There was a surprise waiting for me on my recent trip to Oamaru, a coastal town of 13,350 people in North Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. I’d known before going that it had a “Victorian precinct”, an old part of the town down by the docks that had been restored as a tourist area to show off its handsome 19th century buildings.
What I didn’t know is it had also become steampunk territory: in fact, it is the declared “steam punk capital of the world”.
What is steampunk? It’s basically an art and aesthetic movement inspired by the industrial revolution and Victorian times, with an added science fiction element: think Jules Verne and H. G Wells originally, and more recently, Phillip Pullman. There are also films, TV shows, plays and music that are considered “steampunk”, including, for example, Rock ‘N’ Roll Train by the Australian band AC/DC and—wait for it—Justin Bieber’s version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, as seen in the 2011 film Arthur Christmas.
This was a brilliant marketing idea for Oamaru, and people come from all over the world to see the precinct. I went to Oamaru this month during a week spent in Dunedin (where I was born but spent only the first three weeks of my life).
There is an annual Steampunk NZ Festival here too, the next from May 30 to June 2, complete with an “absinthe night” and penny-farthing lessons. Tickets are pretty reasonably priced—$200 for an adult passport to everything, including food, for example. Read more on this here.
I have a few relatives in and around Oamaru, so after morning tea with my first cousin-once-removed, Ella, who has lived in the town for all of her 80 years, I took a 10-minute stroll down the hill to visit the Victorian precinct. Here’s what it looked like as I was walking towards it:
The precinct is very busy on weekends, but I visited on a weekday, when it was quiet and when the shopkeepers had time to chat to each other and me. Steampunk here seems to be, for many, a way of life rather than just a style.
There are loads of extraordinary galleries here, including the most famous, owned by Donna Demente, a top NZ artist who has settled in Oamaru. She is attributed with driving much of the fine-arts revival in the town, including the annual mask festival. I visited her wonderful Grainstore Gallery, which even allows visitors to take photos, so here are mine:
There are several other steam punk-themed events through the year. If you want to know more about Oamaru’s steampunk revolution, take a look at this fabulous video I found on by Anna Repp: