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Spawning, Steampunk, and other Victoriana (Oomaru, New Zealand, November 8-9, 2010)

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We arrived in Oomaru, part of our as-yet-mostly-unblogged ten day road trip through New Zealand's south island, in order to watch as the famous blue penguins made their way back to their nests. I wish we'd had more time to spend, because the city is as quirky, cute and fascinating as its flightless waterfowl.

Penguins' Progress

Let's get this out of the way: the blue penguin may be the cutest creature ever, or at least cutest thing created by God as opposed to Hayao Miyazaki.

Actually, there's more than a little influence of Miyazaki in the blue penguin, as well as traces of Disney and Charlie Chaplin. The smallest breed of penguin in the world, they stand about twelve inches high, and are apparently as graceful in the water as they are clumsy on land. Their short stature makes it difficult for them to climb the steep hillsides rising out of their oceans to their nests. Intensely communal, they twist and turn their heads while looking at each other in a manner that begs for a voice over from a British comedian. To top it all off, they can't see yellow light.

This last disability is what allows them to be a major tourist draw. Every year they return to their nesting area to raise their new chicks. Proud penguin parents journey out into the ocean by day to scoop up small fish, and return each night under what they think is the cover of darkness to feed their young. The locals of Oomaru have cunningly constructed a giant stone ampitheater right next to the nesting area, allowing spectators to observe the progress of these penguins back to their nests under intense yellow spotlights.

It's comedy gold.

Even before the sun sets, the flocks of penguins swimming in to shore are visible as huge black patches on the horizon. An employee of The Blue Penguin Colony, who acts as lecturer and emcee of the evening, gives spectators the rules. First, no cameras: the penguins can't see yellow light, but they'll panick at flash, and are wary of the light given off by digital cameras. (Over the course of the evening, she got ever louder in telling off those who ignored her warnings.) Second, be careful of penguins: while the vast majority of them return to their nests via a route in front of the ampitheater, some get home by more roundabout routes, including the road from the parking lot. As you leave, check under your car before approaching it, let alone starting it, because you don't want to run over a penguin or have it peck you when you inadvertently get to close. And finally: those "penguin crossing" signs on the way in aren't just for display, so be careful on the drive out.

And then, as the emcee explains the biological processes and instinctual imperatives driving the little beasties, they start to arrive. A penguin landing is a cross between a Disney special and a Dilbert cartoon: although a few scouts made it to the beach before the first wave, they stayed on the shore honking until enough of their cohort had joined them to form an appropriate committee and discuss whether they should make the trek up fifty feet of rocky hillside. Clucking and squawking, they wandered around until they selected some poor sap to be team leader. Finally, after either suitable discussion or sheer pressure from penguins behind waiting to land, a cluster of the little blue fellows would waddle-hop their way upwards.

We got a special treat on our particular night, in that a large sea lion had decided to rest about half way up the cliffside. The emcee explained to us that the creature wasn't a threat to the penguins. The penguins were not so convinced, and resumed their huddle a few feet below him to collectively mull over this blubbery new obstacle. After a while, each clutch of penguins would decide to hop on past him, and most of the time the sea lion utterly ignored them. Every so often, however, he'd wake up, realize that he was surrounded by tiny blue refugees from a Pokemon deck and shout bloody murder, sending chastised penguins fleeing in every direction.

The whole landing process took about an hour and a half, by which time thousands of penguins had made their way up to their nests. After the first few parents arrived, unfed chicks started crying for their dilatory dinner. Once done feeding their young, early arrivals congregated on low hills above the nests, perhaps as lookouts, but with more of an air of coworkers gathering on a coffee break. A few poor penguins ended up wandering on the wrong sides of large rocks, unable to make it all the way up to the top. (Students at The Blue Penguin Colony observed them and assured that if there were an issue someone would find a way to help.) And while they might be wary of camera lights, the penguins weren't wary of people as such: some proceeded right up to the ampitheater and stared back at the tourists intruding on their dinner.

Oomaru

Here's how I think that Oomaru's city center was designed. A bundle of town elders got together, looked up the OED definition of the word "quaint," and bet that they could do better than that. The drive into town passes a few fast food restaurants before settling down into a broad central boulevard with shops, restaurants and hotels on both sides. Many of these try to outdo each other in small-town uniqueness and humor, with silly names, garish signs and window displays. I counted four coffee shops in as many blocks, none a chain. (For the record, however, the Oomaru public library offers something almost unheard of in New Zealand: free wifi.)

A glance at a few coffee shops made me wish that we'd had more than a day there. Every window was bedecked with advertisements for gigs by local bands, community theater productions, and unknown comedians. One enterprising duo advertised the Antiques Rogueshow, an improv act in which audience members were encouraged to bring items from home to see if they had any hidden value.

Around the corner from the main village is the Victorian lane, full of antique shops, book binderies, papermakers and other reminders of yesteryear. These more serious historical features have now been joined by a quasi-historical force: the Steampunk HQ.

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For those unfamiliar with steampunk, it is a sub-genre of science fiction that contemplates alternate histories in which modern technology (and especially computing technology) developed in earlier eras, generally without the aid of electricity. [1] A few examples of steampunk work would include the Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West, or the William Gibson/Bruce Sterling novel The Difference Engine. In general, steampunk art combines a Victorian aesthetic with anachronistic technology.

Apparently, a small band of local artists have really taken the Steampunk idea on board. They somehow acquired one of the older historical buildings as their headquarters and use it to make welded monstrosities to display around the town. A local coffee shop, the Steam Cafe, displays some of their work.

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When we drove through town, this "locomotive" adorned the plaza at the end of the main street. I couldn't tell if the display was connected with a steampunk exhibition at the local museum, or it if was a permanent part of the town.

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Up close and personal, it was lavishly, if somewhat ghoulishly, decorated. I thought the dragon on the front was a nice touch.

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By all appearances, the city is charmingly weird. Like what you'd get if you slammed San Francisco and the Gilmore Girls together very, very hard.

[1] I am sure this is not a precisely correct definition.

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2 Comments

Somewhat OOD in parts but Steampunk hit Oxford (UK) especially strongly in 2009 http://a-llusive.livejournal.com/134738.html

Of course the interwebs is full of things like http://www.friedpost.com/sciencetech/the-best-steampunk-gadgets-devices-ever-129.html and http://www.coolest-gadgets.com/20080613/the-10-coolest-steampunk-gadgets-ever/ but I continue to believe that the steampunk Palin comic is probably just wrong, though I haven't dared investigate fully http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/01/20/steampunk-palin-comic/

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