Hidden gems: Invercargill

By Colin Hogg

They are the towns with no friends - the places New Zealanders and even occasional famous visitors love to be rude about. Colin Hogg sets out to put the case for these put-upon places. Not exactly going where no tourist has gone before, but perhaps staying longer. In the first of a four-part series, he uncovers the charms of Invercargill.

Invercargill has 40m wide streets that northern city planners and motorists would drool over. Photo / Colin Hogg
Invercargill has 40m wide streets that northern city planners and motorists would drool over. Photo / Colin Hogg

Invercargill expected to be bigger - much bigger. Many things about our most southern (and most western) city suggest that big ambition - the madly wide boulevards, the 80 grand hectares of Queens Park, the enormous churches and banks and the ornate Civic Theatre, which seems better suited to the West End of London a century ago.

Southland, the province Invercargill is queen of, is big, too. And empty. This is car country and the most impressive way to approach Invercargill is, after a two-and-a-half hour drive from Queenstown Airport, a cheap landing point for northern visitors.

The far south is the least populated of our populated parts and, as it unfolds before your bonnet, it takes on a mythic quality. Once you leave mighty Lake Wakatipu at Kingston, mountain ranges slip away to form distant views and the great plain of Southland widens your eyes. Which helps prepare you for the great metropolis.

The Invercargill city limits are forever away from downtown. As I approach, the town sign at its northern edge has a barrow of turnips sitting beneath it with a sign that's on roadsides all the way across western Southland: "Swedes $1 Each", which seems quite pricey for an item dined on by sheep in paddock after paddock out there.

The country laps at the edges of Invercargill, which was once confident of being as big as Hamilton. But Invercargill got to only the mid-50,000s and then fell back.

Lately, though, the tide has turned a little, thanks to clever initiatives such as dropping all fees for tertiary students. There are 5000 of them in Invercargill now. And more tourists too, though mostly they're only passing through, which is a pity.

Invercargill may well be our best-kept secret, though everyone knows about it. But maybe it's because Invercargill's so far away from almost everywhere else it's so misunderstood.

Invercargill is more interesting than anyone allows. It has a lot of character, being bereft of either hill or indeed dale. Even a bendy road is rare and rather exciting.

And the view, of course, is a little other-worldly. Set so low, on the edge of river and estuary, and lying so very flat, there's a terrific amount of sky on show.

From my fifth floor suite at the Kelvin Hotel, I look straight across low roofs to the Water Tower and the great trees of Queens Park. The Kelvin's a bit of a classic with good-sized rooms, a friendly house bar and a decent restaurant.

It opened with a lot of excitement in 1965 and it stands the test of time. The bath fills in three minutes, there's a power shower and the hot water never runs out. My room faces due east and one morning I see the sun rise red and misty behind the Water Tower. For a tiny, pre-coffee moment, I imagine I'm in Italy.

But we're a long way from seeing Invercargill in the same romantic way we see Pisa. Invercargill is one of those places people have tended to say not-very-nice things about. Like some other lonesome towns around New Zealand, someone famous has insulted it.

In Invercargill's case, that someone was Keith Richards. After playing the Civic Theatre there in 1965 with the Rolling Stones, he dubbed it the "arsehole of the world".

Keith, though, may have had reasons other than geography for being so cruel. The Stones played that long-ago Invercargill show top of the bill above Roy Orbison, much to the chagrin of the Orbison-loving Southlanders, who chanted "We want Roy" through most of the Stones' short set.

There was, in fact, another insult delivered that very night when Charlie Watts, the band's lugubrious drummer, introduced one of their songs "for all you sheep shearers out there".

Unlike the Stones, all these years later, Invercargill's getting better with age. It's a handsome city, as befits one that was carefully planned, its centre laid out, in 1856, inside a square mile containing those 40m wide main streets, four parks and street names singing the memories of Scottish rivers - Tay, Dee, Don, Spey, Esk.

For Invercargill, life has been a series of booms and busts, each boom marked by an outbreak of distinctive architecture - Victorian in the 1880s, Edwardian in the early 1900s, Art Deco in the '30s and Modernist in the '50s. There are 60 listed buildings, including an Art Deco courthouse and the city's landmark, the Water Tower, a red brick Victorian mix of practical and pretty. It's the highest point in town, standing more than 42m and holds 300,000 litres of water in the great tank on top, as the city's emergency supply.

When it comes to encountering Invercargill's attractions, there are two sorts - the ones that shout out, like the Water Tower, and the ones that need finding.

Of the shouty-out ones, you can walk around the base of the rather good-looking tower, but you can't go in because of earthquake issues.

Not far away are the city's other stand outs - Queens Park and the adjoining Southland Museum and Art Gallery, housed inside a big white pyramid of a building. It isn't any of that which makes this place a stand-out. It's the tuatara.

Not even native to these parts, our most ancient native animal has thrived in the museum's famous Tuatara Breeding Programme. There are more than 90 of them living in the museum and it's a virtual guarantee you'll see them out and about in their big warm enclosures.

Run into curator Lindsay Hazely and he's likely to be wearing one happily draped across him, like a huge brooch.

Next door, Queens Park, behind its great gates, stretches way off out of focus. Find the tea kiosk and sample a local high-calorie delight, the cheese rolls, hot and dripping with butter, $2 each. The coffee's good, too - as it is in cafes all over this town, notably the Batch in Spey St and the Zookeepers Cafe in Tay St.

Strangely, even the harder-to-spot local attractions come slightly super-sized. If it's art you want, with attached native bush walks, out on Invercargill's northern edge is Anderson Park, a stately Georgian-style country house sitting amid 24ha of bush and lawn and containing a large and eclectic collection of New Zealand art. Not remotely stuffy.

Possibly the least stuffy collection in Invercargill resides in the unlikely premises of E Hayes & Sons, downtown in Dee St. Hayes is worth a visit, simply for being a truly gigantic hardware store.

But there's the plus that among all the wheelbarrows and spanners of every conceivable size is the actual Indian motorbike ridden by the world's fastest local, Burt Munro.

Plus a lot of other wheeled collectors' items on display as well. It's big, mad and completely free - unless you buy a spanner.

The best looking of the many big attractions in Invercargill, though, is the biggest surprise of all. The Bill Richardson Truck Museum is a 10,000sq m super-shed housing more than 200 historic trucks. You may think you don't like trucks, until you see this lot. Some of them are outrageously good-looking. You need an appointment - and $10 - to see them and it is worth it. People come from all over the world to do it.

But it's lunch time and a good reason to visit the best nearest place to our destination - which, in Invercargill's case, is Bluff, the port town 20 minutes' drive south at the end of Highway One.

On a sunny day, gritty, crumbly Bluff seems strangely beautiful, looking like a movie set waiting for a movie.

The op shop here is a legend, but so are the oysters and chips from the Galley takeaway. For $18 you get six big fat battered ones, and lemon, and plenty of chips.

Park down the road by the old lighthouse and eat them off the car bonnet and think, "Top that, French Cafe ".

Back in Invercargill after the salty oysters, it may be time for a drink. The city's had an interesting relationship with the demon booze. In 1905, Invercargill voted in a prohibition that would last until 1945 when the servicemen came home from the war and demanded a drink.

Like the south of the US, this was once a place of bootleggers and backyard brewers. Even now, Invercargill keeps a rein on its drinking, operating under a licensing trust which, among other things, prohibits alcohol in supermarkets.

You can, though, visit the Invercargill Brewery, a classy boutique beer and cider operation that welcomes visitors to its plant downtown in Wood St where they make brews of growing national legend like Smokin' Bishop and their wild and crazy Boysonberry fruit beer.

The hospitality, of course, is big. As mentioned, many things are big in Invercargill. And it's surprisingly hard to leave.

Who knew?

Next week's Hidden Gem:
Colin Hogg heads for Ashburton

- NZ Herald

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