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Oamaru - valuing its history, Victorian Whitestone buildings and penguin colonies

Dorothy - 25/10/02

Oamaru - a New Zealand town proud of its history and inviting photography
Oamaru, the main centre serving North Otago, attracts visitors by its fine Victorian Whitestone buildings, gardens, penguin colonies, and opportunities for trips into the surrounding countryside to see natural wonders like the Moeraki Boulders, historical sites like the Totara Estate, New Zealand's first freezing works, and engineering achievements like the hydro projects on the Waitaki River.

All this is enriched for the visitor by the community's sense of history and the information sources, both pamphlets from the Visitor Centre and a new book which make it simple for visitors to plan excursions on foot or by car to places of interest.

The Oamaru Gardens - a place for all seasons and all ages
My memories of Oamaru date back to the 1930s when our family travelled from Dunedin to Christchurch by car on roads that made travelling over Mt Cargill north of Dunedin an endurance test, especially for a small girl who suffered from car-sickness. How I longed to reach Oamaru, and how excited I was when we travelled down hill to the Oamaru Gardens where we stopped for morning tea! There was a shelter where for a shilling in the slot you could light a gas ring and boil the kettle. I would watch that being lit and then race off to the Gardens - a place of magic - where I would visit the fountain, the band rotunda, the flower gardens, the Japanese red bridge and best of all the Wonderland Statue with the children peering into fairyland.

Wonderland Statue
Wonderland Statue
The gas ring and the kettle are gone, but all the other features remain and as an adult I am more appreciative of the flowers and trees. These are gardens for all seasons with the rhododendron dell, the azaleas and flowering cherry trees in spring, and the rose gardens in summer. Fuchsia and erica gardens provide colour near the Wonderland Statue. The Display House has fine begonias in summer and orchids and cyclamens during autumn and winter.

When you visit the Wonderland statue you will find yourself close to the area devoted to native New Zealand plants - trees, shrubs and ferns, all clearly labelled.

Walkways are clearly indicated and take you to the Wonderland Statue, the Band Rotunda lawn with its historic trees, the Japanese red bridge, the Craig fountain, the water features, the aviary and the peacock house, the wishing well, the sundial and the summerhouse.

Japanese Red Bridge
The Japanese red bridge surrounded by the flowering trees in Spring.
Craig Fountain
Attractive flower beds and trees around the Craig Fountain.
The children's playground and the wallaby park
Much of what I've described will interest the children, but there is more. A children's playground you might expect, but there is also a surprise - the wallaby park where you can see and feed wallabies and alpacas in an open one-hectare area.

There is no charge for entry to the Gardens or the wallaby park, but a donation to support the animal area would be very welcome.

The Clydesdale and Wagon Tour
On Sundays from October to March for a small fee you can view the Gardens in a horse-drawn carriage. Waka, the Clydesdale horse pulls a wagon over a hundred years old, and the driver gives a commentary as you travel.

Don't forget to take your camera and check that you have plenty of shots available on your film before you visit these unique gardens.

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
You can drive in five minutes from the centre of town to the viewing place for the blue penguins, or allow more time and walk there. The time to view the birds is at dusk when they return from the sea. You can watch them arrive on the beach, climb up the rocks and go up the slope to their burrows. This type of penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest in the world and is found around the coasts of New Zealand and South Australia. The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony has provided nest boxes in an old quarry where rocks were taken for the Oamaru Harbour. Two grandstands are provided to seat the viewers and the area is well lit.

The Yellow-Eyed Penguins at Bushy Beach
The yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho is bigger and more rare than the blue penguin. This is an ideal site as these penguins need a bush environment. Walking south along Grave's Walkway will get you there, or you can drive along upper Tyne Street and down Bushy Beach Road. The penguins come ashore about two hours before dark. They can be watched from the viewing hide free of charge, or you can join a forty minute tour.

Bushy Beach
Bushy Beach

Historic walking tours
There is a choice of walking tours. The Port Heritage Trail deals with the commercial history of Oamaru and takes you through the area which was the centre of the town in the 1860s, commercial buildings serving the agricultural industries, dating from the 1880s, the sites of Oamaru's first shopping centre and the Oamaru harbour. A much fuller appreciation of this area is provided by reading Gavin McLean's book, Oamaru: History & Heritage which gives interesting details about the history of the streets and buildings.

The Janet Frame Trail can be walked in one and a half hours and includes sites which the famous Oamaru-born writer described in her early novels.

Oamaru stone in the local buildings
This topic is full of interest for anyone who studies the history of architecture, the development of towns and commercial premises. In Oamaru the preservation and restoration of Oamaru stone buildings and their adaptation to new uses are of prime concern.

One example is the former Union Bank of Australia, 14 Tyne Street, built in 1878. Its elaborate Venetian palazzo facade has been cleaned so that it appears as it did in earlier years, but the interior has been altered into squash courts.

Former Union Bank of Australia
Former Union Bank of Australia

Car Trips
An informative pamphlet put out by the Heritage Trails of North Otago describes a number of trips that can be taken if you are travelling by car.

The Moeraki Trail combines a visit to the Moeraki Boulders with exploration of the area, including the Maori village, the first European settlement in the days of whaling, and the Kotahitanga Church opened in 1862 with its unusual stained glass window which depicts Christ, Mother and child, and an elderly Maori leader Matiaha Tiramorehu, who was a local chief.

Sadly "souveniring" has greatly reduced the number of boulders at Moeraki. I remember visiting the site as a child and marvelling at masses of these unusual, perfectly round boulders at Katiki Beach and Moeraki Beach. Now the only boulders which remain are at Moeraki Beach, and we have the chance to view these probably only because they are too large and heavy to be removed by vandals. They measure up to 4 metres in circumference.

The Country Picnic Trail follows the history of Herbert and Waianakarua, the earliest farming area in North Otago, and leads not only to interesting buildings but also to inviting picnic places.

The Ocean to Alps Trail follows the Waitaki River past historic sites, scenic features, Maori Rock Drawings, the town of Kurow (which has its own Heritage Trail), Hydro dams at Waitaki, Aviemore and Benmore, the townships of Otematata and Omarama and beautiful Lake Ohau.

Trout Fishing and Gliding at Omarama
Omarama attracts many visitors because of the trout fishing, but more recently it has been in the news because it is ideal for gliding. There are high mountains around the Mackenzie basin and wind currents can rise as high as 10,000 - 15,000 metres. In 1995 the World Gliding Championships were held here and it was the site of millionaire Steve Fosset's attempt in 2002 to set a new record for the height reached by a glider.

NZ's first freezing works
New Zealand's first freezing works at the Totara Estate
Totara Estate - New Zealand's first freezing works
Just 1.8 km south of Oamaru you can visit the buildings where New Zealand's first cargo of frozen meat was prepared for export in the ship Dunedin in 1882. The buildings were restored in 1980 and were opened to the public in 1982 to mark the centenary of the Dunedin's departure.

The park and the buildings are open to the public 10 am to 4 pm on Wednesdays to Sundays and public holidays except Christmas Day.

A host of other activities
Some of the attractions which are unique to Oamaru are discussed above , but there are also a host of other activities available - visiting museums and galleries, shopping at a range of craft stores, playing golf, visiting historic houses and beautiful gardens, sampling wine and cheese, kayaking, jetboating, fishing, horse riding, skiing, gliding, swimming at the Waitaki Aquatic Centre, and of course sampling the varied food at a range of cafes and restaurants.

Oamaru Visitor Information Centre
Good service and information pamphlets are available at the Visitor Information Centre, 1 Thames Street, Oamaru.
Telephone 03 434 1636
Fax 03 434 1657
Email info@tourismwaitaki.co.nz

For more on the history of the Oamaru go to Gavin Mclean's book, Oamaru: History & Heritage, published by University of Otago Press.

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