"I'm glad you don't drive one of those for a job," says Lex Chisholm, in his hi-vis jacket.


The previous evening, Captain Andrew had landed the first A320 jet to arrive at Invercargill Airport but today he's somewhat hamfisted as he tries to manoeuvre a mini-digger in a muddy Southland field.

He tries to fish a rubber duckie off the pond surface with a mechanical claw. He misses. Again.

Dig This is Invercargill's most ambitious tourist attraction. The digger-based theme park is part construction site, part playground sandpit. It's one of the only places in the world where tourists can play with a collection of big yellow toys, paying to take an 18-tonne bulldozer for a joyride.

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Locoal hero: Dig This's machinery like Dirt Munro, celebrate the best of Invercargill. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Locoal hero: Dig This's machinery like Dirt Munro, celebrate the best of Invercargill. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Visitors can choose between mini-diggers, three 6m tall 312E excavators, or two D4K2 bulldozers.


"Personally, I'd go for the bulldozer," says Chisholm. "There's nothing like it."


Self-professed "bulldozer man" Chisholm helped reshape the Cromwell and Twizel hydro-electric power projects in similar piece of kit,"only about 10 times bigger".

Today he's helping a corporate group from Air New Zealand - highly skilled in a different kind of equipment - drive the heavy machinery.

Digging trenches that are promptly dozed back up by other visitors, the group achieves very little in the hour or so at the controls.

However, there is a raw joy to driving a 10-tonne digger before using it to deftly pluck a basketball off a traffic cone.

The concept for Dig This belongs to Kiwi expat and ex-colleague of Chisholm, Ed Mumm.

Power trip: The writer at the controlls of an 18-ton excavator. Photo / Supplied
Power trip: The writer at the controlls of an 18-ton excavator. Photo / Supplied

Mumm, who built the first digger theme park in Las Vegas, was a New Zealand digger operator who recognised the potential of big machinery as huge fun. It was a hunch that turned into a multi-million dollar company. There are supposedly plans in the works to open franchises in Tokyo and New York.

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Dig This New Zealand opened just under two years ago, as part of Bill Richardson Transport World.

As the third motor-tourism themed project for the Richardson family - after the Transport World museum and the Classic Motorcycle Mecca - Dig This is a different beast entirely.

'Any car, any colour': Transport World has a world-class Ford collection. Photo / Thomas Bywater
'Any car, any colour': Transport World has a world-class Ford collection. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Bigger, dirtier, more hands-on, it's a long way from the classic car showrooms. It would work anywhere but the Southland-based family was determined their theme park be based in Invercargill.

The city sees a fraction of tourists that Queenstown or Te Anau do - just a few hours north.

However, Jocelyn O'Donnell, HW Richardson Group director and daughter of Bill, is certain things are changing, especially as interest grows in Southland as a gateway to untouched Fiordland and the Foveaux Strait.

"It's fantastic to have that direct flight," she says about the launch of Air New Zealand's new direct connection to Auckland. "One of the challenges has been just getting to Invercargill."

Southland: Tourists are arriving in Invercargill with a taste fo the exotic. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Southland: Tourists are arriving in Invercargill with a taste fo the exotic. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Motor tourism could be just the economic engine Southland needs. The chance to unwind and vent pent up emotions behind the controls of a wrecking machine is something Kiwis will travel for.

It's a winning formula for any group of visitors, whether that be a 10th birthday party or hen do.

Build it and they will come! Or dig it up, whichever works.

Air New Zealand flies direct to Invercargill from Auckland five times a week from $89 one way