Adventure in Oamaru

Weather: Cloudy.
Temp: 11C

Turning into the Main Street of Oamaru reminded me of many small Australian towns. A mental model fractured over on the right-hand side by a series of grand stone Victorian buildings.

“Oooh, let’s definitely stop and take a look down there” advised Kelly.”

For some reason, I felt this hurry to keep going. Perhaps because the TomTom GPS navigator was set to the next town and urging me onwards. Perhaps because that cluster of stone buildings led down to what TomTom labelled the Oamaru Harbour Tourist Park, and I had visions of the usual gift shops full of New Zealand greenstone and tea towel traps.

But, thing is, we were NOT in a hurry. We didn’t even know where we were going to stop for the night. And Kelly has a habit of making me pull in to places that in retrospect I always would have regretted missing. And at that very moment, a magnificently ample parking spot opened up right in front of us on the main street.

So it was settled. I shook off my illogical pent up momentum to be somewhere else further up the road and pulled over to the kerb.

Oamaru Port was a dangerous place

Back in the mid-1800’s Oamaru was a dangerous bit of coast. More than 20 ships wrecked in the area and at one time there were four large vessels simultaneously eviscerated along its beaches. Before this the Maori tradition tells of the Arai Te Uru an ancient canoe that ran into distress, losing its food baskets that washed ashore as the nearby Moeraki Stones.

Steampunk HQ

Crossing a railway line and a short walk from our parking spot we wandered into the Harbour area proper. A giant sentinel steampunk engine guarding the frontier. OK… well this is a bit cool.

As soon as we rounded the corner into the street I was glad we had stopped to check this place out. Not at all the expected same-same tourist shops, but instead, a corridor of bespoke, eclectic and arty, crafty studios. All requiring further investigation.  

“See?”, said Kelly. “Aren’t you glad we stopped here?”

I let the comment bounce away with an elasticity vulcanised over years of being proved utterly wrong in instances much like this.

“Oh look”, I redirected, “a Bakery…. I’ll bet they have fresh coffee and croissants!” 

But first….a croissant

They did. And they smelled delicious. I carried my fresh haul out to share with Kelly who was even now long gone. Deep down the rabbit hole of holiday retail therapy. 

You see, this is exactly what we are looking for when travelling in a commercial tourist-centric location. A place with lashings of interesting history, access to good coffee, and offerings of local artisanal products that are not mass-produced or mass replicated or found in any number of other tourist locations in the southern hemisphere. 

Life as art

Have you ever walked into a shop and felt you were being watched?

I scurried up a narrow wooden staircase to find Donna Demente’s Grainstore Gallery on the second floor. An amazing place (I can’t even call it a shop) that is described as showcasing a mix of drama, pre-Raphaelitism, taxidermy and metaphysics. Donna is said to live her life as art itself, and her life it seems is replete with ostrich eggs, Venetian paper-mache masks and a thousand manifestations of human eyes. Eyes looking on, and down, and across in a 360 degree palate of unsettling windows to the soul. I have never felt so watched.

Next up I ambled aimlessly through Riverstone Larder, Oasis Oamaru, and Lavish Soap, and spent a long time looking at a selection of Japanese prints in Presence on Harbour a shop of ‘groovy stuff for groovy people’ no less.

Adventure books

Then I walked into Adventure Books.
Specialising in rare publications and leaning precipitously towards mountain and polar adventure in particular, this was most excellent. 

Have I told you how much I love browsing second hand and independent book shops? This one ticked all my boxes.

Over against one wall sits a 23-foot replica of the lifeboat that the Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew used to flee from their stricken vessel Endurance, eventually making it to South Georgia 1,330 km away. There is even a 1919 copy of Shackleton’s book South that documents the epic journey.

Shelves were lined with so many fascinating books to stumble through. But not just books, there were maps and models and a constant discovery of lovingly curated adventure related assortments. We may have to extend our trip. 

First edition books from one of my favourite authors.

Wow… a signed first edition of Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book The Snow Leopard. One of my favourite reads ever. Next to it a ditto copy of The Nine-Headed Dragon River. Sitting in front of the display is an old faded photo taken perhaps in Nepal of Matthiessen posed with the bookshop’s owner Bill Nye.

I chatted to Bill for a while. A super plesant Texan who worked as a chemical engineer all over the world (including two rotations in Antarctica) and finally moved to New Zealand to fulfil his dream of running an adventure bookshop.

By-and-by he offered to sell me The Snow Leopard for a special steal at $500NZD. I nearly choked on a small residue particulate of croissant before quickly proffering that this was about $440 outside my budget. Wouldnt it be great to be in a situation where collecting special things like this is a feasible thing? Perhaps in my next life.

I could have lingered in this bookshop for much longer, but I figured I was overdue to catch up with Kelly. I found her at the end of the street and we took a little time to walk the old seawall out towards Sumpter Warf in the crisp afternoon sun. Sumpter, completed in 1884, was built to load ships with frozen mutton and lamb bound for the United Kingdom. It was a busy time for the town back then what with dredging the harbour, building port infrastructure, and growing local industry. In its collective haste to move forward and be somewhere further down the road, it nearly died, narrowly escaping bankruptcy and soon becoming known as the best built and most mortgaged town in Australasia.

A lesson not lost on me.

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2 responses to “Adventure in Oamaru”

  1. Great Pics and Story as usual…wondered where you were… hadn’t posted for awhile….


  2. I must admit Oamaru is on my list of places to one day visit, it has quite a reputation. Collecting books is a challenge, you need to stumble across that rare edition and hope the person selling does not know what they have but even then I think I would feel guilty if I paid a few dollars for a book worth much more. Rare books are a bit of a temptation for a librarian and I think I would have been tempted by that edition of The Snow Leopard, unfortunately my budget does not stretch to $500. Happy travels.


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