NZ #13: Oamaru

By: | Post date: January 8, 2010 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

Oamaru is small and flat, like Nelson. But where Nelson is sunny and cheery, Oamaru is windy, with a chill that flies in out of the bowels of Antarctica. Where the tourists around Nelson are ambling hippies in broadshorts, the tourists around Oamaru wear layers of wool, and huddle.

Where Nelson looks forward, past the decline of the timber trade, to a future of winemaking and tourism, Oamaru—also looks forward, to a future of tourism, but it’s a tourism that trades on its past.

Oamaru is where New Zealanders worked out how to refrigerate shipments of meat and dairy to Britain, and Oamaru boomed because of it in the 1880s. Oamaru celebrated its affluence in a binge of cream-coloured temples to capitalism, built from the limestone quarried here. It had enough limestone to spare for a couple of harbourside temples in Auckland as well.

As a proudly Victorian town, Oamaru’s streets are named for rivers in England; the main drag is of course Thames St, and its gaudiest temple, easily outshining its Christian churches, is the then Bank of New South Wales: a creamier, grander version of the Parthenon. The buildings where the wealth actually was generated, at the harbour, lack the Corinthian flourishes of the Thames St buildings; but they too are proud and cream-coloured and cavernous Places of Business.

The harbour declined since, as many a harbour has; and unlike Nelson again, Oamaru is no longer a functioning port city: the harbour here closed in 1975. The harbour and its cavernous storehouses are now the Oamaru historical precinct, hosting tourists in a display of Victoriana. The building next to the restored steam railway even announces itself as Steampunk HQ. But the abandoned ironware beside it isn’t gleaming enough for a steampunk novel.

And “abandoned” is what the harbour precinct looks like. Certainly at night, when the only human habitation are the two pubs, well sealed off from the empty street running past them. But even in daytime, when the artisans and period photographers and bakers and souvenir stalls take up residence in the old Places of Business, they look dwarfed and out of place. Not all the warehouses are even half-occupied by artisans and stalls; and we are not sure what some of the warehouses were originally for. The cavernous warehouses are still in truth empty and abandoned, they are no longer Places of Business.

Then again, the one warehouse that was still fulfilling its original purpose is a woolshed, and has the surprisingly familiar stench of sheep dung. That’s the thing about nostalgia: the authenticity it yearns for didn’t really smell as rosy.

The New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, the Lonely Planet tells me, grew up here, and mythologised the town in her books. I haven’t read her books and am unlikely to, but I wonder if her mythology was haunted by the cream-coloured and emptying temples to capitalism. Possibly not: she started publishing in the ’50s, and Oamaru was still a functioning port then. But even when the temples were open for business, there must have been something otherworldy about them: a serene cream stone out of place in a small windswept dairy town.

The old limestone quarry is where the cream stone came from: it too is now closed, and its red sheds serve only as the terminus of the restored Steampunk train. Just beyond it though is the visitor’s centre for the other commodity Oamaru now trades in: the blue penguin colony.

What New Zealanders term blue penguins, Victorians term fairy penguins, and I’ve already been to a viewing of fairy penguins on Philip Island. The penguins are just as adorable here: adorable enough to persevere with, as they hesitantly clamber onto land, shake off the water from their feathers, wait to gather enough numbers, and frantically waddle to their nests, a dozen at a time.

We find them adorable, of course, because they are bipeds like us; such a colony involving arthropods would be a much harder sell to visiting tourists. Especially after sundown, in as windy a place as this, at the bottom of the globe.

Well, not quite the bottom of the globe: I’m typing this on the Devil’s Galley, just past Palmerston, on the way to Dunedin. Palmerston is a small Otago town, most famous for forcing the much larger Palmerston, on the North Island, to be renamed Palmerston North. The countryside here, like on the way down from Christchurch, is dotted with sheep and cows; but the grassland and trees are more lush here, the coloured less faded. Then again, I’ve been either faking sleep, or blogging while on the Devil’s Galley, so my impressions of the landscape cannot be trusted.

Next stop Dunedin. Where the rains finally catch up with me.

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