A lot of Kiwis I’ve met (and especially the ones I worked with in the kitchen) dumped on Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city, to no end. Backwards, boring, full of inbred boyracers and P addicts (“P” being the New Zealand equivalent of crystal meth), horrible weather, crappy food, ugly women, etc.
Not to be contrary (really), but I kinda liked the place.
It definitely has a different feel than any other place I’ve been to in the country. I noticed when grocery shopping that every female over 13 seemed to be either pregnant or balancing a baby on her hip… and that every female over 25 seemed to have four or more little kids in tow. There were also a lot more obese people. It’s something you don’t see much in New Zealand, especially in the full-of-itself Queenstown area, where I’ve spent most of my time.
And yes, every time I stepped off the curb I had to look three times each way to avoid the boyracers (and a few girlracers, too) who felt 100kph was a reasonable speed to take a downtown city street in their pimped-out Subaru Legacys and Toyota Corollas. (Sorry lads, but no matter how much chrome you put on a Corolla, it is not sexy and you just look dumb.)
All that said… I like Invercargill.
It has a lot of neat architecture, ranging from rambling Victorians to impressive Edwardians to a lot of adorable Art Deco and Arts and Crafts bungalows that I coveted (and the real estate is cheap compared with Auckland, Wellington or Queenstown).
The city also has two great (and free) museums and a Tuatarium… the world’s only one, I believe. What is a Tuatarium? Ah, my friend, there’s the tellin’…
Tuatara have been around for more than 220 million years… they predate lizards. They saw the dinosaurs come and go. They survived a number of mass extinctions, including at the K-T boundary 65 million years ago. They once lived all over the world but, over time, their numbers shrank until they lived just on the whacky wild world of, yes, New Zealand. Unlike other reptiles, they don’t like a lot of heat and actually do quite well in colder temperatures, which explains how they survived in a place that’s not exactly the tropics.
Tuatara are now critically endangered and exist in the wild on only a couple predator-free offshore islands (damn stoats). But Invercargill has a large enclosure that’s home to several of them, including the famous Henry, who was born in the late 19th century (no one is sure when, but there have been records of him being alive for at least 110 years).
It’s important to know and appreciate the backstory of tuatara before going to the Tuatarium because, well, you’ve got to get excited about something and it won’t be watching them. They. Don’t. Move. I guess that’s how a species survives 220-plus million years. Just. Don’t. Move.
I hung out for about half an hour at the Tuatarium and in that time saw one adult close and then re-open his mouth. That was it. But, quite frankly, it was enough just to see them, especially Henry, who seemed a little sad. Or sleepy. Or just… tuatary.
The museum attached to the Tuatarium had some cool exhibits, too, including one by an artist who uses found objects, in this case animal bones, to reflect on society in nature and vice versa. Whatever. Lots of skulls = cool.
But my favorite exhibit was on the Roarin’ Forties and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands, such as The Snares and The Aucklands, some of which support surprisingly diverse flora. The exhibit included accounts from farmers who took advantage of the government’s free land offer and, if not shipwrecked enroute, found themselves at the end of the world. The attempts to set up permanent farming communities on the islands, not surprisingly, were short-lived.
North of town, and right next to the really nice Invercargill Top Ten Holiday Park where I camped, is the Anderson Gallery. Housed in a mansion belonging to the Anderson family, of course, the museum hosts New Zealand artists past and present. When I got there, I was the only visitor so the director came out and chatted with me. Two hours later, after covering art, The Rolling Stones, Sarah Palin, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Wall Street and crazy people who threaten journalists because they don’t understand critiques on entertainment and politics are not a personal attack, we parted ways with a handshake. Interesting guy, and chatting with him was a treat because he’d led a fascinating life (painter, jazz musician, newspaper columnist, author and radio host) but wasn’t at all pretentious.
Other cool things about Invercargill:
– They have the world’s fastest Indian. You know, when that movie came out a couple years ago starring Anthony Hopkins, I wasn’t really paying attention and thought “‘World’s Fastest Indian’? Starring Anthony Hopkins? As a Native American? I don’t see it…” Now, however, schooled by an Invercargill museum exhibit on it, I understand that it was an Indian motorcycle, tweaked and, dare I say, pimped out by local son Burt Munro, who went on to set a bunch of international speed records and raced well into his elder years.
– They have the world’s southernmost Starbucks. I don’t know why, but that just amuses me to no end.
– The Invercargill accent, at least as spoken by the two auto mechanics I dealt with, is a ear-bending cross between Kiwi, Scottish and Cockney. One of the mechanics was a dead ringer for Ray Winstone in “Sexy Beast” and the other one was right out of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” but both were honest and charged a fair price. Bill is okay, by the way… he just really needed some new front tires. Damn gravel roads. He also had a temperature gauge issue in Te Anau and I took him into a garage there… the nice mechanic said he really didn’t have time to look at it but spent 20 minutes bleeding the radiator hose (and showing me how to do it in the future) and topping up his oil for a grand total of $12, and said I should have it checked out properly when I got where I was going, which is why I took Bill in to Invercargill. It was apparently an air bubble, very common in Subarus, and hasn’t been an issue since.
– I know why so many people are fat around here… the fresh blue cod fish ‘n’ chips are the best I’ve ever had and in huge portions, at least the supercheap ones from The Gallery Takeaway in nearby Bluff. Yum. There is also a brewery and a Hell Pizza and a couple Indian places that I didn’t get to try. Open up a Lush and I’m moving in. To one of those cute bungalows, of course.