Donna Demente's Masks
The Historic Precinct in Oamaru is New Zealand's most complete Victorian streetscape, it’s not just from another time, it seems like another world. Largely built between the late 1860’s and early 1890’s, many of the buildings were designed by John Forester of ‘Forester and Lemon’. He was the bricklayer/self taught architect behind many of the phenomenal whitestone facades in the area. Today, these large and impressively decorated buildings still hold a stately, even ghostly presence. A key thing to remember while walking the streets of Oamaru is ‘Look Up!’ the carved rooflines and vintage signs are not to be missed.

During the 1860’s, Omaru was the breadbasket of Otago’s gold fields. If you are wondering why the main street is so wide, it’s because bullock teams towing huge wagons of wheat couldn’t complete a three point turn. So the wide boulevards had nothing to do visionary town planning, they were built to enable bullock team U-turns.

Today, the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust is working hard to restore the Historic Precinct. It may appear ghostly, but with a little exploring you will find a host of artisans’ beavering away, freshly baked bread, eclectic retailers, and a chance to sample fine whisky. One of the best examples of a historic rebirth is he Criterion Hotel. It was closed in 1905 with the advent of prohibition, and has been fully restored to a working Victorian style pub.

At The Grainstore Gallery, Donna Demente’s papier-mâché creations and paintings fill one of the most lusciously creative galleries that I have ever seen. There were echoes of the movie The Labyrinth, the storybook Alice in Wonderland, the poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, Buddha-like faces, Botticelli cherubs and completely unique other worldly creations. It was more than obvious why Donna won the top awards at New Zealand’s World of Wearable Arts competition. The
Whisky Gallery kept me visually captivated, and I could have spent hundreds of dollars with Vaughan at Lazy Cat Pottery and Tileworks.

Jason and his team of chefs at the
Loan & Mercantile served up the best Ploughman’s Platter that I have had anywhere in the world. The indomitable Fleur of ‘Fleurs Place’ (the award winning restaurant at Moeraki) has recently bought the Loan & Merc, and with the aid of some gentle arm twisting convinced Jason (a world class chef) to come to Oamaru.

While struggling to choose exactly what part of the ploughman’s feast I wanted to put on my freshly baked bread, I happily babbled on about Oamaru’s amazingly creative inhabitants. Jason, with his quiet South African accent smiled and said ‘Yes, it’s a happening town, and I won’t be leaving anytime soon’, which collaborated nicely with my sentiments of ‘I’ll be back’.

Oamaru is only an hour’s drive from Dunedin, and I’m already scheduled to return in November for the annual Victorian fete, New Zealand National Penny Farthing Championships and World Stone Sawing championships. All combined, this will make for an extraordinarily interesting weekend.

If you only have one day to spare visit on a Sunday because the Woolstore Market is full of an infinite number of treasures; simply go with some spare change, a blank memory card on your camera, and a desire to explore.

Whitestone streetscape
Sunday Market
Neo Gothic architecture at its best.
New Zealand’s only castle was built out on the Otago Peninsula in 1871 by William Larnach. It took 200 workmen three years to build the foundations and the Castle’s structure; and master craftsmen continued to work on the interior for another twelve years.

The story of William James Mudie Larnach is just as intriguing as the castle itself, and reads like a script from a soap opera. He was born in 1833 in New South Wales Australia to parents of Scottish decent. He started his career in banking during the Australian gold rushes, and when gold was discovered in New Zealand in the 1860's he was offered the position of manager of the Bank of Otago in Dunedin. He and his beloved first wife Eliza sailed for Dunedin in 1867.

His investment portfolio and personal wealth was built through his merchant empire, shipping, farming, landholding, politics and speculation. For twenty-five years, he was a cabinet minister in the New Zealand government, and he was a trusted advisor of Richard Seddon.

In total, he had three wives. Two were short-lived, one became a lonely alcoholic locked in her bedroom, and Connie his third wife was rumoured to be having an affair with his oldest son. Adding to his woes, his favourite daughter, Kate, died of Typhoid. His untimely demise occurred 1898 when he committed suicide in Committee Room J, in New Zealand’s House of Parliament.

I took Mum and Dad to explore the castle and its grounds, and they were both impressed with how the Barker family have developed the property and continued their mammoth restoration project. Since 1967, they have scoured auctions and antique stores to refurbish the Castle with its original treasures and other furniture for that period of New Zealand’s history. Restoration of the Castle itself has taken decades and the ruins have finally returned to their original splendour. Inside the carved ceilings, mosaics on the floor, collection of New Zealand antiques, and hanging staircase (which was built without nails or screws), are all looking magnificent.

On a sunny day, the view from the battlements at the top of the tower proves why Dunedin is such an amazing place to live. The Otago Peninsula and Harbour stretch out into the distance, and you can see why the manicured Castle grounds complete with statues and art installations has been registered as ‘A Garden of International Significance’.

Larnach Castle is another example of a place worth visiting on a sunny day in Dunedin, and a building with a social history that could be part of a Hollywood movie, if only walls could talk!

View from the battlements
Coquet Lawn
Give us a Kiss!
Penguin Place, on the Otago Peninsula is home to endangered yellow eyed penguins. Set on a private conservation reserve, the site was created by Howard McGrouther in 1985. Back then there were only eight breeding pairs of yellow eyed penguins in the area, thanks to Howard’s foresight and dedicated team there are now over 19 breeding pairs nesting in paradise.

The penguin tours fully fund the project and pay for the upkeep of the nesting area, the world’s only yellow eyed penguin hospital, predator and replanting programmes, and the employment of a marine biologist and team of tour guides.

The tour takes around ninety minutes. Tim, our guide, was one of those rare individuals who genuinely adores his job, and telling the world about the very rare yellow eyed penguins. We visited the auditorium first, learnt about how ‘Penguin Place’ came to life, and some of the reasons why the yellow eyed penguin or Hoiho - which means ‘noise shouter’ in Maori, is unique.

The yellow eye is the third largest penguin species in the world, being outsized only by the Emperor and King. Unlike other penguins, they are very territorial and like a sense of space. Each year they stake their claim on a section of coastal property and together with their mate for life build a nest to lay their two eggs.

Sadly, their choice of nesting site, down on the ground on a small section East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, is also home to their land based predators. Stoats, dogs and feral cats see penguin eggs as a must have delicacy. They aren’t really safe off shore either, orcas and seals find the penguins a tasty snack, and they often drown in fishing nets.

At the on-site penguin hospital there were no bird’s predation injuries, however, it was sad to see the number of undernourished birds. With the La Niña weather pattern, the fish supply has not being close to shore and the young penguins have simply starved.

A short bus trip over the farm to the Eastern side of the Otago Peninsula took us to the penguin reserve. There is WWI trench like system with viewing bunkers covered in camouflage that allowed us to get right up to the birds. It was the middle of malting season, so the birds had spent four weeks over feeding and then come to land to shed their coats.

The second part of the tour is above ground; we walked out to the ‘Bachelor Pad’ a rocky point overlooking the beach where adolescent New Zealand fur seals come to ‘hang out’. We also saw the little blue penguin breeder boxes and got an aerial appreciation of the ‘trench system’. This really is THE wildlife tour to do while in Dunedin, it is by far the most intimate wildlife experience, and I can’t wait to go back in December to see the chicks. All I can say is 'Thank the universe!' for people like Howard McGrouther and his family who created this amazing place.

Aerial view of Penguin Place
New Zelaand Fur Seals
Inside the Tunnel System
Oputae – Ralph Hotere’s sculpture garden is in the shadow of the Flagstaff on Observation Point, overlooking Port Chalmers. Set in a garden full of native plants, the four sculptures once lived in Ralph Hotere’s studio which was demolished in 1993 to make way for new Port facilities. In 2005, that the Port of Otago and Hotere Foundation Trust landscaped the garden and created a new home for the works of art.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a gaping ‘but the emperors naked’ kind of gal when it comes to modern art. I prefer things that I can recognise and associate with, as opposed to the completely abstract. The writer in me always wants to know the story behind the piece of art. What was the context? How did the artist doing come up with the idea? What was their real inspiration? Did the pile of bricks fall over and need to be re-glued?

Interestingly, all four of these sculptures intrinsically caught my attention, despite my leaning towards the ‘artistic philistine’ end of the highbrow scale. I completely forgot about my camera, and it took two circuits of the garden paths before I even took a single photo.

1. Chris Booth of Kerikeri – Aramoana. For me, the name Aramoana conjures memories of walking out the Mole to the black and yellow pole lighthouse, and the 1990 massacre. To me the sculpture seemed part ‘old school’ power pole (similar to the ones that still stand on the West Coast), mated with a ships mast. I guess a shipping theme is appropriate for the Port Chalmers setting. Further research uncovered that Chris was actually making a statement about and a protest against a proposed aluminium smelter out at Aromoana in the early 1980’s.

2. Shona Rapira Davies - They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky. This reminded me of the Maori creation story where Tane created space for the world to grow by pushing Ranginui – Sky Father and Papatūānuku – Earth Mother apart. At the same time, in a more literal sense the figure seems to be breakdancing on bricks. I got a shot of smugness when I found out I was right on the money with the creation story, although Shona was also commenting on deforestation and the need for conservation.

3. Brick Column – Russell Moses of Palmerston North. I thought this was a little bit like a smaller more ceramic version of Len Lye’s 45 metre high ‘Windwand’ in New Plymouth, combined with the chimney at the Brunner Mine site just out of Greymouth.

Supposedly the bricks are symbols of the land and man’s attempt to tame and control the landscape. Turns out these particular bricks also have an interesting history. In the late 1800’s, the bricks arrived in New Zealand as ballast aboard ships that sailed from Scotland. The sculpture is also meant to reflect the history of bricks and was made in the shape of a kiln. The iron bar on top is from one of the Port’s now gone ship building sites, and like the ‘Windwand’ it once swung round in the breeze. Today it points firmly to towards the Port of Otago.

4.The ‘Black Phoenix II’ by Ralph Hotere - This was my favourite, it has an airy ‘Take your last breath before we go under’ feel about it. The word ‘Phonenix’ is literal, this is the actual hull of the Poitrel, and its keel really did rise from ashes to become a piece of art. It was once a fishing vessel that was caught in a fire at Miller and Tunnage (a boat-building firm) in 1984.

Given that this garden is free and only a fifteen minute drive from the Octagon I think it rates as one of Dunedin’s, possibly New Zealand’s hidden, sparklingly good gems. It‘s not just about the sculptures either, the views of the Dunedin harbour and the landscaped native garden are also matchless. 

They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky
The ‘Black Phoenix II’
Wooden Coal Box by the range.
Fifty-Six Eden Street was the home of Janet Frame and the rest of the Frame family (her parents, 3 sisters, 1 brother and Grandpa) from 1931 – 1943. In my mind Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame are New Zealand’s two greatest writers. I studied Janet’s work, yet for some reason hadn’t remembered that the 'Kingdom by the sea' in To the Is-Land was Oamaru.

Ralph Sherwood was our tour guide and the official Curator of the house. He is one of the most passionate JF supporters that I’ve ever met. Although, given JF’s incredible ability to mix words, and create memorable phrases, it is not hard to see why he is so addicted.

Ralph explained that house is a mixture of ‘truth, memory and imagination’. It has been altered over the years, however, the Janet Frame Trust has worked hard to furnish the house and create the world of the Frame family. I was magnetically drawn, to the coal box beside the range in the kitchen which is where Janet used to read, and her original desk and typewriter in the back room. For the $5 entry fee this is a house really is the embodiment of the old school cliché ‘Hidden Gem’.

The coal box beside the range where Janet used to read.
Peter & the Elderslie Mansion
Bev and Peter Rodwell are today’s guardians of the Elderslie Estate. They live in the old coach house and carefully tend the organic gardens, which are remnants of a John Reid’s Victoria masterpiece. In 1864, John came over to New Zealand from Elderslies in Scotland and he began to acquire his 35,000 acres while working for the New Zealand Company.

The original Elderslie mansion was completed 1874 and became the home of the Reid family and their seventy servants. The prized gardens were landscaped and planted over two years before the house was built. These grew to include sunken, herb, vegetable and rose gardens, and a 100 metre long hot house. A number of old world trees were planted by international dignitaries, and Peter with his ride on lawn mower has added his own touch by creating a labyrinth.

The homestead was the entertainment hub of Oamaru’s high society. The ballroom had a sprung floor, the dining room table could seat 24 people, and the banquets were legendary. Distinguished guests included Governor Grey, and Lord Kitchenr. Perhaps the most famous gathering was the 1876 garden party for over 3,000 people. This was held in celebration of the first rail expedition reached the Waiareka Valley.

The estate was also the birthplace of Phar Lap, and Peter has photos of Night Raid (sire) and Entreaty (dam) amongst his memorabilia collection. The stables are still standing (just), and the coach house is not only Bev and Peter’s home, it is also the pack house for organic walnuts and other goodies.

The original Eldeslie mansion was destroyed by fire in 1957. In a roundabout way, the buildings demise occurred because of alcohol, or lack of it. In the 1950’s Oamaru was caught up in prohibition and the owners of the estate decided to create a ‘Cabaret’ in the main homestead. This would allow the white-collar workers of Oamaru to drink while they recreated. In the rush to refurbish the original copper wiring from 1939 was not replaced. It is thought that the fire was caused by electrical arching.

Photographs of the blaze suggest that a mountain of marshmallows could have been toasted that evening. Especially since the fire brigade did not believe that the building, which was supposedly made of stone could burn down. It turned out that after an earthquake in 1882, the original stone in the front part of the building was replaced with wood made to look like carved stone. A timely reminder to check your wiring!

The Original Homestead
The Head Gardeners House
Grand Entrance
In the 1860’s John Reid, a successful land developer moved from Scotland to New Zealand and worked for the New Zealand Company. He managed to acquire large tracts of prime land in Northern Otago which became the 35,000 acre estate known as Elderslie.
John Forrester Reid was the eldest of the twelve Elderslie children. He inherited the Burnside Homestead when he turned 21, and the homestead which was built in the mid 1890’s as his wedding present from his parents. The gardens are both extensive and equisit. The landscaping for the house actually started two years before the building began, and has been described as a “Slyvanian enchantment”. John, his wife and two children, plus a household of seven servants lived here until he died in 1928.

The Hudson family (think biscuits and chocolate) bought Burnside in 1930, and in 1974, the Albistons took over the estate. Since 1995, Brian and Alison have run the property as a country lodge. Today, when you arrive at Burnside you will be met by the Albistons at the homesteads grand entrance. The front door is framed by a gabled roof and a veranda that circumnavigates the living areas.

The main house has twenty rooms, which encircle the Great Hall. This octagonal hall is not only remarkable because it has eight sides, but because it is cloistered like a cathedral, complete with its own rose glass windows.

I was intrigued by the historic artefacts set right throughout the homestead. There are Edmonds baking powder tins in the kitchen, antique linens and even an ‘old school’ porcelain toilet. I could have sat and listened to both Brain and Alison tell stories of the Reid’s and homestead life for days. I think I will have to go back if only to try some of Alison’s homemade cheese and chutney and hear some more stories.

Stately dining Room
Antique lines in one of the guest rooms