Steampunk HQ

Oamaru has another major attraction apart from the blue penguins, Steampunk HQ.

For those uninitiated, including Allan before this trip, Steampunk is a genre of science fiction based on historic times where steam-powered machinery is the norm instead of more advanced technology.

So, what is at Steampunk HQ?

Essentially loads of wacky inventions, machinery and interactive displays that could keep us 40 somethings entertained for far longer than seemed feasible. A lot of local artists have their designs displayed along with, frankly, totally random stuff.

Included in the exhibition/display are a huge steam train engine that spewed out fire, musical instruments (see Allan’s Bill Bailey impression here), video displays, a brightly coloured sculpture that predicted the end of the world every 78 minutes, old train carriages, 4m high motorbikes, rusting machines and a mirror-room with different coloured skull LED lights that does a 2 minute psychedelic display.

 

Entirely different to anything we’ve done on this holiday. An aural and visual hit to the senses. Didn’t really understand half of it. And the best $10 we’ve spent so far – bloody fantastic.

Oamaru: walk like a penguin

And so on to Oamaru, the New Zealand home of penguins and steampunk. Quite a reputation for a small place to live up to.

As our bus strains and splutters into town, we’re struck by the human-scale of the place. It feels odd to UK-dwellers, though US friends will be more familiar with the phenomenon, but most of New Zealand’s urban settlements, even those established when the main form of transport was the horse, are designed for cars. Not for them high-density living, no, why would you need a local shop when you can drive to the supermarket? Everything is stretched and, on foot, just a little bit too far.

So, Oamaru actually felt like a relief. Normal sized roads, shops clustered around a centre and things you can actually walk to. Joy!

We’d been let down by our original accommodation so were a little worried what the ‘offered alternative’ might be like. A short walk from the bus stop brought us to the front of…a charming little cottage nestled in an English country garden. When we opened the door, a perfectly realised Victorian interior awaited us. Polished floorboards, flowered carpets and patterned wallpapers, iron range and fireplaces and, everywhere, little era-appropriate knickknacks, including a wonderful 3-D stereoscope complete with one saucy picture in which you can see a lady’s legs! Miss Barclay’s Cottage is the place to stay in Oamaru.

We only have a couple of days here, and the weather has turned for the worse, so we decide that whatever happens we must see the blue penguins and Steampunk HQ.

So on our first evening we made our way to the far end of the harbour and the Blue Penguin Colony. Even on this short walk, we were the only pedestrians, and were keeping our fingers crossed for some street lighting for the journey home. On the way, we passed the end of a long pier, where a handful of seagulls squabbled over some fishy treasure. Lifting our eyes, we noticed a lot of cormorants sitting on the pier. And some more. And…ohmygodtheentirepieriscoveredincormarants! Hundreds of them seemed to cover every available inch of space, and they sat in silence. Spooky.

The Blue Penguin Colony itself is a well managed space. A visitor centre welcomes humans and then keeps them near, but carefully separated from, the wild blue penguins that use it as their home. They are tiny, about knee-high and, science tells us, also the cutest penguins in the world.*

As the sun starts to set, we take our seats at the edge of the water to await the arrival of the penguins. Luckily, we are not forced to listen to the crash of the waves or wonder at the gentle mystery of the ocean shore. Instead we get a long voiceover intro, in both English and Chinese, while children (who have an excuse) and adults (who don’t) ignore the requests of guides to stay seated, don’t make sudden moves and turn off electronic devices. Idiotholes.

We also see the cormorants, who must have been waiting for sunset, fly past in groups of a dozen or so. They follow the shore in a lazy line. It takes some time for that pier to gradually empty past us.

However, the first raft of penguins arrives and we are all united in wonder as they waddle out of the waves, pause carefully at the bottom of the rocks and then jump, wiggle and hop their way towards their nests. While we appreciate the dangers of anthropomorphism, in this case it’s impossible not to indulge because our brains have shut down and are just screaming ‘so cute!’ and ‘really funny!’

We got fairly lucky for this time of year, observing about 60 penguins arriving in four rafts over the course of an hour and a half.

Wandering homeward (yes, there were some streetlights) we encounter a deserted town centre. It’s just gone 9.30 and even the pubs are closing. I guess Oamaru still has a lot in common with the rest of New Zealand after all.

*This sentence was carefully crafted to irritate Allan to distraction. Job done.

Old friends reunited

We’ve been away from wifi over the past few days, so time to play a little catch-up with our posts.

Speaking of catch-ups, first on our list was a meet-up with Chloe’s old friends from university, Wendy and Ian. They moved to New Zealand over 15 years ago and are now in the process of moving from Christchurch to live in the South near Queenstown. A family trip to Dunedin was organised to coincide with our visit with their two adorable kids, Joe and Jamie.

We met up in the Portobello pub. It’s been around 25 years since Chloe has seen Wendy and Ian and it just like it was yesterday. To the casual observer, we look 25 years older but, weirdly, we all just see each other – the ‘us’ of 1990 is still our main image. If only everyone saw us like that!

We all relocated to the number one Dunedin eatery, handily located in our village of Portobello, the wonderful 1908 restaurant. Best food of the holiday, great wine and even better company.

We’ve learned very quickly that you can only trust the weather forecast in New Zealand about 30 minutes before you go out. Would Monday be cloudy, foggy or sunny? Luckily, we got ‘mostly sunny’, so we all piled into the family van and headed up the coast for the Monarch two-hour boat cruise where we, once again, were wowed with the scenery and the wildlife. We saw sea lions, masses of gannets, three sorts of Albatross (including the world’s largest, the Royal Southern, and one just sitting around on the sea without a care in the world). Even a slightly lonesome and very rare blue penguin was spotted, floating about attending to his moulting plumage, thanks to Joe.

We can fully recommend Monarch Wildlife Cruises. The captain expertly piloted us around the peninsula’s wildlife, somehow avoiding any rough seas and his commentary was full of humour including the top tip of “remember people, do shut your mouths when looking up, there’s a lot of big sea birds flying around!”. And he had a proper magnificent sea-faring pirate beard, as we believe all captains should.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, we had a drive into Dunedin stocking up on Jaffas (small red candy coated chocolate balls) and Maltesers. And onward to the steepest street in the world – Baldwin Street – officially 1:286, so for every 2.86m travelled we go up by 1 metre. Crikey. Possibly the most impressive thing we saw was the rubbish and recycling vans come and go down the hill whilst we were there. Oh, and Ian’s 4×4 car getting up to the top with all of us in it.

And this is why we bought the Jaffas. From the top, the task is to roll them down the hill and try to avoid hitting people on the way down. There’s a festival later in the year where thousands are sent down in a far more spectacular show. Just wonder what people the residents think about finding various confectionary in their gardens every day, but, hey, they must be used to it by now.

A great couple of days, it was lovely to see Wendy and Ian again (and for the first time for Allan) and to meet the kids. It was so nice of them to give up their valuable family time to spend it with us. As Wendy said, we better not leave it another 25 years, as we’ll all be 70 and we definitely wouldn’t be able to make it up Baldwin Street then….

Otago peninsula wildlife tour

One of the reasons we came down to this part of New Zealand was the Royal Albatross Centre. We’ve been watching with fascination their webcam of an albatross chick growing from a very small baby.

 

As ever, we received some very blank looks when enquiring about public transport options, so we booked a last-minute tour with 8 others by Elm Wildlife Tours which included the Albatross centre amongst other delights.

The tour started with a pick-up in Portobello and first stop was the centre. We first were taught all about these birds (over 3m wingspan, can live up to 60 years old, spend their first 6 years just floating on thermals around Antarctica or sitting on the sea without landing at all on land, then they mate mostly for life and have a chick every 2 years). Then came the visit to the look-out. Once again, we’ve been lucky with the weather. It was clear blue skies and moderately windy – perfect Albatross flying weather. The next 45 minutes was spent mesmerised by these huge birds floating on thermals within a few metres of the look-out, the “teenagers” occasionally landing and hanging out and cute big chicks patiently waiting for their food. What a magnificent sight.

After almost dragging us away, we were then driven to a private farm while seeing many types of geese, duck and wader on the journey. Arrival at the farm we were confronted by one side having a glorious beach and on the other cliffs and rock pools. To add to the drama, an almost horizontal tree reminded us that it’s not always blue skies and light winds in this part of the world. Both sides required a bit of effort to walk down, but well worth the effort.

First, we went to the cliff and rockpool side. What we were confronted with were hundreds of seals sleeping, going into the sea, coming back, the younger ones playing in the rock pools including a tug-of-war competition using seaweed between two adolescents. All the while, the noise of seal barking and waves crashing filled the air.

 

 

 

 

 

Next was the beach. A steep path brought us to a stunning white sand beach. We were warned about how much sea lions weigh (400kg), how fast they can run (15mph) and how far to stay away from them (err, enough distance). But, the simple advice is essentially, if the guide starts to run, we should too. We’re just about to step on the beach when, hang on, isn’t that 2 endangered yellow eyed penguins just standing in the sand dunes doing very little? Oh yes it is.

On the beach itself there were three huge male sea lions and one female. Fortunately they seemed pretty docile, but one definitely was keeping a beady eye on us while our guide was doing exactly the same back to him. There were some more yellow eyed penguins and one little blue penguin hiding out in a burrow. Compared to the rest of the day, the wildlife was in relatively short supply on this part of the tour, but seeing penguins live in the wild for the first time and the magnificent scenery more than made up for it.

A pretty rubbish movie compilation we made is available here.

All was left was a steep walk up the hill from the beach, a drive home with yet another glorious sunset over volcanic hills and finally another walk up the hill from Portobello to our apartment on the fantastically named Allan’s Beach Road.

Another stunning day.

Four seasons in one day.

We travelled from west coast to south east coast in two short hops thanks to Air NewZealand and maybe giving us our last look at the Southern Alps.

And therefore, we were welcomed to Scotland and totally bizarre weather.

 

Dunedin is very Scottish. The first song we heard at the local café was “Bonny banks of Loch Lomond”, it has roads named Edinburgh, St.Andrews, Leith and Clyde and has Scottish pubs and restaurants. We’ll find out more about this history in the coming days.

And to keep the Scottish theme, on the first day we arrived, we had rain, bright sunshine, mist rolling up, then down, the estuary and then clear skies at night.

 

We’re staying in a very small place called Portobello – yes, more Scottish references. There’s very little here apart from the best restaurant in the whole area, a hugely overpriced supermarket, a fish & chip shop, a pub and a café. And a bloody big steep hill to get to our accommodation. This seems to be getting a common theme of this holiday, but the payoff is always great views and this time our views stretch miles across the whole Otago peninsula. There’s also hardly any light pollution giving us fantastic starry skies. When it’s not foggy or raining of course.

Franz Josef – Part 2

Well, that was a day.

Chloe overcame her fear of flying, for 50 minutes anyhow, to do the “grand helicopter tour” of this area. We saw thick woodland, vast rivers, sprawling farming/grassland plains, three sparkling glaciers and two of the three largest mountains in NZ from the air. The icing on the cake/tour was a snow landing at the top of Fox glacier. We won’t say too much as the photos show the journey, but suffice to say, it was truly awesome scenery.

To top off a magnificent day, we managed to get a photo of something that didn’t cost us a budget-busting $450 each, namely the International Space Station. The streak of light going right overhead is the path shown in a 25″ exposure. Fantastic.

Below is our gallery of the day. We do hope this gives a flavour of it all and is an inspiration for everyone to investigate future holidays.

Franz Josef – Part 1

We arrived via our trusty InterCity bus in the very small village of Franz Josef. It is essentially 2 streets, one road with bars, restaurants, cafés, a supermarket and travel agents (probably 15 commercial places in total) and the other parallel street with the same number of small hostels/hotels. It is famous for glaciers, site-seeing of the southern alps, great walking and its own micro-climate. It is also famous for the fact that the main Franz Josef glacier shouldn’t exist. It is, according to experts, in an area of the world that is too warm (there is a rain forest right next to the glacier), at an altitude that is too low and not a high enough latitude.

It wasn’t a very auspicious start. The rain that we’ve been luckily avoiding all holiday so far was lashing down when we arrived in the early evening. There was no view, no chance of walking and definitely no chance of getting air transport to see the famous southern alps. This was exactly the experience of a few friends had when they visited here, but, we have 2 full days, so we may get lucky with the weather.

 

The next morning everything was transformed. Clear blue skies, the sun getting the mercury unto 23c and suddenly the whole town was buzzing. Literally buzzing, with helicopters that had not operated for the past 4 days, ice cream sellers appearing from nowhere and a view of misty mountains or snow capped peaks in every direction.

We decided to take a walk to the glacier area. We walked for an hour and a half from our hotel over big rivers, small streams, through the beautiful rain forest with trees coated in a shagpile carpet worth of moss to finally arrive at the main glacier car park – yes, glaciers have car parks! A short further walk gave us glacier and snow peaked mountain views reflected in clear glacier lakes with only the helicopters buzzing taking away the absolute serenity. I’ll now let the photos do the talking of our day, but next up, will Chloe go for a helicopter tour?  Answer is coming up on our next post….

 

Gorgeous with a lot of porpoise

Hotel check out was 10am. Our bus to our next destination was not until 3pm. So, what to do for 5 hours?

Negotiate a late check-out? No.

Catch up with the latest news? No.

Do a Hardcowtravels post from the Wild Food festival. Sorry readers, but that can wait.

Have a lovely coffee? Oh, yes.

Have a bacon & egg “breakfast” pie. Allan was temped and succumbed.

Go to the beach and see a school of porpoises and then see the azure Hokitika Gorge. Ah, go on then.

It was a pretty miserable day, but the rain just about held off for us.

The beach area here is pretty wild with driftwood and huge rocks on the jet-black sand. The port here during the gold rush was lethal with many shipwrecks during that era.

 

However, today’s attraction was a school of around six porpoises barely 20m from the edge of the water. There is a picture here, but it’s really not that good as I decided to stop and stare for most of the time.

 

 

Next up was a short tour to Hokitika gorge. We were warned by the tourist information office that on a cloudy/rainy day, it wouldn’t be that great. But, we still had plenty of spare time, so Hardcow and a Swiss tourist hired Hokitika Scenic Tours to take us to the gorge. A short 45 minute drive in the drizzle and we arrived at the entrance.

Once through the entrance, it all went a bit Jurassic Park. We immediately saw the dazzlingly blue river at the bottom of the gorge. There were oversize silver ferns, big trees and other immense green foliage. We wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d spotted a Pterodactyl flying over us. Barely 20 minutes walk down the pathway and we reached bottom of the gorge – beautiful. And yes, the river is really that blue, no colour enhancements needed.

And finally, just to say that the aforementioned Swiss guy decided to dive into the gorge. When asked, his view was “bloody hell, it was soooo f-ing cold” – his English teacher would be so impressed.

5 hours wasted in the New Zealand style. Love it.

Top grub – it’s festival time

Less than an hour journey and we arrive in town of Hokitika. There’s nothing much here and it’s even quieter and smaller than Greymouth. Well, we should say that it’s even quieter for 364 days of the year, except for one day when the population doubles to 8,000 for the Wild Food festival. We bought tickets months ago and were really looking forward to going.

It’s not called the Wild Food festival for nothing. Vegetarians, you may want to look away now…

A whole showcase of foods including seagull eggs, mountain oysters (goats testicles), huhu grubs (big fat maggots) extracted from freshly-cut wood. Would sir like to eat the huhu alive or fried?. There was deer seamen on toast, pigs snouts and fish eye jelly. There were plenty of takers for all of these delights, especially the huhu grubs.

There was also plenty for the less adventurous like us. We had bacon & avocado sarnies, mixed meat kebabs, veggie Nepalese dumplings, Spanish churros. Only a purchase of a pig’s ear counts as anything near wild and frankly, it wasn’t that good, one could almost say that the chef made a … (censored due to bad joke alert)

A main stage was available for musical delights. Starting with the Hokitika country music society showcasing their best, the NZ army band then played some classics and then our favourite of the day, Smashbox, getting the crowd dancing with covers and originals – see here for a flavour. The headliners of the day, Salmonella Dub went down really well (ironically, considering their name), but we only heard them from our hotel room as we’d retreated from the rain at that point.

Yes, it rained, but it didn’t seem to spoil all the paying public’s enjoyment of the day with many deciding on fancy dress – we loved the Tellytubbies and they kindly posed for a photo for us.

 

Later on in the evening, there were some very very drunk people around town. We spotted a few sorry souls who could barely stand up or communicate in a coherent way that reminded us of the Bigg market on a Friday night. But, it was all very good natured and didn’t see any trouble.

The next morning, there was no rubbish on the street or any evidence that there had massive party the night before. The only clue was the many severely hungover people frequenting the early morning cafés. By the evening, the village was totally quiet.

It does seem like the Hokitika locals have a real love-hate relationship with the festival. Hating the fact that it changes their entire town, but loving the extra income it brings.

The Wild Food festival brought us to a small village on the west coast for 3 nights and we loved it, so if you’re around NZ in March one year, you know where to go!

Now, how do we start a petition to get Smashbox to headline Glastonbury?

 

Beer, beer, beer

We have just a couple of hours until we leave Greymouth – just long enough for a tour of the Monteith’s Brewery.

Back in 2001, this brewery nearly closed forever. To be honest, it’s hard to imagine the original Mr Monteith ever dreamed his business would last so long. From what we read in the history room, he was a bit of a chancer (for readers of Terry Pratchett, think Moist Von Lipwig). However, a takeover by mega-brewer DB saved the site, most of the jobs and gave it the role of keeping Monteith’s West Coast history alive by dedicating it to a craft beer range. Seven beers at any one time, with a new arrival rotating out an old one every few months.

Two brewers, one master brewer, and a handful of other staff keep this pint-sized but productive brewery going. At bottling time, everyone lends a hand. You can sense a strong bond here – some have worked together for decades and our tour guide has know them since she was a kid, following her mum around when she worked here!

We get to meet the brewing team, see the last of the malt being drained and the resulting syrupy mixture already starting to boil in the vat. The tour doesn’t take long – there are just a handful of vats – but it’s fascinating.

The steamy, hoppy atmosphere is the thing that hits the senses most powerfully and is probably what we’ll remember longest.

Finally, a chance to taste the final products – we choose a mixture of dark beer, pale ale, lager and IPA. We don’t have long, though, so have to knock them back swiftly. Chloe doesn’t manage to finish hers but you can tell from Allan’s slight weaving that he has!

We board the bus to Hokitika feeling very mellow. Luckily, it’s just a short hop…