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Jewel in Invercargill's crown

Jo Ferris visits the bottom of the world and discovers there’s more to New Zealand’s southern tip than meets the eye . . .

History bounces the red ball between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as to who made the infamous reference to Invercargill being the “a-hole” of the world.

It was 1965 when the Rolling Stones performed at the city’s Civic Theatre. Regardless of which Stone made the comment, it’s almost inconceivable thinking the band even played in Invercargill — let alone a theatre. Though I did see Gene Pitney once in Gisborne’s old Opera House. Oh, and Kenny Rogers in the YMCA. Remember seeing Kiwi bands in the old Sandown or River Bar anyone?

Only diehards of a certain age can remember groups playing small-gig venues in Gisborne’s pubs. A far cry from any big-arena concert today — and certainly unthinkable for the Stones. As to R&V’s line-up, fans will just have to wait a little longer — Easter, God willing.

While the Stones’ quote has long since faded into oblivion, Invercargill has far richer associations lifting its status, however.

Burt Munro might not have been born in Invercargill, but the memory of this pioneer “Indian Scout” motorcyclist is embedded in the city and the Burt Munro Challenge is a milestone on its annual calendar of events.

Then there’s legendary motorbike designer, the late John Britten.

And who can fail to acknowledge Sir Tim “I don’t care where; I just want to be mayor” Shadbolt. The gloss might have faded on the ermine-edged cloak and chains of office, but after 27 years promoting Invercargill, the Bullshit and Jellybeans author and grinner still deserves credit.

Armed with a limited image of Invercargill — but a bucket-list desire to visit the bottom of New Zealand, and desperate to see a southern lights’ Aurora — the city was the start and finish of a wider trip to the Catlins.

The plan allowed for two days to cover the place. This included a drive-through in Bluff — not that it involves much to be honest, apart from the spectacular view on Bluff hill. There was also a roadie to Riverton and coastal stop-offs along the way on the Southern Scenic route to Fiordland’s gateway at Tuatapere.

Tuatapere? Don’t ask. Its claim to fame is title of sausage capital of the world!

While not sampling a sausage, the famed southern cheese roll was on the menu along the way in various cafes. Of all those devoured, however, the café at Invercargill’s Queen’s Garden won hands down. Fluffy white bread was delicately toasted, smooth cheese encased inside to melt in the mouth. It was utterly divine and a fitting accompaniment to this extraordinary sanctuary.

Queen’s Park was a revelation. Of all New Zealand’s grand public parks, Invercargill’s wears its regal title well. While probably better known for its iconic water tower, Invercargill has several beautiful parks in the heart of town. Queen’s is the largest and most spectacular. Its birth dates back to 1857 when 80 hectares were set aside in the town’s planning. The area was originally covered in native forest, and held spiritual significance to Maori who referred to it as Taurakitewaru. Only a small remnant of forest remains today, tucked in a far corner of all the exotic beauty elsewhere. Formal planning on the park didn’t begin until the late 1870s. From small seeds titans grow, and while the park had various uses before its current status, today it is breathtaking.

As the jewel in Invercargill’s crown of parks and reserves. Queen’s occupies a major place within the city — entrances on all corners to make access easier and closer to the huge variety of sections and gardens. Arguably the most graceful is the central promenade of towering trees that were planted along Coronation Avenue in June 1911 to mark King George V’s coronation.

Wandering around the park is truly ethereal. It takes hours to explore the extraordinary depth of all the horticultural features. In many ways, it’s best done over several days. Time is required to absorb it all. There are the mandatory rose gardens, of course. Add to that an azalea grove, rhododendron dell, Japanese garden, bush pathways that meander through native plants, rock and herb gardens. There’s a lake, statues, an aviary, children’s playground and pool among the fantasy of nature. The obligatory band rotunda sits in the middle. There are winter gardens, an animal park, tuatara house and sports areas, including a magnificent 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, and grounds for cricket, croquet and bowls.

Queen’s Park is a favourite haunt for families, lovers and dog walkers. Whether biking or jogging the fitness track, picnicking with family, or simply strolling amid all the wonder morning, noon or night, Queen’s Park deserves to stake a claim to being New Zealand’s most beautiful park. Not to mention the joy of knowing its café produces the best cheese rolls. It helped console missing an Aurora spectacle by two days! Next year, perhaps?

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Things to See:

Queen’s Park

Victorian Water Tower

Classic Motorcycle Mecca

Bill Richardson Transport World

Stead Street Wharf

Heritage churches

Bluff Hill lookout

Riverton and Southern Coastal Scenic route

Splendid: Avenue is the name given to a tree-lined street and that is surely the case here on Coronation Avenue in Invercargill’s Queen’s Gardens. The trees, a mixture of English beech and silver birch, were planted in 1911 to mark the coronation of King George V. All pictures by Jo Ferris
THING OF BEAUTY: Invercargill’s landmark Victorian water tower. In the late 1880s the Invercargill Borough Council decided to build a water tower on part of the green belt. Ratepayers wanted the tower but not on the town belt, so architect-engineer William Sharp suggested blunting criticism by disguising the 300,000-litre steel tank with an elaborate brick tower. The foundation-laying ceremony was on December 18, 1888. Twelve months’ work and 300,000 bricks gave Invercargill a 42.6m-high landmark that serves it still.
PERFECT: The delicacy of the southern cheese roll — melting cheese encased in a piece of lightly toasted white bread. Rumour has it the filling has a taste of the classic New Zealand onion dip.
SPEED MACHINE: Burt Munro in bronze stands guard outside Queen’s Park.
Connected: Bluff’s chain link sculpture matches one on Stewart Island Rakiura Entrance, marking the entrance to Rakiura National Park. The sculpture symbolises the anchor chain of the demigod Māui who, according to legend, fished up Te Ika a Maui (North Island) from his waka Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) , which he anchored with Rakiura.
BREAKFAST, LUNCH OR DINNER: Rich paua pickings off Riverton’s coastline.