Historic Oamaru

People in the rest of the world probably don’t think of “history” when they think of things to do and see in New Zealand. Generally foreigners are drawn more by the country’s stunning scenery, the opportunity for adventure activities like bungy jumping and jetboating, and the country’s great food and wine. While those things are all indeed part of many visitors’ experiences in New Zealand, if you’re looking for the “real” New Zealand, then there are other things you might want to consider looking into.

In other parts of the world, there are storied destinations like Athens, Beijing or Machu Picchu that draw visitors to see the ancient sites that have been in people’s history books for ages. But while New Zealand may not have as long a history as those cities, that’s not to say that it has no sites of historical interest.

Oamaru, as luck would have it, is one of New Zealand’s best-preserved historic towns, with an intact centre comprising numerous lavish and elaborate buildings built in the latter half of the 19th Century out of the local limestone, betraying the belief of the residents of the day that Oamaru, with its excellent harbour offering easy transport to London of the gold, wool and lamb being produced in the area, would become the major centre of the South Island. Unfortunately, the promise of Oamaru’s harbour was not to last long, and the town remained much as it was when it was first built, leaving an indelible legacy for us to enjoy today.

Visitors to Oamaru will be amazed not just by the beauty of our buildings, but by the fact that many locals live and work in full Victorian regalia, day in and day out. Also, Oamaru may be one of the last remaining places where penny farthing bicycles are in common use and where visitors can try one out for themselves (and in fact, one Oamaruvian is currently on his “Oamaru Ordinary” on a potentially record-breaking bike tour covering the full length of New Zealand!).

While it is certainly possible to come to Oamaru at any time of the year and enjoy our historical legacy, this history truly comes alive for the annual Victorian Heritage Celebration in mid-November. In 2011 it will be held from 16 to 20 November, and there is a full roster of events and activities to entertain the whole family (which you can see by clicking here). Or you can come in autumn (April) when the Totara Estate, the source of New Zealand’s first frozen lamb exports, holds a Harvest HomeFestival, complete with demonstrations, sales of home made chutneys, jams and relishes, and all sorts of activities. In fact all year long there are events that show off our town’s amazing history, so there is no bad time to come!

By the way, here are some little-known facts about Oamaru:

  • The cable informing the world that Robert Scott and his party perished on their return from their expedition to the South Pole was sent from Oamaru in 1913;
  • The famed New Zealand writer Janet Frame grew up in Oamaru, and she fictionalised the town in her book, Owls Do Cry;
  • Oamaru is the birthplace of All Blacks captain for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Richie McCaw.
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