by Nancy Bestor
When planning our recent trip to New Zealand’s South Island, there was one activity on our “must do” list—an evening visit to see Blue Penguins (the world’s smallest penguin) return from a day of fishing at sea to their nesting burrows in Oamaru. Little did we know that a visit to Oamaru and the penguins would also mean that we would have our minds blown in a space-time travel gateway known as “The Portal” at Steampunk HQ. But first the penguins.
Blue penguins breed on the coastal mainland and islands of New Zealand and Southern Australia. Measuring about 30 cm (about 12 inches) tall, the penguins are not active on land in the day, as they are either at sea fishing or hiding in their nesting burrows. But just after dusk, groups of penguins arrive back from their hard day’s work, and waddle onto shore and up into the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Owned by the local government, the facility started in 1992 as a safe harbor for the blue penguins, and now boasts more than 75,000 visitors a year. We booked well in advance, as the tour regularly sells out.
Visitors have two options, “general entry”—seating in an outdoor viewing grandstand for 350 people—or “premium viewing” that offers seating much closer to the penguins and their route from the shore to their burrows. The difference in price was about $11 US dollars per person, ($31 compared to $20), but it is certainly worth it, as there was a huge difference in viewing distance!
Guides offered some information about the penguins before it got dark, but once dusk ended, no sound was allowed, to keep from scaring the penguins. No photos or electronic devices of any kind were allowed either, and it was astonishing to me how many times the guides had to ask people to put away their phones and cameras. One guide finally threatened a woman that he would throw her out if he saw her phone out of her purse again.
As the penguins waddled onto shore it was just as adorable as I expected it to be. The guides watched with binoculars as the groups swam toward shore, so we had warning when each group would arrive, and they seemed to travel in packs of 10-12. More than 75 came onto shore that evening, and they were a delight to behold. I wish I had photos to share with you (see paragraph above), but alas, I am not a rule breaker. We visited in early February, which is the tail end of the penguin season. During high season (December and early January), as many as 200 penguins come onto shore each night.
Another “attraction” of Oamaru is New Zealand’s premier Steampunk experience, Steampunk HQ. Before visiting New Zealand, I didn’t know exactly what Steampunk was. And after visiting Steampunk HQ, I still don’t know exactly what Steampunk is. Apparently, Steampunk started as a science fiction sub-genre. Today, in addition to literature, Steampunk is also used to describe fashion, art, architecture, and more. Steampunk HQ is a museum/gallery of sorts, but just like I can’t describe the term Steampunk very well, it’s also hard to describe HQ. It features exhibits, art, movies, and the above referenced space time travel gateway.
When we bought our $7 entrance tickets, the Steampunk HQ host strongly advised us not to miss “The Portal,” a light machine that “transports you to alternate realities.” He told us once we experienced the Portal, we would want to go back in and do it again. He encouraged us to follow our instinct and take another trip. Without giving too much away, I’ll describe the Portal as an incredibly awesome light and sound experience. We loved it, and we were under the influence of no substances whatsoever. We did indeed take a second, and then a third trip through the Portal. I can tell you without hesitation that the Portal alone is worth the price of admission to Steampunk HQ.
Oamaru is a cute, quaint and sleepy town. It’s worthy of a stop even if you don’t make it to the Penguin Colony or Steampunk HQ. But these two attractions elevate Oamaru to a must see when on a tour of New Zealand’s South Island.
- We stayed at the Criterion Hotel, a simple historic hotel built in 1877, with rooms above a lovely bar and restaurant. Our room with private bath was about $80 a night. The hotel and pub are the cornerstone building at the edge of Oamaru’s restored Victorian precinct.
- The two-block Victorian precinct is also home to many preserved buildings, and houses unusual shops, galleries and more. It’s a great browsing/shopping neighborhood. We ate some terrific savory pies at the Harbour Street Bakery, and sampled delicious locally made ice cream at Deja Moo.
- We also ate a splendid Italian dinner at Cucina 1871. This was a popular spot, seemingly for both locals and tourists, and I’m still thinking about the Ricotta/Walnut/Pesto Ravioli I ate there.