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Oamaru Dunedin

10th January 2012

A Walk Around the Whitestone City and a Stroll by the Moeraki Boulders

The Taciturn Limestone Sculptor
Oamaru Has Streets Like Those in San Francisco
    Rain through the night foretold what the morning was going to be like. As it continued to shower, I caught up with my laundry and blog chores, then I headed to downtown Oamaru.
    A cursory glance revealing what appeared to be whitewashed buildings. Further study revealed I couldn't be further from the truth. In the latter half of the 19th century, the town served as a commercial hub for gold-rush prospectors. Then, the growth of timber, farming and quarrying industries boosted the prosperity of the town, and the port became an immigration centre for a while. It was this prosperous phase combined with the discovery that the local limestone outcrops could easily be carved, that led to architects creating a settlement labelled as New Zealand's best-built town; "The Whitestone City".
    The prime ingredient for Oamaru's architectural wonders was whitestone, a stone easily worked with metal tools when freshly quarried, but hardened when exposed to the elements. Wandering around the Harbour and Tyne Street district, I feasted my eyes on the imposing buildings that graced the town. Harbour Street had an old rail track running down it, a reminder of the days when the town thrived as a busy port. Here, in the town's original commercial quarter, was an art ideal, a beautiful balance between unity and diversity: a diverse range of classic architectural styles ranging from Gothic revival, through neoclassical Italianate and Venetian palazzo, to Victorian, all unified in creamy white Oamaru stone. Oamaru was indeed a small well preserved historical town, the historic precinct serving as New Zealand's most complete Victorian Streetscape. The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust was working to restore the Precinct. While the historic area sometimes gave the impression of being deserted, several small businesses operate, which complement the Victorian Town Work theme. The Criterion Hotel, which was closed in 1905 when prohibition was brought in, had been fully restored to a working Victorian style pub. Nowadays The Criterion was renowned for its authentic beers and fine pork pies, in the tradition of the Victorian era. Sadly, it was closed on Tuesdays, and today was Tuesday. Coffee houses, secondhand book stores, craft shops, antique shops, art galleries and small museums made this an ideal place to chill out after the rugged outdoors Aoraki Mount Cook experience.
Tyne Street
    My eyes latched onto a sign in Harbour Street indicating the presence of a pottery inside the building. Inside was a chap busy cleaning the glaze off the edges of tiles before stacking them in a kiln. I looked inside the kiln and saw that glazed tiles were on shelves towards the top, but lower down tiles were just stacked up on top of each other. This really intrigued me, and the guy could see my puzzled expression. "Are you producing stoneware?" I asked. "No, it is all earthenware," he replied. "Ah, I thought if it was stoneware, you'd have a job separating those tiles stacked together on the bottom." He knew what I was talking about, but explained to me that the type of kiln he was using had a large temperature difference from top to bottom, and the tiles at the bottom would experience a biscuit firing whilst those at the top would experience a glazed firing. It all made sense then.
Harbour Street
A Jester in Tyne Street
    The chap came from Barrow-in-Furness, and had been in New Zealand for 12 years. He had learned that in this country, there is no real market for making pots, so he concentrates on tiles. The very large room that he had was not big enough for both manufacture and display, so he was in the process of taking on larger premises across the road, and then he would take on staff. He wanted to explore a more lucrative market, and had a vision of running residential courses, not just for pottery, but for painting and anything else that can be a money spinner. I told him that in the back of any art magazine in Britain, he'd find pages devoted to courses and I was sure many were taken up by folk who wanted the social outlet as well as the experience. "Tour operators are now realising that the older age groups don't want all the adrenaline fuelled activities that are being pushed all over the country, and this could be the area to move into," he added. There could be sense in that.
    He had some gripes about New Zealand, he reckoned half the nation were hardworking, and half were totally laid back, so much so that he labelled them slackers. As a for instance, in Oamaru's busiest two weeks, a lot of cafes close down while staff have a holiday, then the same cafes complain that they have not made much money over the year. I didn't fall into the trap of arguing, I wanted to be off soon.
    A few doors down was a stone mason first sawing a block of limestone, and then sculpting it with a hammer, then filing it, drilled a few holes in it, and then sanded it. The fellow had a mask on to keep the dust out of his lungs. A sign behind him quoted the common questions people ask, and provided the answers. This guy did not want to chat, unless I was a paying customer.
Examples of Oamaru Limestone Buildings
    Then there was the bookbinder, the baker, the vintage radio station playing vintage radio classics, an industrial workshop, a pattern making shop, a whiskey retailer and a collection of small buildings. The buildings would have all been imposing at one time, but inside they lacked TLC, and some of the roofs were makeshift affairs.
    On Tyne Street the Union Jack fluttered, and Victoriana lived on. I did pop into the town's art gallery, and saw an impressive exhibition by the New Zealand artist Rita Angus, who by accounts had lived a self-imposed tortured lifestyle, which was often reflected in her work. Quite often she would feel the need to deprive herself of something when beginning a new piece of art, it could be sleep, food or whatever deprivation she felt necessary, which did land her in hospital at one time through starvation. Her portraits were excellent, her landscapes didn't do a lot for me.
Moeraki Boulders
    Once I'd done with the gallery, I'd done with Oamaru, and it was time to move on. I left the town behind me and continued my trek to the deep south. A short distance south of Oamaru, slightly off the beaten track, lay the Totara Estate, which once played a major role in New Zealand's export industry. One of the by-products arising from all the sheep that roamed the plains was wool, and the country was a major wool exporter until the early 1880s. However, nobody had come up with an idea as to what to do with all the surplus meat; the country, although large, had a relatively small population. Then, a Kiwi pioneered marine refrigeration, thus enabling mutton to be shipped around the world. The birth of a new industry ensued. Sheep were born, raised, shorn, killed and frozen in New Zealand, but thawed and eaten in England. Butter soon followed the same trade route.
    Continuing my beeline south along the Pacific coast, I pulled in to Moeraki to view the Moeraki Boulders, almost unique in the world. According to Maori tradition, the boulders were gourds and calabashes, which were traditional Maori food, washed from the great voyaging canoe Araiteuru when it was wrecked upon landfall in New Zealand, some 1000 years ago. Geology painted a different story. Emerging from the cliff, as if being born from the earth, the boulders were septerian concretions formed some 65 million years ago. Crystallisation of calcium and carbonates around charged particles in muddy undersea sediments gradually formed the boulders in a process taking as long as four million years. The soft mudstone containing the boulders was raised from the sea bed around 15 million years ago, and sea erosion of the cliff was exposing the erosion-resistant boulders. Strewn along the windswept beach like giant turtle eggs, these beautiful spherical stones, some up to well over a metre in circumference, had tumbled down onto the beach and were slowly disappearing into the sand and sea.
Yet More Moeraki Boulders Being Bashed by the Pacific Ocean
    Sweeping down the east coast, I crested a hill and saw Dunedin shimmering way down before me, nestling in its green belt against a dramatic backdrop of forested hills, at the head of a long ribbon of silky-smooth water, the Otago Harbour. From my vantage point it was recognisable that the harbour and hills around Dunedin were the remnants of an extinct volcano. The city suburbs extended out into the surrounding valleys and hills, onto the isthmus of the Otago Peninsula, and along the shores of the Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean. It was a grand spectacle. The city was formerly called New Edinburgh, but the name was later changed to Edinburgh's old Gaelic name, Dunedin (Dun Edin, meaning Edin on the Hill). To complete the Scottish trend, all the street names were the names of streets found in Edinburgh.
    It was late when I arrived in the city, so I decided to forego exploration until the morning.

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Oamaru Dunedin

Uploaded from Top10 Campsite, Dunedin on 11th January at 21:50

Last updated 11.1.2012