13 Oct 2017
Oban is a delightful coastal town in Scotland, population 8 575, according to Wikipedia.
New Zealand’s Oban on Stewart (now there’s another Scottish link) Island has 381 residents, so it is not so grand, it’s on the opposite side of the planet, but it is equally charming.
Over the weekend, I fell in love with this wee town at the bottom of the world and its quirky residents. It is the only settlement on an island thirty times the size of Manhattan, and no dwellings are more than a few kilometres away. The rest of the island is wilderness, populated by local wildlife and imported hikers of the more serious variety. After four days in the weather, the distinction blurs.
There’s only a few kilometres of paved road on the whole island, none more than five minutes driving time away from the scant grid of Oban. Ayr Street, Dundee Street, Argyle Street; might as well be back in Scotland, eh?
I dare say the first British settlers felt right at home. The weather here might best be described as Highland damp. We discovered that there was no reliability to it. We could look out one moment to a crystal clear blue day, and the next it would be hailing and raining and blowing a gale.
By and large, it wasn’t too dismal. The regular drizzle was light and tolerable. A hat and a light spray jacket, and you were adequately covered. I was a horrid sight to behold in wildly mismatched polyester clothing and a Route 66 cap, but I had an eye on minimal luggage and bathroom sink laundry, and cotton or wool clothing wasn’t high on my packing list.
On that note, a nod to Mountain Designs, whose clothing is now my preferred travel clobber, equally at home in a First Class lounge or trekking the wilderness. Their gear weighs nothing, packs down to a wafer-thin layer, yet provides protection against sun, rain, wind, insects and fashion police.
They said there’d be sandflies
Industrial-grade insect repellent, I was told. And lots of it!
My Australian-bought 200ml aerosol can was confiscated by security in Canberra, as likely to bring down a jet the size of a high school, and I’d had to buy a replacement in Wellington, which I snuck onto the domestic flight.
But did I see a sandfly that weekend? Did I feel them and feed them in their millions? I did not. Just having the repellent tucked up unopened in my camera bag was enough to work the magic. Or maybe it was the wind.
There’s not much to the place. The South Sea Hotel is the only pub, and it doesn’t run to ensuite bathrooms in its spartan accommodation. There’s a general store which is well stocked, though prone to the occasional shortage, and a town bulletin board outside. If you are one of the 381 residents and it is your birthday, expect a cheery wish for happiness on the board, along with your current age. There are no secrets in this small town!
The low building in the photograph of boats and snorkelling youth is the post office. It is also the air terminal. Passengers check in there and are taken by minibus to the grass strip outside of town, to board a plane the size of a tree house.
There are various cafes, hostels, tour agencies, a couple of churches, a school – for 30 children! – a library and community hall, and a lot of houses scattered over the hills surrounding the bay. And a police station housing the single cop.
Fishing and tourism are the main, possibly the only, industries.
This is a town where style and luxury take second place to practicality. The locals are down to earth and have their own charm of habit and manner, the buildings are weathered and patched, the pace is steady, the food is solid and plentiful, and the weather is optional.
I love it.