What Oamaru is known for, insofar as it’s known for anything at all (I’d certainly never heard of it before planning this trip, but then, I’d never really researched tourist destinations in New Zealand before I knew I was going there), is its cute Victorian town centre, and its colony of little blue penguins (it’s on the coast, so they come ashore here to make their nests). The penguins don’t come out until evening, so we missed seeing them, but thanks to Steampunk HQ, “New Zealand’s Premiere [only?] Steampunk Attraction,” we did get to spend some time appreciating Victoriana (well, neo-Victoriana, anyway).
In the past, I’ve admitted that I don’t quite “get” the whole steampunk subculture (I understand being fascinated by the Victorians, but the gears’n’goggles thing seems a bit unnecessary), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting steampunk museum exhibits and the like from time to time. And Oamaruans are clearly very keen (in addition to this attraction, the town hosts a steampunk festival every year!), so I decided Steampunk HQ was definitely worth seeing. It is an art installation type dealy right near the centre of town (it’s not that big of a town) that is hard to miss on account of the huge steampunky airship (I feel like steampunks would say airship rather than blimp) sticking out of the side of the building. Admission is 10 NZD, which I guess is not too bad in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I’d probably part with a fiver to see something this intriguing in the UK.
When we got there, we were greeted by a couple of guys sitting outside at a picnic table, one of whom turned out to be one of the artists featured in the museum, and also the person working the admissions desk whenever a visitor showed up. We parted with our money, were given a brief introduction to the interactive bits, and somewhat apprehensively entered a dark, industrial-looking room, to be met with a slightly sinister, delightfully bonkers mechanised world. This strain of steampunks are clearly fans of the skulls-and-black-clothing aesthetic that I embraced in my youth (I guess that’s where the “punk” part comes in), as the HQ was full of monsters, skeletons, and weird Minotaur looking figures. A female robotic voice welcomed us when we entered, and various things made noises as we made our way through the dimly-lit space (we were also the only people wandering through for most of our visit, which definitely enhanced the creepy atmosphere).
The first interactive we encountered was the organ, pictured above, which played a variety of random sounds when you pressed the keys. Sounds like that Close Encounters of the Third Kind noise they beamed into space, drumbeats, or random dialogue that I guess was supposed to blend together into a sort of song, but in practice you couldn’t really play chords because one noise stopped when you pressed down a second key. It was still cool though. There was also a mechanical elephant you could ride for $2, but it specifically said for under 10s only, so I didn’t risk my adult-sized ass on it, though I dearly wanted to.
The back room of the installation/museum was similarly full of splendidly random and disquieting sculptures, including a ship used in some Russell Crowe film (I think) made by the Weta Workshop (Peter Jackson’s company; same guys who did the Gallipoli exhibit in the Te Papa post) and re-purposed to be more steampunk.
The other main interactive thing, and in my opinion, the best part of the whole experience, was also back here: The Portal. Upon pushing a big red button (because who doesn’t love to do that?!) and closing the door behind you, you were transported into a mirrored sound and light show that was really, really cool looking. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to go back in, but more people showed up by the time we finished with the courtyard, so I didn’t get the chance.
The courtyard was also pretty cool; it was full of random broken-down looking junk (including a big vat thing with a hole in the middle amusingly labelled as “toilet,” though by the looks of the floor, someone may well have used it for that purpose). I wasn’t too sure if you were actually supposed to climb on the “art,” as everything looked rusty and unsafe, but my tetanus shots are up to date, so I took a chance, and didn’t injure myself on anything! It was fun climbing up and into stuff; kind of like an semi-dangerous playground for adults.
There was also a small gift shop attached to the front, selling postcards, pins, and black t-shirts and things, and a few more pieces of steampunk animal sculpture, along with a story about their creator, who sadly died from cancer when he was only 37 (and only 10 days after the birth of his daughter, it really was a sad story). Although it didn’t take us more than half an hour to see the entire attraction, it was definitely a really unusual stop, and I don’t regret going (in fact, I think I would have actually regretted it if I missed it, if I had somehow seen how neat it was inside). Plus it was a great way to break up the long drive from Christchurch to Dunedin. 4/5.