We had a long drive planned for today, leaving Te Anau in the southwest for a drive across most of the South Island toward Christchurch. We weren’t even planning on stopping in Oamaru, but Kathy wanted to stop by the information centre and see if we could book a room farther north. But once we got into Oamaru, we saw the zeppelin and the sign for the Steampunk Exposition, and there we were.
Oamaru is a once-thriving Victorian port fallen on harder times. The main part of town is full of impressive Victorian buildings built out of a lovely local limestone, though unfortunately many of these seem to be abandoned; and the hills above the port are ornamented with period homes.
The town reinvented itself as a sort of Victorian resort, but most recently as a haven of steampunk, with a Steampunk HQ building and a steampunk exhibition at a local art gallery. There’s a punked-out steam locomotive, with rockets and a rotating screw nose, sitting in front of one of the buildings, and a giant 25-foot velocipede in the park, which has ingeniously been made into a part of the swing set. We checked out the exhibition, and it was a good deal more interesting than the usual “costumes with gears” stuff you see everywhere— the vibe was more “artists playing with ideas” than something more typically fannish, if you know what I mean. (Not that there’s anything wrong with fannish, I hasten to add.)
I began to suspect that the town had been built to trap me and people like me. This was confirmed when I saw a building called the Walterjon Hotel, which on closer examination proved to be the Criterion— the first few letters just looked weird. If it actually had been the Walterjon, I would have jumped in the car and fled at once, knowing that I was about to enter a Twilight Zone episode.
Driving around, we saw a sign directing us to Penguins, which proved not to be a night spot but a penguin sanctuary. After this— when we realized that the town was a sanctuary not only for SF writers and Victorian enthusiasts, but for lonely aquatic birds— we decided to stay, and found the Federation House B&B, set in a gorgeous 1915 family manse, with dark paneling, family portraits, and a billiard room, set on the bluffs above the town.
Dinner was at the Criterion, because we couldn’t resist. Lamb shank pie, with the lamb shank driven through, rather than beneath, the flaky crust.
And then to visit the penguin sanctuary, where we watched over 200 blue penguins come ashore as darkness fell. They traveled in “rafts” of 30-70, torpedoed ashore, spent a few minutes oiling themselves in preparation for their next sea journey, and then stormed up the bluff in little packs, charging past the spectators and into cover. (The sanctuary has obligingly built them little underground nests to live in.)
The leaders came running along bent forward, like soldiers advancing under fire, and the rest followed as best they could. As with humans, some were better at running and walking than others. Some were only good at falling over and knocking other penguins down like bowling pins.
The later groups got more curious about the onlookers, as you might if a bunch of strange beings turned up every day to watch you come home from work. Some wandered about and socialized, and some went off into the bush and vocalized, sounding sometimes like bullfrogs mating, but mostly not. I had no idea penguins could be so noisy, for so long.
After the penguins finished marching, we marched off to the Federation House.
Serendipity is moving our way.
Should someone put together a convention in Oamaru? Why, yes. Someone should. And invite the local artists? Why yes.
I’m writing this now in the billiard room of the B&B, after which I may play myself a game of pool, while really hoping I’m not in that Twilight Zone episode.