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The Peen-guins of Oamaru

(Reprint from News: January 12, 2002)

January 5, 2002


I left Timaru the next morning after checking out the Phar Lap memorial -- on Phar Lap road, next to the Phar Lap Lodge -- and continued driving down the coast on Highway 1.  A few hours later I reached the town of Oamaru (pronounced AH-maru, pop. 12,000).  I was going to drive on to Dunedin that afternoon but decided to check out this pleasant coastal town first. 


Here's Lyle Lovett singing about those sensitive Penguins.

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After driving through Oamaru around mid-day, I stopped at a DOC (Department of Conservation) Visitor Center near the beach on the far side of town and there, a cute, soft-spoken ranger told me about the Oamaru penguins.  According to the ranger, whom I could barely hear, there are penguins (or "peen-guins," as she quietly said) just about everywhere in New Zealand, but the best place to view them is here at Oamaru.  Apparently, there's a colony of about 200 penguins living in a protected area just a few yards from the Visitor Center.  The penguins spend the day fishing in the ocean and then return to the colony each evening around dusk. 


Believe it or not, on most summer nights anywhere from 100 to 200 tourists pay $3 each to sit in the DOC grandstand and watch the penguins emerge from the ocean, waddle across the dirt path and head back to their little huts.  And believe it or not, after the ranger told me about this, I decided to spend the night in Oamaru and check out the penguin show too, never having seen a penguin except maybe in a zoo somewhere.


I drove back into Oamaru that afternoon and found a room at the pleasant Heritage Court motel.  I talked to the friendly owner for a while and he gave me directions to the best fish & chips place in town.  As I'm discovering, fish & chips are the national dish here in New Zealand, so I stopped at the takeout restaurant and got a huge plate, and for only US$1.60.  I quickly discovered that fish and chips, when served with malt vinegar and some ketchup (oops, I mean "tomato sauce," as they call it over here) are much better than the disgusting mutton dogs which I'd been consuming for dinner (see News: January 1, 2002).


After dinner, I bundled up and headed back to the Visitor Center for the Amazing Penguin Show.  I'm glad I got there two hours early because the grandstands were soon full and the latecomers packed in, peering through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the penguins (or "peen-guins") as they emerged from the surf and waddled across the road -- the penguins, that is, not the tourists.  All the while, each penguin was quacking with its high-pitched squeal, sounding like a duck being strangled.  It was certainly interesting and Im glad I saw it, but sitting in a breezy grandstand for two hours on a chilly evening while waiting for penguins to waddle by is probably not something Id do every night.


Not only does Oamaru have penguins, it also has some amazing architecture and it's probably the prettiest city Ive visited in New Zealand so far.  Some parts of town made me think I was walking through London in the 1800s and there are even horse-drawn carriages, old penny-farthing bicycles (with the high front wheels), and a coal-powered train to complete the picture.  Oamaru is a delightful town and I spent several hours the next morning walking around and soaking up the 19th-century ambience.  This is definitely a place Id like to visit again, even without the penguins.


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Above left:  The penguin colony (left) and DOC Visitor Center (right) in Oamaru. 

Above center:  Sitting in the chilly grandstand that evening, waiting for the penguins to waddle in.

Above right:  Sure enough, the penguins showed up a couple hours later.


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Above left:  The folks in Oamaru are pretty protective of their penguins. 

Above center:  "Dairies," or convenience stores, are found throughout New Zealand.  They're kind of like 7-11's or Circle K's in the U.S. but they have a lot more character.

Above right:  Riding a carriage through Oamaru's historic district.


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Above left:  Tyne Street in Oamaru's historic district. 

Above center:  Street scene in Oamaru.

Above right:  I really love the layout of towns in New Zealand.  The shops are all packed together, not spread out like in the U.S.  This is Sunday morning, so there aren't any shoppers.


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Above left:  The architecture in Oamaru is fascinating. 

Above right:  Santa celebrating with Jim Beam.


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