A few years ago, the small Victorian town of Oamaru embraced the steampunk manifesto whole-heartedly. It wasn’t about making a radical statement; it was more like finally diagnosing a rare condition. Oamaru had every steampunk symptom imaginable: a cobbled Victorian precinct, vintage bicycles, a hat maker, and mock British battalion clubs. When push came to shove, the progressively retro citizens only needed to reorder their moustache wax and start collecting aviator goggles. I had anticipated something manufactured and gimmicky, but what I found was surprisingly genuine.
David Wilson, the owner of Oamaru Cycle Works and a blond handlebar moustache, was every bit the gentlemanly Victorian adventurer he appeared to be. Carrying only what fit inside custom saddlebags, David rode a penny farthing from the southernmost Stewart Island to the tip of the North Island. If you have ever driven the hilly landscape of New Zealand, you would understand why he is the only living resident of Oamaru with a sculpture in his honor.
Another proud Oamaruvian, Michael O’Brien, not only had 30 years of bookbinding experience but also looked the part of a scholarly artisan. Under his tidy charcoal vest was a white dress shirt, rolled up to the elbows. His full red beard said lumberjack, while the dark tie and beard combo said 19th century craftsman.
Everything in the narrow, little shop was handmade. While Michael told us about his background, I picked up a journal with marbled paper like a psychedelic oil slick. I knew I was going to buy it as soon as my fingers traced the sea foam bubbles and flipped through the thick acid-free pages. Since credit cards weren’t too popular amongst Queen Victoria’s subjects, I got a discount for paying cash.
Barret and I were so enchanted by the seaside city, we decided to return that Sunday for the Victorian Fete. It was a sunny day and Oamaru was flooded in period costumes, steampunk creations, Irish bagpipers, buskers, shoe shiners, food vendors and tourists. After a few circuitous rounds, a stop at the Grainstore Gallery, and a couple beers, we waited for the International Stone Sawing Competition to begin. Not that anyone came from far and wide to compete. In fact when I heard there was an open position, I all but dragged Barret to the sign up sheet. As he is a far more sensible drunk than I, he declined while I joined.
I was worried my inebriation would result in severed fingers (or at least a gristly cut), but I still found myself before a giant block of limestone and a saw blade longer than my arm. My heart pounded as I gripped the smooth wooden handle while my feet searched for equilibrium. As soon as the whistle sounded I was off like a bolt of lightning. My arms pumped back and forth, plunging the blade deeper into the rock, creating a cloud of powdery beige dust that covered my legs. Take that New York competitor! Up yours New Zealand!
My stamina must have lasted 30 seconds before I suddenly felt tired. Very tired. Each draw of the blade seemed to cut less rock while simultaneously requiring more energy. Next thing I knew, the race was over and I still had a way to go.
“Do I have to finish?” I asked the ruddy-faced MC.
“Yes,” she smiled at me before pulling out her microphone. “YES YOU HAVE TO FINISH.”
The crowd giggled but I didn’t care- I was focused, determined, and a little drunk. If I had done something stupid like not given up on myself or caught a second wind, I would have had to compete in the second round. NO THANKS.
It was the one time in my life I was relieved to come in last; which, coincidentally, also happens to be sixth place in the world.
How to get to Oamaru: Three hours south of Christchurch on State Highway 1.