsible for their unusual shape.
ENCOUNTERING PENGUINS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT
During my stay in Oamaru, my best experience was undoubtedly going to see… penguins! Not in a zoo, not in captivity, but right there, in their natural habitat. As a matter of fact, there’s a Blue Penguin colony in Oamaru. They actually are blue and are also the smallest penguins in the world! Those little cute fellows are native species of New Zealand and endangered. Therefore, going to watch them at dusk has to be supervised. It’s possible to watch them cross the road on the other side of Oamaru’s harbour. Since the penguins spend most of their days fishing at sea and come back at dusk to their nests, on land, they try to cross that road every night, with their frightened and clumsy gaits. It’s then important that they don’t get run over by cars and that the people gathered to watch them aren’t too close, otherwise they’ll frighten them. So, there’s this guy, that I tenderly nicknamed “M. Penguin” whose job is to stop the cars and keep away the tourists with his bright orange vest every night to allow the Blue Penguins to go back to their nests safe and sound. Isn’t it like one of the best jobs in the world?!
I’m in awe. Everybody’s whispering, “They are SO cute!” After a while, it’s too dark to make some decent pictures (without flash please) and discern the penguins, but it’s such an honour to watch those little creatures running on the road, stopping, going back, going forwards… Right there in the natural world. They’re so gracious at sea but so clumsy on land. I love them.
Close to the Moeraki Boulders, there’s another penguin colony, in a natural reserve this time, which can be visited for free. It’s a Yellow-Eyed Penguins colony in a very pretty place. Katiki Point, its lighthouse, and its green hills. We can watch penguins and seals, either hidden in little cabins or further on the path that goes around the reserve. The Yellow-Eyed Penguins are a bit bigger than the Blue Penguins, but as endangered. Which is the reason why people can’t cross the barriers and lines, as to not disturb their daily lives. The penguins are lounging in the grass and frolicking around, and I can’t stop taking pictures because the whole scene is just so unique and wonderful. Some fur seals are playing and sunbathing not too far, and it feels highly surreal for me to watch them and be around them in this natural area. I could stay there for hours just watching them live.
THE VICTORIAN PRECCINCT OF OAMARU
One of the major interests of Oamaru (except for the penguins of course) is its Victorian Heritage. In the old town, there’s a neighbourhood called the Victorian Precinct where the original buildings are made from locally quarried limestone. Back in the late XIXth Century, Oamaru was an important trade town, shipping grain and wool.
Nowadays, in order to enhance that Victorian feeling, the buildings are filled with galleries, shops, artisans, and delicious places to eat and drink. Some old buildings rub shoulders with second-hand shops, stores specialized in XIXth century dresses, an unusual ice cream shop (Deja Moo and its crazy flavours!), a steampunk museum, a bookbinder, a limestone sculptor workshop or even a steampunk playground.
Oamaru takes advantage of its Victorian heritage to proclaim itself the Steampunk capital. Eccentric, Oamaru?
OAMARU THAT STEAMPUNK CAPITAL CITY
It appears that the famous steampunk museum, Steampunk HQ, can be visited half price (or even for free) if you’re a girl and smiling to the owner. I’m not quite comfortable with it, but I’m too curious about this museum to care too much. I mean, there’s a giant steampunk wagon at the entrance, greeting the visitors with smoke and whistles as well as an airship balloon!
This quirky steampunk museum was founded in 2011 in the old grain elevator building of the Victorian Precinct by a group of creative geeks. They wanted to showcase their vision of steampunk, this science fiction movement which imagine an alternate present or future involving steam-powered futuristic machines inspired by the XIXth century. (Think about Jules Verne, Nausicaa or Doctor Who)
Inside the museum, heavy piles of knick-knacks, many sculptures made out of recycled materials, some new age music playing in the background and what became later my favourite attraction: The Portal. A room filled with mirrors and coloured changing lights. Surely this place is worth a visit for anyone a little bit curious, no need to be a steampunk fanatic to enjoy what was built here!
But there’s another place which became one of my favourites in Oamaru, the Adventure Books bookstore. It’s specialized in travels and adventures and even displays an actual boat inside. YES. A REAL BOAT! IN A BOOKSTORE! Bill, the owner, shake my hand with warmth and absolute kindness and calls me his colleague since I told him I used to be a bookseller back in France. He allows me to take as many pictures as I want of his shop and tells me that he’s a huge book collector and when he didn’t have room left in his house for all his collection, he could only buy a store. I smile. I roam between the bookshelves about Antarctica, mountains, famous hikers, travel guides, world maps, travel journals, etc.
I tell Bill about that backpacker’s frustration who can only contemplate those shelves full of interesting books, wanting to buy them all, but without being able to because… well, books are heavy and there are already three inside my backpack that I can’t fathom to get rid of. If there’s anything I miss in that precise moment, while chatting with Bill, it’s definitely to fill up my personal bookshelf and accumulating piles and piles of new stories, stories of possible and impossible lives, knowledge and curiosities.
During the Victorian Heritage Festival, Bill held a group talk in his shop called “Traveller’s Tales”. People were invited to come and share some of their most exciting adventures and travels (like Alice through the rabbit hole). I didn’t dare to speak out about my own experiences, but I was very curious listening to other people’s lives. So, I sat and listened to those ladies who lived in a lighthouse or were raised in a circus! There’s no better setting than a bookshop to hear about people’s lives. I’ve always thought adventures and unusual experiences were only for a certain group of people, that somehow, it’d be something that could be seen on their faces or clothes, that it would involve being rich or eccentric. Maybe I watched too many movies. Because the people seated in the bookshop that day were no different than me. They made choices, they composed, they tried different lifestyles. Life just happened. This is inspiring enough to keep me going.
THE VICTORIAN HERITAGE FESTIVAL
For 5 days in November, Oamaru celebrated its Victorian Heritage Festival. Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland was the main theme of this year of 2015. That’s why Oamaru was my goal, why I crossed the South Island from West to East hitchhiking and taking the Tranzalpine train: I got very curious about a festival celebrating such an interesting book (I still do feel like a bookseller after all.) For the occasion, every shop located in the old town played the game and displayed jewellery, books, costumes, and goodies related to the rich universe of Alice in Wonderland. Many people were dressed up either in Carroll’s characters or XIXth century or even Steampunk costumes. Every generation seemed to have played the dressing up game!
The festival organized tea-parties in the Public Garden, in the Masonic House, at the Steampunk Playground. I’m a huge fan of the Public Garden, I take a stroll around there almost every day, sit on a bench and read Harry Potter’s adventures in English amongst the colourful flowers. I love the fact that I can pass by Jimmy the parrot’s cage and try to make him talk. Kristin told me he’s not speaking to everyone, though. You have to be the chosen one.
There was a street fair with food and handmade jewellery stalls, as well as a parade, conferences, concerts, dances, guided tours, Snark hunting, croquet games, a limestone carving contest, etc… I went to a few tea parties and talked with many Kiwis who were coming from all around the country to enjoy this festival. As I’m quite fascinated with Lewis Carroll’s story and XIXth century’s England, and being such a huge tea drinker, I was more than impatient to be part of this festival.
Except that I couldn’t. Not as much as I had wanted to. On November 14th around noon (which was November 13th around midnight in France) I heard what happened in Paris. The attacks at the Bataclan Concert Hall. I totally freaked out reading the little news I could get my hands on. I don’t understand what’s going on, I’m stunned, speechless. My only emergency being to contact all my friends living in Paris, to check if they’re safe if they’re feeling okay considering the situation. As the day goes on, I discovered more about the horror, the unspeakable truth of what happened. Some Kiwis here were trying to talk to me about it, but I couldn’t say a word.
Being here, in New Zealand, on the other side of the planet, in this country oh so quiet, almost made me forget about the continual horrors happening on the Northern Hemisphere. I almost forgot that cruelty was possible. This tragedy hit me hard, and I was all alone. I went through a lot of phases in no time, chock, sadness, guilt, fury, concern. I’m still grateful of the friends who helped me process this chock, even through social media, it meant the world to me. The Kiwis were really affected by this disaster and I got plenty of smiles and comforting talks. They must have also thought that the world is insane.
Even though I didn’t enjoy as much of the festival as I intended to, I still reached the goal I set while in Nelson: go to Oamaru to attend the Victorian Heritage Festival. The road that took me there was full of adventures and the days spent there were calm, relaxing and … full of delicious food!
Here I set another goal and finalize my departure for Stewart Island in December. I’m going to smoke some salmon there for a month! But there’s still a long way to go, so I throw my thumb into the air again and hitchhike to Dunedin.
WHAT I LEARNED THERE :
- Baking a delicious strawberry/rhubarb/meringue pie (and I also know how to cook rhubarb now!)
- The words “wheelbarrow”, “rake” and that Kiwis folks are also referring to dinner when they’re referring to “tea”
- I could perfect my weeding and cleaning technique while gardening.
- The best moment to witness some penguins are at dawn because after spending their days fishing at sea, they go back to their nests to feed the chicks.
- I did miss taking a bath.
- I’m now so used to sleep in a single bed that I didn’t even stretch on that comfy double bed.
LET’S GO THERE :
OAMARU VICTORIAN FESTIVAL, Victoria Precinct, Oamaru
OAMARU STEAMPUNK HQ, Tyne St, Oamaru
OAMARU ADVENTURE BOOKS, 7 Harbour St, Oamaru
GRAINSTORE GALLERY, 9 Harbour St, Oamaru
THE GADGETORIUM, Victoria Precinct, Oamaru
OAMARU DEJA MOO, Harbour St, Oamaru
OAMARU PUBLIC GARDEN, in the center of Oamaru
OAMARU POOL, 20 Thames St, Oamaru
CAPE WANBROW, south of Oamaru
OAMARU BLUE PENGUINS, Waterfront Road, Oamaru (just before the city center, it’s also possible to watch them for free!)
MICHAEL O BRIEN BOOKBINDER, 7 Tyne St, Oamaru
MOERAKI BOULDERS, Moeraki, between Oamaru and Dunedin
KATIKI POINT, Moeraki Peninsula