Oamaru and the Coastal North Otago - a place lost in time.
Updated: Apr 22
‘There is no past or future. Using tenses to divide time is like making chalk marks on water.’
Early April in New Zealand means that summer is over and autumn is surely on its way. The days are shorter now and I can feel the morning chill when the bus from Dunedin drops me by the road side. From where I am standing I cannot see the sea, but the green hills covered in grazing sheep and a dark line of pine trees on the horizon. I walk along the dusty road towards the campsite. A kereru is observing me from the electric post. Seeing this native bird is meant to be a good omen. I am going to like it here!
My destination today is Moeraki, a small fishing village and a former whaling station on the Pacific coast of the South Island. Moeraki, in Maori, appears to have two meanings: ‘sleepy sky’ or ‘a place to rest by day’. Both are accurate. Indeed, if it is the tranquillity you seek, you have come to the right place! On this autumn day, when all tourists are long gone and the locals prefer to stay indoors, the village has a forsaken look. I pass several houses on my way, but I see no one.
In the 19th century European settlers had the ambitious plan to establish here the biggest harbour in the north Otago. The railway leading to Moeraki was built and opened in 1877. It operated only for two years. The competition from other ports, like Oamaru, and the difficult terrain, led to the project being abandoned. It was not meant to be! Moeraki’s destiny was clearly to remain a place where you can forget the time.
The strong wind makes it difficult for me to pitch my tent, but it doesn’t matter. I am looking towards the ocean. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the horizon, where the water ends and the sky begins. In the early morning the landscape in front of me is hazy and pale blue, on a sunny day it is a brilliant turquoise, in the evening indigo dyed silk seems to envelop the world. From where I set up my tent I can see the fishing boats: mere specks of colour on the blue canvas of water. I can see the old jetty with its famous restaurant, Fleur’s Place, built from recycled materials on the ancient whaling site. It’s shack-like, grey-blue exterior blends marvellously with the surroundings and looks oddly timeless and precarious, as if it has been washed ashore.
What drives people to Moreaki, apart from the fresh fish and seafood at Fleur’s, are even more famous boulders, that are scattered across the Koekohe beach, two miles away from the village. Their peculiar appearance makes them stand out in the otherwise familiar landscape. Local Maori tell the story of how the boulders came into being: they are part of the cargo swept on the shore after Araiteuru, the canoe sailing from Hawaiki, was wrecked near Matakaea (the Shag Point). Despite their alien appearance, the boulders are in fact part of the sea bed and became visible as a result of the coastal erosion. They began to form millions of years ago, around small shells, pieces of wood or bones, and grew over time; now some of them weight several tones and measure 2 metres across.
If prehistoric boulders are not your thing, you can walk to Katiki lighthouse, that has been guiding the ships here since 1878. Katiki Point is a wildlife reserve and is a perfect spot for penguin watching (yellow-eyed penguins nest here). Although penguins are shy creatures and only come out at dusk, fur seals sunbathe here in large numbers throughout the day. The view from the southern tip of Moeraki Peninsula gives you the glimpse of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. It is a magnetic draw for all romantic souls: you could sit here for hours, eyes fixed on the horizon, imagining the adventures on the open seas.
If you are in the area, don’t forget to visit Oamaru, a charming harbour town, famous for its limestone buildings, nearby Archaic Maori sites, and Janet Frame, who spent her childhood here.
Archaeological digs near Waitaki River and at Awamoa revealed the rock shelters covered in archaic art from the Moa-hunter phase of Maori culture, that is around 12th century. The walls of those limestone caves are covered in charcoal and ochre paintings of abstract forms, birds and people.
Limestone is abundant in the area and has been the primary building material in Oamaru. Known as ‘Oamaru stone’ it gives the town its character and is also broadly used by local artists. Oamaru, with its creamy, elegant buildings, quiet streets, windy harbour favoured by fur seals, spotted shags and little blue penguins, is a place that will grow on you. Walk up the Eden Street, past the house where Janet Frame used to live, and climb up the hill to see the panorama of the town, as she might have seen it: a lonely harbour facing the vast ocean, a quiet and ordinary place of daily miracles, a place forgotten in time and space. Oamaru in autumn is far away from everything that is noisy and busy, like a lazy seal lying on its back, that forgot to move. Time has no meaning here, the past, the present and the future dissolved in the surrounding waters and only responding to the tides of the Pacific Ocean.