Paul Rush finds Gore is hooked on trout, hooch, abstract art, insects and music.
Gore Blimey. How can one Southland town have such a high profile and a colourful heritage? It's a small town with passionate people, grand designs and a wagonload of creativity.
These thoughts are on my mind as I roll into Main St, Gore, which is as pretty as a picture postcard in a setting of rhododendrons and sparkling waters. This is blue-ribbon territory and I soon spot Minister of Finance Bill English's electoral office in the centre of town.
Then there's the large fibreglass model of a glistening trout leaping for his life and proclaiming Gore's status as "The Brown Trout Capital of the World". I know immediately how to start getting acquainted with the town.
Visiting the well-stocked sports store I meet fishing guide Bunny Burgess and learn that the world's anglers flock to the great Mataura River. It seems the big, boisterous brown trout lie in riffles, runs and deep "gin clear" pools waiting to strike at small specks of life. A million mayflies can cause a feeding frenzy and the resulting "Mad Mataura Rise" is legendary, but anglers need to hone their skills to reap a reward.
Understanding the true spirit of Southland is the purpose of my visit and, remarkably, just down the street in the Hokonui Moonshine Museum, I'm able to become fully immersed in spirits.
Jim Geddes of the Gore Arts and Heritage Precinct gets me engrossed in 130 years of illicit whiskey-making, priming me with a "wee dram" of his finest hooch. His burning passion is so infectious and the samples of his new Old Hokonui so potent, that I'm soon transported back to the Prohibition days, when fiery spirits were distilled in the misty hills.
The story goes that the McRae family had a long tradition of making Highland Dew in Scotland without paying excise duty. Widow Mary McRae sailed to New Zealand with her seven sons and a sea chest marked "household goods" that actually contained a whiskey still.
Her daughter married a local plumber who had access to copper for still-making and the family began making the good stuff in the remote Hokonui Hills. They boasted their single malt product was consumed by everyone from connoisseurs to snake charmers and "passed all tests except the police".
Mary lived to be 93 and photos of the family strike me as reminiscent of the Beverley Hillbillies. There were several police raids over the years. Once, Mary sat on a barrel of whiskey and cleverly spread out her long skirts to conceal it.
Another time, demijohns were shoved into bed with her and she pretended to be ill. One dark night, a constable crawled to their cottage to eavesdrop on the family but that failed, too, as they only spoke Gaelic at home.
I travel to Mandeville and am surprised to find the old pub has been replaced by a modern restaurant and bar called The Moth, with an excellent a la carte menu.
The nocturnal insect connection is intriguing. Everything becomes clear when I learn that Geoffrey de Havilland, the famous aircraft designer, was a passionate amateur entomologist and named all his wooden-framed and fabric-lined aircraft after common insects.
Mandeville Airport, the oldest aerodrome in New Zealand, is right next door and Colin and Maeva Smith own the Croydon Aircraft Factory here. Their company is recognised as a world leader in the restoration of biplanes and monoplanes from the 1930s era.
The Croydon Aviation Heritage Museum features a number of vintage aircraft that are still airworthy. Dragon Fly, Dragon Rapide, Tiger Moth and Fox Moth aircraft are lovingly restored originals or exact replicas.
The museum display includes the Dragon Rapide registered ZKADI, the first aircraft to carry commercial passengers in New Zealand.
There's also a silver replica of the Percival Proctor that carried Jean Batten on the inaugural UK-New Zealand flight.
I am fascinated by a replica of a lightweight airplane built by local mechanical maestro Bert Pither, who is reputed to have lifted off Oreti Beach, Invercargill, in 1910.
Croydon engineers achieved several short hops with this replica on the 100th anniversary on July 3, 2010.
Prosperous Gore has not revealed all its secrets yet. Each year the town is enlivened
by the "Gold Guitar" music contest, which puts it right up there with Tamworth and Nashville. There are annual festivals to embrace many aspects of life here: vintage aircraft fly in, moonshiners, mayfly fishing, fashion design, line dancing, art and craft and rhododendron displays.
To round out my quest to lay bare the treasures of Gore, I visit the ornate brick art gallery building on the town's heritage trail. Imagine my surprise to find 50 graphic works and paintings by Ralph Hotere, the largest collection in the country.
The gallery also has an excellent Rita Angus collection and there's also a wonderful selection of 300 artworks gifted by John Money. This world-famous sexologist and John Hopkins University professor supported New Zealand art and shipped his entire collection from Baltimore to Gore.
Rural Southland has a lot to offer the visitor. I have fond memories of the warm welcome, the wide open spaces, astonishing breadth of culture, heritage and the vital life force that makes this region so intriguing. Don't pass it by.
IF YOU GO
Air New Zealand operates regular daily flights into Invercargill. The township of Gore is one hour's drive northeast of the city through Edendale and Mataura.
The Hokonui Heritage Centre and Eastern Southland Gallery can be found on the corner of Hokonui Drive and Norfolk St near the town's clock tower.
Mandeville and the Croydon Aircraft Company is 15 minutes' drive out from Gore taking the Hokonui Drive. Adrenalin-filled, aerobatic Tiger Moth joyrides are available for visitors who yearn to be airborne.
Paul Rush travelled to Gore courtesy of Venture Southland Tourism.