Oamaru, a town in New Zealand, is famous for its historical white stone architecture and Blue Penguin Colony. But penguins are not the only reason to stay a while in Oamaru. This town is also famous for its Steampunk Festival, its associated Guinness World Record and because it is now considered as the “Steampunk capital of the world”!
Oamaru, population 14,000, is situated in the Otago region, in the southern half of the South Island. Oamaru Harbour is famous as the home of a blue penguin colony. But it is also well known for having the best-preserved collection of Victorian architecture in New Zealand.
In the late 19th century, the town prospered through goldmining, quarrying and timber milling.
Driving along the town’s main street today you’ll pass the usual international outlets: McDonald’s, KFC, etc. But turn away from the main drag and you’ll discover a rich, historic charm and stunning Victorian Precinct with a variety of shops, antique galleries and pristine Victorian architecture.
If you keep going, you’ll find yourself in a weird Steampunk wonderland, with a Steampunk-themed children’s playground and the Steampunk HQ museum, stationed by the railway tracks. The streets are peppered with strange people all around the streets who seem to have stepped straight out of the 19th century. Welcome to the capital of Steampunk!
What is Steampunk?
It refers to a fantasy world that could have existed if Victorian heritage had influenced modern-day inventions. As a genre of books, films and games, Steampunk is set in the world of Victorian science-fiction. The science-obsessed Victorians were the first to create speculative fantasies about what we might be able to achieve with technology: HG Wells’s The Time Machine, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
Steampunk novels combine high-tech fantasy with Victorian era surroundings. It describes a genre of speculative fiction in which steam, not electricity, drove technological advancements.
In short, Steampunk is modern technology—iPads, computers, robotics, air travel—powered by steam and set in the 1800’s.
The look pre-dated the term: since the 1960s, writers who grew up loving these Victorian fantasies have been creating their own universe – full of clanking machinery, brass spectacles, ingenious clockwork inventions by eccentric professors, and – the signature Steampunk item – flights by zeppelin. High tech Victoriana can be found in Disney’s ’50s and ’60s adaptations of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
More recently, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass is pretty Steampunk, David Bowie’s turn as Tesla in the 2006 film The Prestige was quite Steampunk, and Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Junior were very Steampunk indeed. Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Alan Moore took up the style and made it their own, in films like Baron Munchausen and Alice In Wonderland, and comics like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Handmade crafts site Etsy currently lists more than 50,000 Steampunk-style products to buy including fob watches, computer keyboards made from original Victorian typewriters and multi-lensed goggles.
How Oamaru Became Steampunk Capital of the World
The movement in Oamaru has been widely credited to jewellery-maker Iain Clark, also known as Agent Darling.
In 2010, Clark persuaded The Weta Workshop, the Wellington-based special effects company, to donate nearly an entire shipping container of leftover items from the making of the Lord of the Rings movies for a Steampunk exhibition.
Clark says that many of the residents of Oamaru weren’t originally very receptive to the Steampunk idea.
But despite the early resistance, the movement took hold in the farming community when local farmers showed an intrigued curiosity for the trains, machinery and gadgets associated with Steampunk.
The movement grew and Oamaru now hosts regular gatherings devoted to Steampunk mania, culminating in the annual festival.
It’s a Record!
During the Steampunk Festival in June 2016, the celebrants decided to try for a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of Steampunks in the world.
The previous record number was 185. It was achieved by The League of S.T.E.A.M. at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California, on July 24, 2010, according to the official Guinness website.
They broke the record when 228 people dressed up in their finest Victorian garb with an imagined futuristic twist: Oamaru became the Steampunk capital of the world.
Steampunk NZ Festival
1 to 5 June 2017
The Premier Steampunk event of the Southern Hemisphere in Oamaru.
And if you can’t go to New Zealand this summer, why not try the Lincoln festival in Great Britain? It’s closer to home and it would be a very special experience and a good way to enjoy some Steampunk culture.
Asylum Steampunk Festival
Lincoln, U.K. 25th – 28th August 2017
Chris Stephenson/New Zealand Tourism