Invercargill: Larger than life

By Jacqui Madelin

Peer down at elephant seals and sea lions at the Nugget Point lighthouse. Photo / Supplied
Peer down at elephant seals and sea lions at the Nugget Point lighthouse. Photo / Supplied

Gazing down the great golden expanse of Oreti Beach, it's easy to imagine the World's Fastest Indian disappearing into the blue salt haze flying off the rolling surf. This view seems larger than life, redolent of big-screen atmosphere.

But that's what Invercargill is like. Although it has a small-town feel there's a mighty aura about its site on our world's southern lip.
There's nothing between here and Antarctica, the source of winter's wave-whipping winds. Yet those same waves attract surfers and beachcombers in summer.

I hadn't planned to traverse Invercargill's attractions by motorbike, but my host's offer of a tour with a difference was too good to turn down.

Ray and Trish Winter typify good old southern hospitality.

Five years working in Africa helped furnish their Edwardian lodge in style - and provide its owners with a fantastic fund of stories.
Ray won't promise a ride, but given good weather, a day off and an amenable guest he doesn't take much urging to get out his American iron for a tour you won't forget.

Perched on that cushioned rear pew, we've touched the south coast to peer towards Stewart Island. It's just 15 minutes away by plane and once there you can drive its 28km of roads or explore the vast Rakiura National Park with its 280km of walking tracks. Keep your eyes peeled for dotterel and kaka, go diving and fishing or take a nocturnal stroll in search of Stewart Island brown kiwi.

But we'll stick closer to home and cruise Invercargill's wide main street fringed by two-story buildings _ beautifully restored Victorian masterpieces putting their modern counterparts to shame.

Above the roofs I spot an ornate, red brick tower. It's a Victorian water tower, built in 1889 and now protected by the Historic Places Trust. You can climb the 112 steps to look out over Invercargill. We swept by Queens Park and spotted some unexpected residents.

The Harley startled a grazing deer and other animals peeped between the trees - there's an animal park, a petting area and an aviary here.
This land was set aside by Otago's chief surveyor in 1857 when it was still a broad sweep of native forest.

Some ancient trees remain just north of the park, surviving years of cattle grazing before the Suburban and Beautifying Society got to work in 1911.

Now the gardens include a rhododendron dell, a Japanese garden and a tropical hothouse with ponds.

Invercargill seems to thrive on the unexpected. Its Southland museum houses 50 live tuatara and an astronomical observatory.

Close to hand in the central area you can buy specialty cheeses or watch gourmet chocolates being crafted at the Seriously Good Chocolate Company. The city has an indoor cycling velodrome and there's a permanent World's Fastest Indian display at E Hayes and Sons hardware.

We had no need for hardware, so cruised on to Anderson Park, through its extensive gardens and native bush until we reached the graceful, Georgian-style house built in 1925 and now housing a collection of NZ art.

Invercargill is the ideal focus for a far-south trip. The airport is just a hop and a skip from the town centre, with hire cars right beside the terminal building.

Cruise the region's almost deserted roads and take in some of Southland's fabled fishing, hunting or tramping. Drive east to the Nugget Point lighthouse and peer down at elephant seals and sea lions, or head for Surat Bay and stroll the harbour's edge.

The Catlins deliver a road trip that weaves between hills and sea, where lucky visitors may spot yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore or Hector's dolphins skipping the waves.

Stop off at Curio Bay to see a 180 million-year-old Jurassic, fossilised forest exposed at low tide or call in to nearby Bluff.
You can set sail here for Stewart Island, or eat oysters and fish just hauled from the sea.

Gore is an hour's drive away. The self-styled trout capital of the world is laced with snow-melt rivers. When you've stowed your rod, warm up with some locally brewed whisky from the Hokonui Moonshine museum. Then you could visit the Eastern Southland art gallery with its world class collection and permanent Ralph Hotere exhibit.

Pop up the road to Mandeville and the Croydon Aircraft Company to admire lovingly restored vintage aircraft and take a flight in a a Tiger Moth. And don't forget the must-do Hikoi Cultural Heritage Museum. Check out the giant surfer at Colac Bay or remember the gold diggers who set up camp at Monkey Bay before you explore Orepuki Beach for gemstones.

En route to Te Anau, buy some bangers from Tuatapere Sausages on Main St or savour pikelets at the Museum Cafe. Then work them off with a wonderful three-day bush walk on the Hump Ridge track, dipping into Fiordland National Park along Alpine ridges and deserted southern beaches. A nudge further north, Clifden boasts New Zealand's deepest lake, where a tree-laced DoC campsite nestles on a sandy beach and a Hump Ridge jetboat ride awaits.

Those less keen on exercise can time their visit to take in Gore's Golden Guitar country music weekend, while the Burt Munro Challenge is a must for petrolheads, or any fan of the now famous World's Fastest Indian movie.

IF YOU GO

See southlandnz.com for local information, including dates and venues for the region's many festivals.

The Bluff Oyster and Food Festival is on May 22, 2010.

The Golden Guitar Awards, country music celebrations are from June 4-6.

The Burt Munro Challenge, a festival of two-wheeled racing, is on November 25-28.

We stayed at Safari Lodge luxury B&B. Built in 1902, this gorgeous house with its old-world charm features the owners' African art collection. Feel far from the madding crowd just 15 minutes from downtown Invercargill.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 02 Aug 2014 10:40:45 Processing Time: 1469ms