The whitestone townscape of Oamaru contains some of the best-preserved heritage buildings in New Zealand. In the late 19th century, the town prospered through goldmining, quarrying and timber milling. Some of the wealth was spent on elegant stone buildings made from local limestone.


Development slowed, but the population continued to grow until the 1970s. With the closure of the port and the New Zealand economy stalled, Oamaru found itself hard hit. In response it started to re-invent itself, becoming one of the first New Zealand towns to realise its built heritage was an asset.


Oamaru Harbour is home to a colony of little blue penguins – that’s why this small New Zealand town made the itinerary.

Checked into our hotel, The Criterion Hotel, on the edge of Oamaru’s historic Victorian Precinct.  Rooms were closet small, bathroom-shared with the entire floor PLUS slept above a local bar – the experience of sleeping in a historic Victorian hotel.

The Criterion Hotel was built in 1877 to a design by Oamaru architects Forrester and Lemon.  It was built for its first proprietor William Gillespie and operated as a licensed hotel until prohibition came to Oamaru in 1905.

No penguins ‘til dusk.  What to do?  Our heavily tatted hotel clerk recommended Steampunk Headquarters.  Asked the lady twice, wasn’t sure what she was saying.  Steam – what?  Only 2 buildings down, in an old Grain Elevator Building – ok, why not?

Outside of the imposing free-standing stone building, a coin-operated “steampunk” engine greets visitors, complete with lights, engine and train while noises, and fire breathing out of its chimney.  The building’s exterior walls are decorated with creations such as giant flies made from metal and industrial parts.


Inside, the gallery presents a theme of a dark post-apocalyptic vision of a future “as it might have been”.  Contraptions and bizarre machinery featuring heavy use of copper, gears, pipes, gas cylinders, as well as an ensemble of skeletal sculptures are lit by flickering lights and accompanied by projectors and background sounds.

If you’re looking for normal, this ain’t it.  First room: dark, uninviting.  Large creepy pipe organ.  Weird, beyond my comfort zone.

Second room: started connecting/seeing the art.  Background music pulled me in, helped open my eyes/added to the experience.  And thenthe Portal.  Green light flashed ‘available’.  Entered, shut the door behind me, waited.  Like all of Steampunk, wasn’t sure what to expect.  Overhead lights dimmed, music started slowly – and the light show began.  WOW, whatta experience.

Back outside, walked thru abandoned, vacated rail cars.  Giant houseflies garnished the building’s outer walls.  A 20ft fisherman dropped bait from Steampunk’s roof.  I am better having visited, a New Zealand ‘must see’.

Actually sightsaw most of Oamaru’s downtown & historic district pre-dawn on Thursday morning’s 4 mile run.  Christchurch airport, puddle-jumper flight to Hamilton – vacation ends on North Island.  Tomorrow’s adventure?  Hobbiton.



Steampunk HQ: The Portal



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