FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Silver Fern

Posted in New Zealand, Oamaru by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

My trip to New Zealand has been a rare trip without trains, but at Oamaru I managed to see the rather distinctive Silver Fern Railcar operated by Dunedin Railways for The Oamaru Seasider excursion train during its hour long layover in the town.

NZR RM class Silver Fern at Oamaru Station

NZR RM class Silver Fern at Oamaru Station

I found an interesting spot to watch the Silver Fern leaving Oamaru, where the South Island Main Trunk Railway crosses Thames Street on the route south to Dunedin. I thought I would just see the railcar hurtle past but was more than a little surprised to see the railcar stop on the road and let passengers on from the street with the use of a step!

This railcar (RM24) is one of only three in its class, built by Nissho-Iwai in August 1972 and best remembered for their service on daylight passenger services between Auckland and Wellington up to December 1991. RM24 has been leased by Dunedin Railways from KiwiRail since 2012 and runs on regular excursions to Moeraki and Oamaru. It’s a beautiful looking vehicle and I’m glad to have seen one running.

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New Zealand’s coolest town

Posted in New Zealand, Oamaru by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

Our drive through the rain brought us to Oamaru, a coastal town whose shortlived commercial growth left it with a portfolio of beautiful Victorian buildings and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. It is also the destination that has raised eyebrows when I have mentioned it to New Zealanders, yet which Lonely Planet has described as New Zealand’s coolest town.

Oamaru at sunrise

Oamaru at sunrise

The arrival of persistent rain not long after we arrived threatened to put a dampener on our explorations, but we saw enough of the Victorian precinct to appreciate the drive to create something rather remarkable here, with a wonderful selection of art and craft shops, cafes and bookshops – all located in the most delightful of white stone buildings.

It is no exaggeration to say that the efforts of the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust and the small businesses occupying their impressive portfolio of carved stone buildings have really helped lift the town out of the decay that had absorbed it through the 1970s and 80s. However, it’s not the only draw – the town is also home to the North Otago Museum and Forrester Gallery (also in white stone buildings).

A short stroll away from the heart of the precinct you can find the Harbourside Station (trains operated by the Oamaru Steam Railway run here every Sunday) and the distinctive sight of Steampunk HQ (an unusual attraction with the most enthusiastic staff that I have encountered anywhere and the quite indescribable delights of a spectacular light show in a small mirrored room).

The former chief post office in Oamaru

The former chief post office in Oamaru

However, Oamaru is on the tourist trail for another reason entirely – penguins. Blue penguins, the smallest species of penguin, began nesting in a stone quarry here after it was abandoned in the 1970s. Today, the thriving colony is surrounded by a visitor centre and two grandstands which provide the perfect vantage point for watching the birds returning to their nests under the cover of darkness (you need to wrap up well as chances are that you’ll be in the grandstand for an hour or two).

The penguins started to come ashore in their ‘rafts’ at around 9.30pm tonight having assembled offshore first, their presence signalled by their distinctive quacking sound. Three or four rafts came ashore with a total of 205 penguins recorded by 10.30pm. When each raft come ashores the penguins make an almost comic mad dash for the entrance to their colony and shortly afterwards you can see them waddling to their nests in a more relaxed fashion.

One penguin had alternative plans, climbing through the fence into the spectator fence and hopped up onto the seating to the visible delight of a little girl on the next row up. After watching his fellow penguins for a bit he decided the life of a tourist was not for him and headed on to his nest.

The walk back to the hotel also included some unexpected close encounters of the penguin kind, such as by an upturned rowing boat on the harbour shore. A group of four blue penguins were pushing and shoving as they tried to get underneath and into the safety of the darkness! I now appreciated that the Penguin crossing signs along the waterfront road were no tourist gimmick.

One of the Penguin crossing signs on Waterfront Road

One of the Penguin crossing signs on Waterfront Road

It is also worth mentioning that the penguins are not the only birds to have appropriated land here. Spotted shags have taken over Sumpter Wharf, a rare wooden wharf constructed in 1884, using it as a spot to dry out after fishing in the local waters.

Postscript. It turns out that blue penguins on the Otago coast are actually Australian, having displaced the local penguin population when they arrived sometime between 1500 and 1900. Audio analysis has also revealed that they have a different accent to their NZ equivalents! The revelations have been made in a new study published on 3rd February 2016. The results have been summarised in the article Little blue penguins from Australia ‘invaded’ New Zealand.

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