On the South Island of New Zealand, there is a small sleepy town called Oamaru. This otherwise ordinary town has the surprising distinction of being the steampunk capital of the world. Additionally, it is home to Steampunk HQ, the only museum of its kind. Indeed, a visit to Oamaru should be on the agenda for every self-respecting steampunk. In fact, anyone with the slightest interest in alternative culture or an appreciation for unique and innovative art will love this bizarre museum. There is, however, more to Oamaru than steampunk. As a matter of fact, everyone will find something to enjoy in this unusual kiwi town.
What is Steampunk?
The term steampunk was coined in the 1980’s and is a subgenre of science fiction inspired by Victorian industrialisation. It is, in fact, a whimsical combo of Victoriana and retro-futuristic technology. Think War of the Worlds meets Mad Max. Indeed, steampunk’s influence can be seen in art, literature, fashion, along with movies and even music.
More to Oamaru than meets the eye….
Seventy miles north of Dunedin, on the west coast of the country, Oamaru is the perfect setting for the Steampunk HQ. In the first place, Oamaru looks like any other kiwi town. On the other hand, dig a little deeper and you will discover that there is more to this surprising town than meets the eye.
The elegant cobble-stoned Victorian precinct is crammed with restaurants, galleries, antique, vintage and steampunk shops. One of the shops is The Victorian Wardrobe (4b Harbour Street). Volunteers attired in period dress hire out costumes to those wishing to fully get into the Oamaru spirit. In fact, it’s quite normal to pass locals on the street decked out in Victorian-style clothing. Although it seemed unusual at first, by the time we left Oamaru, we were taking it for granted. Additionally, Taylor Made Oamaru (9 Tyne Street) specialises in steampunk curios and accessories.
For a kid’s recreation area with a difference, check out the children playground next to the waterfront. With its giant penny farthing and Indian elephant, even the playground has the industrialised appearance associated with the steampunk genre.
Embracing an Alternative Culture
What is more, Oamaru’s residents have embraced the sub-culture for which their home town has become known. Farmers have joined the movement by creating funky sculptures made from farm equipment scraps. In fact, a steampunk festival is held every year attracting steampunk aficionados from all over the world. Additionally, many of the restaurants and cafes in town have a steampunk theme.
Oamaru’s highlight is undoubtedly Steampunk HQ (1 Itchen Street). In fact, a visit to the museum which opened in 2011, is a weird and wonderful experience. Originally, the building that the museum is housed in was built in 1883. It was called Meeks Grain Elevator and was used by grain traders. Back in the day, it was an important focal point in the town. As a matter of fact, at one time, the booming port of Oamaru was bigger than Los Angeles.
You can’t miss the imposing structure of Steampunk HQ. Not only is the museum impressive, but there’s a full-scale train engine positioned in front of the building. What is more, the train belches out fire and smoke when $2.00 is dropped into a slot. Additionally, the exterior of the building is decorated with giant black metal flies along with a skeletal fisherman who sits on the roof.
Crossing over into another World
The yard surrounding the building is full of industrial parts and sculptures-in-progress. In addition, there are some funky completed pieces including a huge rusty chopper motorbike. When you venture from the daylight into the building you enter a world of post-apocalyptic madness where nothing makes sense.
A grim reaper stands on the deck of a ship as smoke rises around it, not to mention the dental chairs that look like instruments of torture sitting in front of flickering tv screens. A sinister looking skeleton drives a tractor. Indeed, at every turn there are weird sculptures made from recycled materials. Furthermore, flashing lights coupled with background effects add to the bizarre and oppressive atmosphere.
The Portal is a light machine which transports those who enter to an alternate reality. Additionally, a mirrored space with hundreds of lights creates a fantastical experience usually only accessible while indulging in illegal substances.
When the sights and sounds of this compelling museum have been exhausted, take a stroll to the Woolstore next door. On the first floor, The Libratory created by Damian McNamara (steampunk name Damotimus Tipotus) is a gallery space where the local steampunk community display their artwork and sculptures.
Blue Penguins, Giant Boulders and a Kiwi Author
There is, however, more to Oamaru than steampunk. Indeed, the town’s other claim to fame is being home to a colony of blue penguins. The world’s smallest breed, they waddle ashore at sunset every evening. In fact, sometimes there are as many as two hundred shuffling onto the beach – a spectacular sight indeed. Additionally, thirty miles along the scenic coast road, the famous Moeraki Boulders are a favourite day trip from Oamaru. The group of huge boulders are scattered on a sandy beach like gigantic marbles. As a result of their unique appearance, they are one of the most popular attractions of the South Island.
Oamaru was the childhood home of Janet Frame, one of the country’s most famous writers. The house that she lived in (56 Eden Street) has been preserved as a museum and is open to the public during the summer months. Janet suffered from mental health issues for much of her life. As a matter of fact, she was awarded a national literary prize just days before she was due to have a scheduled lobotomy. The procedure was cancelled.
A Few Facts…
Steampunk HQ is open every day from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm. The entrance fee is $10.00 for adults, $2.00 for children and a family ticket is $20.00.
The annual steampunk festival is held at the end of May and is the liveliest time of the year to visit Oamaru. It is a four-day event and includes workshops, markets, parades, parties and more.
In June 2016, Oamaru was entered into the Guinness Book of Records for holding the largest gathering of Steampunks.
Four-Seater Pedal Punk Bikes can be hired from the Steampunk HQ carpark – perfect for cruising the town in true steampunk style!
At the time of writing, New Zealand still isn’t open for tourism. When we can finally return to the lovely ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, make sure you have a look at the latest information on individual websites for updated opening times and other changes that may have been implemented. You can check out the latest situation on COVID-19 at New Zealand Tourism.