In his 1981 book Landmarks, Kenneth Cumberland called Oamaru ‘Kiwitown’, the archetypal regional servicing centre, with its shops, stock and station agencies, railway and, of course, its harbour.
Ports were the beachheads of colonial expansion. No town could prosper without one. Those that had natural harbours spent huge sums deepening them to accommodate ever larger ships. Towns that lacked natural harbours spent even more money – ‘Harbors where nature has not provided them’, as Otago’s provincial harbourmaster complained in 1868 – and risked bankruptcy doing so. Napier, New Plymouth, Timaru and Oamaru all built big artificial harbours to stay in the progress game.
Oamaru Harbour closed to shipping in 1974 and is now a registered historic place. It’s the best place in the country to see how and why all New Zealanders once depended so heavily on sea transport.