Henry, the centurion randy tuatara still producing youngsters in the tuatarium, Southland Museum

Henry, the centurion randy tuatara still producing youngsters in the tuatarium, Southland Museum

Invercargill is a Kiwi byword for the bottom of the world – New Zealand’s most southerly city. As such, it is often omitted from itineraries (along with the wondrous Catlins), people preferring to cut across the centre of the South Island between Queenstown and Dunedin.

Invercargill Queens Park Japanese Garden

Elegant Japanese garden in Queens Park

However the centre of Invercargill boasts a number of highlights. Impressively the town centre includes a tranquil eighty hectare park, Queens Park, full of varied botanical (and other) surprises. It features an elegant Japanese gardenwith raked stones, a beautiful aged rhododendron dell, azaleas bushes, rock and herb gardens, bush tracks snaking through small woodlands, a farmyard zoo, fitness run, observatory, lakes full of ducks and lots of lush lawn that snuggles softly between the toes. Sports fields and a golf course cover part of the area giving the city a superb green oasis in the middle of the city.

Invercargill Water Tower

The grand water tower of Invercargill

Incidentally, the park is overlooked by an impressively (or over-) engineered water towerwhich stands grandly like a giant russet red chess piece.

In one corner around small lakes with perfect reflections is a display of New Zealand’s feathered treasures. A variety of colourful Kiwi parakeetswith plumage of reds, greens and yellows include keas, kaka (unfortunate name!) and other parrot-like birds (along with a few exotics) squawk, flutter and dance as folks wander past their cages.

Invercargill Queens Park Reflection Lake and Sculpture

Quuens Park reflection in one of its several lakes

Roses of all colours and shapes blossom and bloom in the autumn sun as part of an historic rose garden grown from historic rose stock obtained from all over the world, some many centuries old. Each rose features a detailed description of its involved lineage, quite a number with regal connections.

The park features a towering white pyramid (largest pyramid in the southern hemisphere – a good trivia question) which houses the excellent Southland Museum. Among a wide collection of Maori arts and goods (see the way they catch fish), historic European settlement artifacts and some sub-Antarctic natural history, there are two main highlights.

Invercargill Southland Museum Fastest Indian in the World Motorcycle Burt Munro

Burt Munro’s motorcycle – The World’s Fastest Indian

Like a sleek red missile, Burt Munro’s Indian Scout motorcycle sits proudly on display. In 1967 at the age of 68, Burt set a world motorcycle speed record of around 190 miles per hour (306 kph) on a 47 year old bike that he had worked on for many years. It became the story for the entertaining The World’s Fastest Indianstarring Anthony Hopkins. For aficionados, more of Burt’s tools, bike engines and paraphernalia can be seen in the local hardware store!

Most remarkable are a number of living dinosaurs – tuatara – specially bred in a purpose-built tuatarium. Highly endangered, tuatara have been on Earth for around 225 million years having hardly evolved from the era of dinosaurs. The breeding program results in tuatara being released on specially cleared and managed off-shore islands (free of predators) to help reintroduce this ancient species.

Invercargill Southland Museum Young Tuataras

Young tuatara with over 100 years of life to look forward to

Everything in the tuatara world moves slowly. They take a breath only once or twice an hour, rarely move, grow till they are 35 and live well over 100 years. Their skeleton includes a number of features evolved from fish and includes an unusual third eye (not for general sight). Their unusual teeth pattern shows two rows of upper teeth and one row of lower teeth, the teeth being simply sharp bone extensions of the jaw.

In the wild, tuatara females are ready to reproduce every two to five years (though the tuatarium research has led to speedier cycles). If she is keen on a male, she will mate and lay eggs several months later. These eggs are buried and hatch some eleven to sixteen months later depending on climatic conditions. Similarly to crocodiles, if the soil temperature is warmer, then most hatch as males while cooler temperatures produces primarily females. Could climate change mean that we only see male tuarata to end a staggering 225 million year cycle?

The star of the tuatarium (with several dozen tuatara) is Henry (see top photo) who was born in the late 1890s. Spritely for his age, Henry is a moody temperamental tuatara expecting his own way in his elder years and after being mateless for many years has had a centurion burst of male passion fathering at an age over 110. He has continued to father tuarata though the on-rush of available females meant that Henry bravely and willingly went through the motions of mating but fewer of the eggs were actually fertilised.

While randy Henry continues to produce mixed results despite his willing attitude, the tuatarium has a number of younger sexually mature males (which doesn’t happen until they are 15 or 20 years old) to take up the cudgels and expand the tuatara population (and gene pool).

Invercargill is the gateway to the superb Catlins, the wild country of the southern-most New Zealand. The city boasts a number of elegant central buildings, a superb botanical gardens and excellent museum. However, a chance to see tuatara – living dinosaurs – and the world’s fastest Indian is surely reason enough to visit Invercargill and New Zeland’s deep south.



7 Responses to The Slowest Living Fossil and Fastest Indian (Invercargill, New Zealand)

  • Wow! Sounds like this lesser visited part of New Zealand should be higher on everyone’s list. I admit, I by-passed it when I visited, but my excuse was that it was the middle of winter and it was too cold. Interesting that they are breeding the tuarata so far south, where the climate would seem too cold for them to survive. If memory serves me the current theory about the disappearance of dinosaurs is that a meteor struck the earth and the dust blocked the sun, lowering the earth’s temperature. Dinosaurs couldn’t take the lower temps and so gradually disappeared. If they are truly remnants of dinosaurs it’s interesting they have adapted to the cold.

    • Mark H says:

      The tuatarium is carefully temperature controlled so the tuatara live in reptilian luxury (maybe deserving for a centurion like Henry?). They have accelerated the laying and birth cycle to produce tuatara more regularly than that done in the wild and manage the temperature of the eggs. It sounds a very skilled and scientifically sound operation with quite a few years of developed knowledge.

      I wonder if the lower temperatures meant that nearly all the dinosaurs born were of one gender and hence they died out that way?

  • Emma says:

    Such an array of divergent things in a parkland in the centre of a city. You connected them beautifuly. How luck to see the only living tuarata complete with babies. Also lucky Henry. I suppose good things come to those who wait… But a hundred years????

    • Mark H says:

      Everything seems to happen slowly in tuatara world. They must be doing something right as they have survived 225 million years.

  • What an interesting collection of reasons to keep going south in New Zealand. Loved that water tower, by the way.

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Welcome to Travel Wonders
My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
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