It took me a couple of hours to get in the traveling spirit, to get into that mindset of curiosity and adventure and constantly pulling off to the side of the road to ask “why?” and “how?” and “when?” The major cities along Route 1 (excuse my lapse into the American term for highway) are spread out quite nice and even. After an hour on the road, I came to Ashburton, a city of about 17,550 that also happens to be known as Ashvegas. Now as tempting of a place as it sounds to visit, I decided to keep driving and after another hour, arrived shortly in Timaru. I hadn’t heard much about the second-largest city in Canterbury, except that it’s been featured in a song by New Zealand-band Deja Voodoo, “Today, Tomorrow, Timaru”:
I’ve been thinking about leaving this town
Saying goodbye to Caroline Bay
Since you left me how can I be happy here
I’ve gotta go away
So I get in my car pointing it north
Heading straight up State Highway One
Maybe tomorrow I’ll come around
But for now I’m leaving town
Today tomorrow Timaru
That’s where I met you
Today tomorrow Timaru
That’s where I left you
Although not the most uplifting of songs, I can imagine Timarunians being quite taken with the reference, as my hometown occasionally receives similar attention from the number of rap and R&B artists that have proliferated from the area (not to mention, Michael Vick…).
Two hours down and my third brought me to Oamaru, a town of similar size and name to Timaru, but one that actually got me out of my car. It was one of those moments where the road forks, the state highway continuing to the right, but your hands subconsciously turning the steering wheel towards the left, where a sign for “historic district” piques your interest. It was also the time of day when the mid-afternoon sun becomes absolutely radiant and spills the most golden of light over the city before setting. I was immediately struck by the architecture of the place, a main street lined with classical columns, flourishes, and Victorian facades, side alleyways still lined with remnants of cobblestone, turn-of-the-century lanterns, and even a penny farthing bicycle propped against the wall outside a bakery. How could I not be up for exploring the place?
I was in love. I found an unattended gravel parking lot, left my car there (probably against my better judgment), and set off towards the historic area on an absolute high, dare I say, giddy? Nothing excites me more while traveling than beautiful architecture, and here I’d unexpectedly stumbled onto a little piece of Europe tucked away along the coast of New Zealand. It’s funny how the guidebooks and websites say Christchurch is the most English out of the whole country, because clearly they never ventured further south. What European vibe I failed to feel to any strong degree in Christchurch was instantly found in Oamaru. A brochure on historic Oamaru titled “A Legacy in Limestone” writes that the city is home to “some of the finest 19th century streetscapes one could hope to find in New Zealand.” I’d never heard of the term ‘streetscape’ before but have now officially adopted it for frequent use. I walked through the Harbour and Tyne Historic Precinct, the original commercial district of Oamaru, “where the past becomes the present” as a guide service claims and where I listened with perfect contentment to the clicking of my boots against the cobblestones as it reverberated against the sun-drenched limestone buildings.
I should mention the limestone, as no visit to Oamaru is really complete without at least a brief introduction to the historical significance of the material. To learn a bit more, I popped into the North Otago Museum on Thames Street, who have perhaps the best slogan I’ve seen for such an establishment:
Where there are riches there are people; and where there are people, stories flow.
Being a writer and all, the idea of flowing stories was one too good to pass up, and once in the museum, I was pleased to find an excellent display on limestone. Quarries at Cave Valley and Kakanui were noted to contain massive quantities of the stone as early as 1875, and throughout the 1870s and 1880s, many of the main buildings had already been constructed from the local treasure of a building material. So much so, in fact, that Oamaru became known as ‘The White City’ and was admired for its “early appearance of permanence and stability.” Even today, the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust – established in 1988 – works to preserve the historic district. Good on ‘em!
In addition to limestone, Oamaru is almost as equally well-known for its blue penguin colony. Although I didn’t have time to wait around until they “came home” for the night (or the money, for that matter…) I did drive out to the complex and stuck around long enough to see a statue of a giant penguin carved from limestone. It was like everything Oamaru stands for, rolled into one. Brilliant! I could’ve spent hours more in this unexpectedly delightful town, but a schedule’s a schedule and I needed to meet up with my connection in Dunedin by six o’clock.
Before I powered through the rest of my drive for the day, I stopped off in Moeraki as well for a glimpse of the famed Moeraki boulders. Maori legend has it that after the legendary canoe, the Araiteuru, wrecked at Shag Point, a number of calabashes, kumaras and eel baskets washed ashore at Moeraki in the form of the large spherical stones. Take it for what’s it worth, I however was fascinated by them, scattered across a rather desolate beach (I almost wrote “littered,” but decided that wasn’t quite the connotation I was aiming for). A description of the route along the Northern Otago Coast had warned that the boulders were a huge tourist attraction and the beach would undoubtedly be crowded, but I suppose visiting in the dead of winter sort of minimizes your chances of that happening. Apparently, each stone weighs several tons and some reach three meters in diameter. Some are in tact, some have cracked and split, but all are septarian concretions. If that means as little to you as it did to me, it’s where minerals have built up around a central core over the years.
While I hopped around from boulder to boulder (okay, not really, but I wish! more like skirted around their base), I got a phone call from an employer in Queenstown confirming my hours and start date upon arrival. Everything was falling into place!
By that point, sunlight was waning and the cold increasing and I had places to be. Back in the car, I blasted the heat, scanned the radio for signs of life, and made it to Dunedin after a wonderfully excellent start to the trip.