Think wide streets and wider, clear horizons.
Think classical buildings and an old dude who went once really fast on a motorcycle. Think incredibly long daylight hours in the height of summer. Think a colourful, quirky mayor with an endless array of ‘make your mark on the map’ ideas. Think a city with around the same population as Whangārei and Nelson and that, rather than being considered a long way from anywhere, is actually a hotspot for some really cool stuff and surrounded by a district with variety, style and a laid-back, welcoming attitude.
Invercargill, or Waihōpai in Māori, is both the southernmost and westernmost city in New Zealand, as well as one of the southernmost cities in the world. The commercial hub of the Southland region, it lies in the heart of a flat expanse that is the fertile Southland Plains, surrounded by rich farmland which is itself bordered by conservation land and marine reserves, including Fiordland National Park which covers the southwestern corner of the South Island and the picturesque Catlins coastal region.
Years ago, when I stopped here for the very first time, I was on my way to the South Coast in search of waves. I didn’t know much about Invercargill other than Burt Munro had lived there and the area had a reputation for being wet and windy. But I remember this day as calm and sunny, and I parked up and went looking for decent coffee along with something to eat.
A number of things struck me. The streets were incredibly wide – like motorway wide – which meant rush hour traffic was likely a nonentity and parking a breeze. With the city being of Scottish heritage, many of the streets were quaintly named after rivers in the British Isles, including Dee and Tay, as well as the Forth, Tyne, Esk, Don, Thames, Mersey, Ness, Yarrow, Spey and Eye.
There was an easy quirkiness to the place, partially reflected in the architecture that, perhaps once left to deteriorate, had been carefully brought back to life by the locals.
Within minutes of leaving my car, I had found an entrance to Queen’s Park, with its expanse of fields and gardens, enough to rival that of Christchurch’s Hagley Park. There was even a stumpery! (I won’t explain. You’ll have to discover for yourself)
Now intrigued, I walked further afield, discovering that the southern part of Invercargill nudged up to the shore of the New River Estuary – its calm waters stretching away towards a flat horizon – while the northern part has the Waihōpai River carving a meandering path through it. And, only a few kilometres west of the city centre was Ōreti Beach, a long expanse of sand where Burt Munro (among others) raced his famous motorbike.
In recent years, it seems that Invercargill has experienced even more of a resurgence, in part due to publicity brought to it by the election (and subsequent re-elections) of Tim Shadbolt as mayor. A colourful and outspoken former student activist and former mayor of Waitematā City, he once appeared on a cheese advertisement stating, ‘I don't mind where, as long as I'm Mayor’.
Since Tim’s time as mayor, more publicity and more students have also come to the city due to the Southern Institute of Technology's Zero Fees scheme, which allows both New Zealand citizens and permanent residents to study while only paying for the actual material costs of their study, not full tuition fees like at other tertiary institutes around the country. This scheme has been widely considered a great success.
Since that time of my first visit, my knowledge and appreciation for our most southern city has grown a great deal. If I’m travelling locally, I always make plans to stop off there now, rather than by default, interested to see what new initiative or idea Invercargill’s locals have come up with in the meantime.