Boulders, Victorian Events and Blue Penguins in Oamaru

The little blue penguin/Victorian era/steampunk capital of New Zealand is the next stop on New Zealand’s Biggest Gap Year! It can be no other than Oamaru! Now, we’ve seen a lot of towns that claim to be the capital of something, only to feel that the town doesn’t entirely take this title too literally, such as Taihape the Gunboot Capital and Tuatapere the Sausage Capital… (With the exception of Otorohanga who take the Kiwiana Capital status so seriously that they made us dress up as a Kiwi bird and tomato sauce bottle and parade around the town). But, as we are about to discover today, Oamaru surpasses its reputation!

As a new adventure begins, another adventure has to come to an end. We leave the wizarding world of the Hogwartz Backpackers and our amazing 10 days we have spent in Dunedin and hit the road to the biggest attraction between the Dunedin and Oamaru. The Moeraki Boulders have been the subject of some of the most brilliant photography, with their perfectly spherical shapes sitting in the sand… the sun bouncing off their smooth surface… We can’t wait to see these natural wonders!

High tide at the Moeraki Boulders

But, as the sky begins to darken and the rain begins to fall… We realise that today is not the day to capture the beauty of the boulders. Nevertheless, we park up and follow a short track through the bushes and down to the beach. Oh my God, how could we be so stupid?!

“What time is high tide?!” Laura says rushing to look it up on her phone. Yep, as we feared high tide was a couple of hours ago. There is only a thin section of the back of the beach to walk on and with the raging swell, the water is shooting right across the beach. We may or may not get wet feet today. Concluding that its not exactly likely that we’ll get washed away, we head down the beach to see if we can even see the Moeraki Boulders.

Laura gets to high ground! Laura gets to high ground!
What the Moeraki Boulders look like at high tide What the Moeraki Boulders look like at high tide
Robin: king of the steam engines! Robin: king of the steam engines!
Robin disturbs the Oamaru citizens with his new vintage camera Robin disturbs the Oamaru citizens with his new vintage camera

Boulder business

Well, we can certainly see the round tops of the boulders getting engulfed in the waves every two seconds. This is not exactly the Moeraki Boulder experience we were imagining, but we do find the whole thing pretty hilarious.

There is one boulder on the entire beach almost completely on dry land and still sightly attached to the cliff it has fallen from. Laura runs and jumps on it as the waves go out. It is now her island!

So, the moral of the story is go to see the Moeraki Boulders at low tide!

Wandering into the 19th CENTURY

Lessons learned, we finish our journey to Oamaru. If we thought Dunedin felt like we were stepping back in time, then we were so wrong. In Oamaru, there are literally people walking in the street dressed like they are from the Victorian era. Women with long puffy dresses holding antique umbrellas walk out of coffee shops with a takeaway coffee, men dressed in tweed ride penny farthings in the streets… When a huge steam engine slowly drives past in the street chugging out smoke, we start to think: “Hang on a minute…”

We have just happened to hit Oamaru during the beginning of the Victorian Heritage Fete! We might have timed our Moeraki Boulders visit poorly, but we couldn’t be in Oamaru at a better time!

That crazy moment you realise you’re watching a Victorian parade in New Zealand

Steam machines and buying a vintage camera

After checking in at the Oamaru Backpackers, we walk towards the waterfront where the hustle and bustle of celebrations are going on. There is an vintage machinery display of rural machinery: a reciprocating sawmill, a steam roller, and some sort of rotatory scene with toys being dipped in water? Robin even hustles his way onto a steam engine, standing high above the crowds in the driver’s seat to this slow-moving vehicle powered by steam.

Next thing we know, we are walking down Harbour Street and Tyne Street, two streets that look like you’re stepping back in time no matter if there are steam engines driving through or not. You can tell that the town has made the effort to keep its heritage vibes, with vintage hand-painted shop signs hanging from the old white limestone buildings. We pop into a few cool and quirky galleries along the way. And when Laura leaves Robin for two minutes to go to the toilet, she returns to find Robin has bought a vintage camera! He’s pointing it at all the people on the street dressed in their Victorian get-up, finding the whole thing hilarious… He’s just about to see something worth filming!

The Victorian Parade

The high-pitch squeals of bagpipes fills the town as the Victorian Grand Parade starts to slowly make its way through the streets of Oamaru. The bagpipe band are followed by steam engines, followed by a group from the local hospital who has a woman rolling around on the floor pretending she’s injured…

A paper delivery boy shouts: “Read all about it!” at the crowd, while a group of suffragettes scream louder: “What do we want? The Vote! When do we want it? NOW!”

Vintage cars, bicycles, penny farthings, The Queen… All sorts of crazy stuff is going on!

Not a penguin... But a shag chick we saw on the way to the blue penguin colony Not a penguin... But a shag chick we saw on the way to the blue penguin colony
The march of the little blue penguins! The march of the little blue penguins!
Some penguins just chilling Some penguins just chilling

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony

After the excitement of today, we don’t think we can handle what’s to come tonight: the little blue penguin colony. Oamaru has the largest colony of the world’s smallest species of penguins. Although it’s likely to spot the odd one waddling from the harbour, there is the option to watch little blue penguins return from the ocean in their masses from the stands of the Blue Penguin Colony.

We walk along a boardwalk passing tens and tens of nesting boxes until we reach the “premium” stand – the best seats in the house for penguin viewing. An announcer comes on the microphone, giving the rundown of how the night is going to go along with the rules and restrictions. Summed up, the penguins are wild birds and will do whatever the hell they want! No photography, filming or any electronic devices can be used. (We got special permission to use our camera). No moving, be quiet: just watch!

From Victorian Parades to Penguin Parades

And “watching” is set up particularly well here at the Blue Penguin Colony. Huge lights have been installed, lighting up the beach and nesting area with lights specially designed to not disturb the penguins. Seating is designed like sports stands, with the back seats raised higher than the front. Gaps in the fence between the penguin’s landing beach and their nesting boxes lead the penguins nearer the premium stands. (Oh, we see what you did there, Blue Penguin Colony).

Once everyone is settled down in their seats, all there is left to do is wait… It’s not until 9pm that the first “raft” of penguins starts piling in! As we saw at the Moeraki Boulders, the swell is pretty big today, so penguins are roughly washed onto the rocks. Then they must stumble their way up the rocks in their groups, waiting for each other in the shadows before one brave penguin decides to make a dash along the open area of grass, through the gaps in the fence, and into their designated nests. Once one runs, they all run, waddling as quickly as they can! It’s the cutest thing we’ve ever seen, but we can’t help but feel sorry for the little guys who feel vulnerable enough to have this strong instinct to move fast and stay in numbers.

New Zealand fur Seal Vs. Little blue penguin

On the opposite side of the stands, a New Zealand fur seal finds a good resting spot. Oh my God, are we about to see a massacre?!! Noooo, not the little blue penguins! The announcer assures us that the seal is not a predator of the penguins. Phewwww! However, they do compete for food, which, judging by the behaviour of one brave group, the penguin certainly know about. A group of little blues tentatively waddle up to the seal looking like they try to annoy it. The seal roars at them and lays back down in a grump. Those pesky penguins!

301 penguins!

Just after 10pm, there has been 301 penguins counted! Amazing! And now we get to make use of the boardwalk that gives us such great views of the nesting boxes. We see such close viewings of penguins mingling together around their boxes. This is essentially a little penguin village with houses made out of wood which humanises the whole thing.

The walk back to the Oamaru Backpackers is filled with stray penguins and us feeling pretty tired after such an eventful day! Catch us tomorrow, where we attend the biggest celebration of the Victorian Fete, as well as visit Steampunk HQ. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Watching the little blue penguins that are so small you can barely see them
Watching the little blue penguins that are so small you can barely see them Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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