Dear Oamaru, It Wasn’t Your Fault

I really wanted to like Oamaru as much as my friend B did when she visited. It’s hard not to fall in love with its historic district, with it’s bookstores, art galleries and cafes in Victorian buildings (hipster alert!). Just look at it.

The buildings in the Harbour & Tyne historic precinct
Penny farthings for rent!

It’s one of only three places (the others being Timaru and Dunedin) that feel this way now after Christchurch was ravaged by earthquakes. However, my experiences there had a rather unpleasant edge.

My experience in Oamaru

Bushy Beach lookout

Bushy Beach Road leads to a reserve that includes a cliff-top lookout. In the early evening, people gather here to watch the yellow-eyed penguins return from the ocean.

It’s a twenty-minute walk from the town along Tyne Road and Bushy Beach Road, a route that takes in some farmland with prime views. Well, the people I encountered were less-than-classy. A car full of yobs cruised past, and for no rhyme or reason, one of them spat at me. I was too shocked to react. There’s no need for me to post a photo of the phlegm on my jeans, and all I’ll say is that I never encountered such hostility in NZ in the preceding 4 months.

I tried it shrug it off as best as I could. If I’d wallowed in my anger, it wouldn’t have been fair to the magnificent view from the lookout point.

Bushy Beach Reserve

From the records that were on display, the number of penguins that had been seen recently was pitifully low, even for the month of March. It’s sad, yet expected since it’s an endangered species. At least we saw a few individuals waddling through the surf before we left.


Oamaru’s blue penguins

The town is also home to the same fairy penguins that folks flock to Philip Island in Australia to see. They return in the late evening to nests that they build around the pier, under the historic buildings and sheds and in the cliffs. At night, the sound of the waves lapping against the shore is drowned out by the shrieks of hundreds of hungry and waiting chicks.

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Today there is a penguin colony attraction at the end of the harbour. In Oamaru’s biggest tourist draw, visitors sit on bleachers around the beach and watch some the little birds make their way home. That’s all they’re permitted to do because photography and filming are not permitted.

There are many more nests outside this area, however. You’re just as likely to spot one on the beach next to the jetty or in the carpark leading to the colony at night. The little fella was waddling around in circles on the footpath, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

Other than snap a photo, obviously.

Many visitors know about these “outsiders”. Instead of paying to watch the spectacle, they loiter around the car park and the beach, and therein lies the problem. With no rules on animal interactions, some of these over-enthusiastic fans do whatever it takes to get their desired photographs. They would surround the penguins trying to cross the street, cutting off the routes to their nests, and use the flash on their cameras. It was a sickening sight.

The penguins made a break for their nests after I told some of the people to move aside. This was taken from behind a car 15 metres away.

I felt bad for the people inside the Colony who paid to be kept a considerable distance from the penguins while the irresponsible did as they pleased. I felt worse still for the birds.

All these encounters happened in a single day; when I look back on my very brief stay in Oamaru, the memory is tinged with sadness. That is a shame and I wasn’t able to fully relate to B’s excitement about the town. I’m sure it’s something a more pleasant return trip could take care of, however, and it gives me another reason to return to a country that has given me many more delightful experiences.

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Have you visited wonderful places that were marred by bad experiences?