So I’ve been back to Oamaru. Every 20 months or so the Oamaruchloridyans (technical term) in the neurons of my limbic system start vibrating and I start booking tickets to New Zealand, blindly ignoring the fact that my middle-aged body really doesn’t like being confined to the spaces of an A380 and an ancient 777 for twenty five hours. Why the highlight of the trip is of course always the reunification with the best antipodean friends one can have, there is the thrill of checking out how this neglected part of the southern hemisphere is doing.
This time things had happened in my absence: Oamaru won the contest of ‘sharpest town in New Zealand’ (whatever that means) and gained a 30 minutes feature showcasing its trippiness (technical term) on national TV. It also elected a new Mayor who – while not particularly on my side of the political arena – knows the district well, has great new ideas for the place and wants the district to prosper. He already planted himself firmly in the council offices, getting his hands dirty in the day to day operational bits. Good stuff. The council has finally cleaned up the harbour and made it a place you actually want to visit. Hooray!
Then there is the Whitestone Civiv Trust. It owns seventeen of the buildings in the Victorian district and its vision is
Preserving and developing New Zealand’s most unique collection of historic buildings into a living ‘Victorian Town at Work’.
Well, the ‘at work’ bit has obviously now been buried. Harbour Street is now filled with shops selling the usual Kiwiana naff and some bloke who makes tiles. The last surviving traditional craftsman is the man who started it all: Michael O’Brien and Marie Grunke are still working away in his bookbindery but these days income seems to come mainly from tourists who want to have their picture taken with the funny bearded man behind the counter. Shame about that.
On the other hand, there is Scott’s Brewery. Purveryors of some lovely, lovely beer (including an amazing Koelsch) and the employer of probably the only head-brewer who could just as well model for Chanel. They unfortunately had to move into the only building in the harbour I hoped to see being torn down, but at least it was put to good use.
So, Oamaru has gained and lost. Gained a good mayor, a good brewery and an upgrade to the harbour. It has lost (as usual) more trees in its hinterland, its right to call itself a ‘Victorian Working Town’ and another bit of its distinctiveness.
In a few years, probably nothing will distinguish it from Timaru. Or even Ashburton.