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It’s 9:30 on a Monday morning and I am sitting in the sunroom of the new Chez Dick, high on South Hill in Oamaru. Below me, wearing a garment of light early morning mist and smoke, the town stretches to the north. The dome of the large and impressive Roman Catholic basilica is profiled by the warming sun. To my right is the harbour, fishing and pleasure boats as still as the night, on waters that are like a mirror. Beyond them is the blue of the Pacific. The coastline curves as far north as the eye can see with white surf caressing the golden sands. To my left there’s a range of mountains that I suspect are the Kakanuis, separating us from Central Otago. They’re solidly capped with gleaming white snow.
There’s not a cloud in the sky.
Yesterday was the same, cloudless with a full day of golden sunshine and it was warm enough for me to wear just a T-shirt. I was astounded to see on TV that the maximum temperature was just 12 degrees. It was every bit of 16 or 17. I wonder where they record Oamaru’s temperature — in someone’s fridge?
After 25 years in Auckland. I have finally had enough of the traffic and am making plans for another life. It was always going to be the case, Auckland was never the final destination. I guess this is called planning your retirement, although, at seventy years of age, that should have started a decade ago.
Dunedin has always been home, but Confucius says once you get out of the water, the water closes behind you.
I gave a lot of thought to Central Otago, but it’s no longer the place I knew. Pinot, the Rail Trail and lifestylers from up north who have “discovered” Central have changed it.
So, we settled on Oamaru.
Because it’s the way New Zealand used to be. The biggest “café” in town is the Lagonda tea rooms where they serve great cheese rolls. There are proper Ponsonby style cafes as well where you can get a decent espresso and they probably do latte as well. There’s blue cod on the menu and 45 minutes south are McGregor’s mutton pies and the best fish and chip shop in New Zealand in Palmerston. Oamaru shop owners and tradespeople will still let you “drop the money in later”.
North Otago has a micro climate that makes it noticeably warmer and much drier than Dunedin which is only 75 minutes away. I can take that long just to get home to Howick from the office in Auckland on a good night. It’s almost a coastal Central Otago as regards weather.
While SH1 runs right through the place, traffic jams are unknown and after Auckland, getting across town is a matter of minutes and totally stress free.
Oamaru is probably the most undervalued town of any size and note in New Zealand. Housing here is so cheap that by Auckland standards it almost has no value.
The house we have bought is a miniature Larnach’s Castle. It was built from solid Oamaru stone in the late 1860s when money poured into the town on the back of farming success. Wheat, wool and then frozen lamb, plus a belief that Oamaru could rival Dunedin in importance ,saw boom times in Oamaru.
But the bubble burst in 1890 and Oamaru went into decline, leaving a base of some of the most magnificent homes and commercial buildings in New Zealand.
Oamaru has never climbed back to where it was in the 1870s and 1880s. In fact, it almost went into a time capsule.
If you were an Aucklander looking at Oamaru you could say the place is stagnant and there is no vision. That people here don’t appreciate what they have.
Some of that may be true, but the fact is that most Oamaru people like it just the way it is — laid-back, friendly, blessed with good weather and affordable lifestyle and affordable homes.
In Auckland, the large, gentleman’s Victorian mansion we bought would be worth $1.5 million. But, because it’s in Oamaru, we paid a fraction of that. What we paid for this house wouldn’t get you a modest three-bedroom house in a mainstream Auckland suburb.
For about 90 years Oamaru sat on a large group of very old buildings that most people thought should be bulldozed while, at night, penguins struggled ashore near the centre of the town making a nuisance of themselves with their continually calling to each other and doing poos on the footpaths. If they were in the middle of the road, they were fair game.
Eight years ago I visited Oamaru with my eyes open and was surprised by what I saw. The value of the town’s historic heart and the penguins, had been realised by some people. Tourism arrived. And some alternative lifestyle people also arrived. But from that promising start, things have come to a halt.
Oh yes penguins have put Oamaru on the tourist map, but the town’s historic precinct, while spectacular by any standards, is still very much an under developed gem.
But then, so is all of North Otago, from the historic precinct, to the wealth of other historic Oamaru stone buildings that just sit empty in the warm sun, right up the mighty Waitaki Valley.
There are some here who are frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress and a lack of vision in developing these assets. But most Oamaru people like it just the way it is — a somewhat sleepy town that services a large rural area that’s still relatively wealthy.
Values here are mostly conservative. In many way it’s like Ashburton and has the look and feel of old New Zealand, the way it used to be and the way that most of us would like it to be today.
The Navigator, Dillon the grandson, Psyche the dog and Boadicea the cat are resident in Chez Dick. But I haven’t shaken the dust of Auckland from my heels. A combination of several factors combined last year to put in place retirement plans a year or two early. So, I am a commuter to Oamaru as work on the two magazines I edit, NZ TODAY and CLASSIC DRIVER, will continue to be based in Auckland for some time yet.
But this means that “coming home” is more like a holiday.