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.
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.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.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.
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.
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.