The Secret Diary of Adrian Petford Aged 39¾

Oamaru – p-p-p-pick up a penguin

Posted in New Zealand 2009,Oamaru by Adrian Petford on August 19th, 2009

I must say I really love the feeling you get when you’re driving on an almost empty road, through stunning scenery and with the music cranked up. I haven’t used my iRiver MP3 player this trip yet; I’ve been listening to a Dunedin station called Classic Hits which is pretty good. I was quite sorry when I got sufficiently up country to start to lose the signal.

Moeraki Boulders, Koekohe Beach, Otago – 14-Aug-2009
Moeraki Boulders, Koekohe Beach, Otago – 14-Aug-2009

North of Dunedin the weather started to deteriorate, overcast and cold. The clouds were really low and covering the mountain tops which was impressive to see. I stopped off at the Moreaki Boulders, a group of stones which are almost entirely perfectly spherical which was a good rest stop and fortunately the walkway down to the beach was relatively short. I’m glad I’ve seen them, they really are very impressive and strange, although it was absolutely freezing so I only made it a short stop.

Then it was on to Oamaru and sunshine again. I found the Midway Motel relatively easily (it is very pleasant and comfortable and I’ve already made friends with Maggie, the resident cat). The host Karen is really nice and helpful. She gave me loads of good advice about things to do and see.

After a rest in the room, I walked out to have a look around town. I had lunch at the Whitestone Cheese factory cafe (recommended by Karen). Despite how it sounds, this was actually a healthier option than I’m usually doing on this trip – their six speciality cheeses served on a board with bread, crackers, apples, grapes and jelly. A very creditable ploughman’s!

It’s a long walk into town I must say, even though Oamaru is a small place. I carried on, taking photos of some of the impressive historic buildings on the other side of the road as I went, and eventually reached the Historic Precinct, one of the best collections of vintage commercial buildings in the country.

St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Oamaru built in 1875 – 14-Aug-2009
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Oamaru built in 1875 – 14-Aug-2009
Former Post Office (now Waitaki District Council offices), Oamaru dating from 1883 – 14-Aug-2009
Former Post Office (now Waitaki District Council offices), Oamaru dating from 1883 – 14-Aug-2009
Former Bank of Otago (now The National Bank), Oamaru built in 1871 – 14-Aug-2009
Former Bank of Otago (now The National Bank), Oamaru built in 1871 – 14-Aug-2009
Criterion Hotel, Oamaru built in 1877 – 14-Aug-2009
Criterion Hotel, Oamaru built in 1877 – 14-Aug-2009

Smiths Grain Store, Oamaru dating from 1881-82 – 14-Aug-2009
Smiths Grain Store, Oamaru dating from 1881-82 – 14-Aug-2009

This still retains a very Victorian feel and character. It’s a shame I won’t be here to see some of the things they put on to celebrate their history, such as the once weekly steam train on a Sunday. Having had a look around I walked back to the motel, intending to go to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony at dusk for the evening viewing of the penguins coming ashore.

At 5.30pm I drove there, it’s through and past the historic area. I was amused to see “Penguins Crossing” road signs as I approached, but it is a very real problem apparently as they come ashore trying to find the colony.

My winter coat got its second outing – they recommend you wrap up warmly and I’m so glad I did – as I immediately felt cold even before going out into the viewing area. This is a really well set up attraction. The visitors centre has some good information for you to read while you’re waiting to go out. There’s a viewing stand with tiered seating under orange light – the penguins can’t see that area of the spectrum so they just think it’s dark, but you get a really good clear view. The guide was very friendly and informative and watching the penguins come ashore was amazing. I was surprised how small blue penguins are, absolutely tiny! They came ashore in groups and we saw all sorts of behaviour as they found their way home. Some would run out of the colony to greet a new group as they arrived. I sat and watched for about an hour and a half, it was fascinating. It would have been great to take some pictures (they don’t allow photography) or even have binoculars so I could see better, but I still got a good view. This was worth the visit to Oamaru on its own.

It was lovely here during the day, but it’s really cold at night so my first task back at the motel was working out how to work the heater (more difficult than it sounds, you needed to activate a timer before it switched on – yes, in Otago heat is so precious that they must have to ration it!!)

I woke up the next morning feeling cold. Really cold. I stayed in bed as long as I could but even felt cold there. As a result it was a slow start to the day, but taking some time to relax was a sensible move. The day was overcast and rainy so I’m certainly glad I made the effort to do most of the attractions yesterday! I went out in the afternoon, first back to the Blue Penguin Colony where I had a tour of the Blue Wing (where you can watch the birds live in their boxes) and walk around the outdoor penguin boxes. It was all very interesting and informative. I bought the DVD which should be a good memento and noticed they offered the hire of binoculars as well. I wish I’d seen that last night!

Former NZ Loan & Mercantile Warehouse (now NZ Malt Whisky Company), Oamaru dating from 1882 – 14-Aug-2009
Former NZ Loan & Mercantile Warehouse (now NZ Malt Whisky Company), Oamaru dating from 1882 – 14-Aug-2009

Then it was time for some lunch. The nearby choice, Whisky was closed because their coffee machine had broken so I went to Fat Sally’s on the main drag which was recommended by Lonely Planet. This had some character – all sorts of historical bric-a-brac on the walls – and the meal, a mushroom garlic salad was very unusual and tasty.

After this, thanks to a tip from the blue penguin people, I decided to take a look at the Yellow Penguin Colony which is nearby. This is free – you just sit in a hide and watch the beach as they come in. I sat there for an hour and although I saw one, I was freezing cold so called time early.

I must admit I’ve revised my initial opinion of Oamaru, which was that it wouldn’t have enough to fill two days. It has been worth the visit, mostly for the penguins and has provided enough to do while being an enforced slowing of my usual frenetic pace which was much needed. I left on Sunday morning anticipating a spectacular stage of my journey – Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki and finally Lake Tekapo.

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