Exploring Oamaru: A Small Town with a Big Difference

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When you have travelled around New Zealand long enough, it can sometimes be hard to tell different towns apart. Somehow, many Kiwi towns start to look a lot alike. But then there are those that stand out.

The small town of Oamaru on the east coast of the South Island, between Timaru and Dunedin, is one of those places. Two things, in particular, make it memorable from the second you arrive: Victorian buildings that have stood the test of time, and the town’s love of all things steampunk – a quirky style based on the machinery of the steam-powered era. But, it turns out, there is even more to discover.

Oamaru was founded in 1858 and thrived throughout the second half of the 19th century as a harbour centre, exporting wool, meat, grain and other goods. While it might be hard to believe today, in the 1880s, it was about the same size as Los Angeles was at the time. During this period of plenty, many of the impressive stone structures that still stand today were built.

Unfortunately, the wealth didn’t last, and things started to go downhill for Oamaru towards the end of the 19th century. However, looking back today, that almost seems like a good thing. Because the town couldn’t afford to keep building and modernising, many of the imposing buildings can still be admired. In other, more affluent areas, they were torn down and replaced with whatever was considered modern throughout the years, and history was lost.

Today, over 13,500 people live there, and some of them have figured out how to take advantage of the architectural heritage that makes this town so distinctive. They took the beautiful buildings, added a good dose of steampunk flair, and ended up with a town that’s well worth a visit.

THINGS TO DO AND SEE 

THE VICTORIAN PRECINCT

The Victorian Precinct around Harbour Street is the most distinctive part of the town. Old buildings are brought to life with little shops, cafes, galleries and museums. Whitestone City, within this area, is a must-visit for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the town and the Victorian era – and to have the chance to experience hands-on some of the games and toys of the time.

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It’s worth trying to time your visit for a Sunday, as that’s when you can join a train ride through and around the precinct. You’ll also find a small but diverse farmers’ market at the end of Harbour Street.

If you’re travelling with kids, the steampunk-themed playground by the harbour end of the precinct will probably be one of the highlights of your visit. This is an excellent area for a picnic on a nice day, and The Galley café, with its stunning harbour views, is a great option for lunch or coffee.

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STEAMPUNK HQ

At the northern entrance of the Victorian Precinct, you will find Steampunk HQ. While the theme is visible throughout the town, this interactive museum is its epicentre. For a modest $10 per adult ($2 for children), you can experience and admire this genre of art at its best.

Walking through the doors feels like entering an alternate universe, and you never quite know whether the artists are crazy or geniuses – probably a bit of both. It’s a not-to-be-missed experience when visiting Oamaru.

BLUE PENGUINS

Because apparently impressive architecture and steampunk aren’t enough, Oamaru has something else that makes it special: penguins. But not just any penguins. A colony of little blue penguins, the world’s smallest, calls Oamaru home. If you’re patient – and lucky – you might be able to spot them around dusk when they return to land from the sea. Rumour has it that they can occasionally be seen anywhere around the harbourfront area. If you want to significantly increase your chances of encountering one while also supporting their conservation, you can book a tour with the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.


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SOUTH HILL

For those who want to stretch their legs while also enjoying vast views over the town and harbour, South Hill is the place to go. As the name suggests, you can find this network of walks and lookouts at the southern end of town. Many of the walks are dog-friendly, some even off-leash, so bring your furry friends along.

Those who want to take in the views without the effort of walking up the hill can drive up to the main lookout at the end of Tamar Street.

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THAMES STREET

Thames Street is the main shopping area. The wide street is lined with stores on either side, including the well-known big chains and some local retailers. And in between the newer buildings, you can also find some of the stately old Victorians the town is famous for.

You might notice that Thames Street is much wider than the main streets in most other small towns in New Zealand. The reason is both logical and entertaining. When the town was built, carts pulled by ox were the most common way to transport goods. Those carts needed a lot of space to make U-turns – hence the unusual wide street.

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PUBLIC GARDENS

One of the less well-known attractions in Oamaru are the Public Gardens. While they may not be as famous as the Victorian Precinct, you don’t want to miss out on visiting these beautifully arranged and maintained gardens. They are among the oldest in New Zealand and offer something for everyone: a rhododendron dell, a native fernery and an extensive planting of New Zealand natives, a Chinese garden, an aviary and peacock house, and a children’s play area.

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ANNUAL STEAMPUNK FESTIVAL

If you want the ultimate Oamaru experience, consider visiting for the Steampunk Festival, with three days of events, workshops and activities, including fashion shows, a gala ball and even teapot racing! The event usually takes place in June, and this year is scheduled for 3–7 June.

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WHERE TO STAY

Oamaru offers RV-ers several options for overnight stays, including the Oamaru TOP 10 Holiday Park, a private oceanfront campground north of the city, and the A&P Showgrounds, also north of the town.

There is a freedom camping area at All Day Bay, about 20 minutes south of the centre.

You can find all these sites on the CamperMate and NZMCA apps. It’s worth noting that, at the time of writing, the popular Harbourside Holiday Park is closed due to reduced visitor numbers, and it is unclear when it will open again. The park is owned by the same people who own the TOP 10 park, so it’s best to check with them if you would like to stay at the harbour.

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