The famous chain link sculpture – Te Huka a Maui – at Bluff Matapōhue. © Jo Percival

11 Intriguing things to do in Southland

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From whaling history to wonderful gardens, beaches studded with semi-precious stones, suspension bridges, great cafés and classic cars, hit the road in Southland to tick off these 11 great things to see and do. 

1. Clifden Caves

Although Southland is not home to many caves, if you head to a remote spot about 16km north of Tuatapere you’ll find the incredible limestone system of Clifden Caves. Boasting the full inventory of attractions – stalagmites, stalactites, titiwai glowworms and underground pools – the Clifden Caves are treasure trove for experienced cavers. However, this is not a spot for novices. It takes about one and half to two hours to make your way through the whole cave system, and a high level of fitness and agility is required. Some passages are narrow and you’ll need to crawl on your hands and knees. The caves can also be subject to flash flooding, so don’t enter during or immediately after heavy rain. When it comes to visibility, you’ll need two torches per person plus spare batteries and wear sensible clothing and sturdy footwear as you’ll definitely get wet and muddy. Definitely an adventure!

2. Clifden Suspension Bridge

For something a little more sedate, about 2.7km from the Clifden Caves you’ll find the Clifden Suspension Bridge – New Zealand’s longest wooden suspension bridge, which stretches 111.5 metres across the Waiau River. Before its construction in 1899, Clifden settlers were dependent on the Waiau ferry to transport goods and stock across the river. The ferry was later replaced by a punt attached to a wire rope. When it first opened, the bridge provided a much easier and safer alternative to both. The single-lane bridge was the main river crossing until 1978 when the new two-lane bridge opened nearby. If you visit the Clifden Suspension Bridge on a fine day during summer, stop in at the Good Mood Food caravan, which is often parked on the banks of the river, for a coffee, smoothie or delicious bite to eat.

3. Orepuki Beach Cafe

Further south at Orepuki on Southland’s southern coast, you’ll find one of the best dining experiences in the region. Orepuki Beach Café is situated in a beautifully converted and restored historic house in the flat paddocks next to Orepuki township. The licensed café serves house-baked breads and cakes, homegrown veggies and sauces made from scratch. We recommend the lamb kofta, made with locally-sourced lamb, garden-fresh seasonal salad and homemade flatbread. Delicious. 

4. Gemstone Beach

Gemstone Beach is a fossicker’s dream: a beach that looks like it’s made of coloured jelly beans. Ocean-smoothed stones in a huge range of hues are washed and glossy from the waves. There are pieces of red jasper, green epidote and pale quartz. Amongst the multi-coloured pebbles, semi-precious stones can often found here too, including garnet and even small nuggets of gold. Gemstone Beach is not suitable for swimming though, with wild waves and dangerous currents. Lucky there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the shoreline; the search for the perfect pebble is strangely addictive. 

5. Monkey Island

Monkey Island is not really an island, it’s a rocky knob that sits just off the sandy section of Orepuki beach, but it morphs into an island at high tide. The outcrop is significant to local Māori as Te Puka o Takitimu – the anchor stone of the legendary Takitimu waka which was wrecked in Te Waewae Bay. The high point of Monkey Island was also a traditional Māori lookout for whales. Today the beach is great for summer swimming, and there’s a freedom camping site adjacent to the beach which is popular with families. 

6. Te Hikoi, Riverton

Te Hikoi in Riverton Aparima is a museum that offers a fascinating glimpse into the stories and history of Southland – one of the last places in the habitable world to be discovered and settled by humans. Te Hikoi traces the history of tangata whenua through to European pioneers attempting to make their fortunes in the whaling industry in the 1800s. Some displays explore the uses of whale oil, ambergris and baleen to make corsetry. Others tell the story of colourful local characters like Owen McShane who was notorious for brewing beer and cabbage tree rum. But there’s plenty to discover and learn here. 

7. Bill Richardson Transport World

Transport World is the first and largest tourist attraction in Invercargill. It's also the biggest automotive museum of its type in the world. Founded by the late Bill Richardson, a classic car collector and aficionado, the centre takes a journey through automotive history. It is vast – sprawling over 15,000m2; an entire city block through a purpose-built entrance and event space and then winding through a series of cavernous warehouses. The vehicle collection is immaculate, most of them painstakingly restored and 90% still roadworthy. Alongside many makes and models of classic cars, there are rare vehicles including the only 1914 Stuart in the world, and a wooden-spoked 1911 Koehler. There are also classic tractors, wearable arts, 250 beautifully-restored historic petrol pumps, a vintage tea towel collection, children’s pedal cars, die cast toy cars and a chronological collection of jukeboxes dating from 1935 until the 1980s.

8. Bluff Maritime Museum

If you visit Bluff Matapōhue outside the short window of oyster season, the best way to get a taste of the oystering industry here is to visit Bluff Maritime Museum. The small, community-run museum showcases the nautical heritage of the southern port. Exploring the history of Bluff’s many sad shipwrecks, the museum has heritage detritus salvaged from the sea from the 1700s through to the 1930s. Marvel at a display with an unfathomably impractical diving suit that doesn’t look like it could possibly be waterproof. The centrepiece of the museum is the enormous reassembled engine, once used to power the Awarua, a 1932 steam tug. With a 50c token, the engine fires up and you can watch the huge moving parts and be amazed that this hulking piece of engineering once used to float.

9. Stirling Point

Stirling Point marks the southern end of State Highway 1, with the iconic signpost indicating the distances from here to major cities around the world. Once you’ve snapped your ubiquitous signpost selfie, wander along the nearby pathway to the large chainlink sculpture. Created by artist Russell Beck in 2008, Te Huka a Maui reflects the creation story of how Maui pulled Stewart Island Rakiura from the ocean floor to be the anchor stone for his waka. The stylised anchor chain disappears into Foveaux Strait Te Ara a Kewa and is replicated in rusty hues at Lee Bay on Stewart Island Rakiura, symbolising the strong connection and heritage between the mainland and the island. 

10. Folster Gardens

On the outskirts of Invercargill, Folster Gardens is a creative and ever-evolving space run by a green-fingered couple Trev and Lynne. Pop in for a visit and for a $5 fee you can explore the sprawling five-acre site, studded with natives, shrubs, herbaceous species, climbing creepers, rhododendrons, roses and rambling chickens. There are many garden sculptures to spot, too, re-purposed from old tools and machinery. Folster Gardens also has a colourful, comfortable bed and breakfast accommodation in a renovated 1940s bungalow filled with quirky art.

11. Queens Park

Allow plenty of time to visit Invercargill’s famous Queens Park, as there is a lot to discover here. The park covers nearly 80 hectares, with ornamental planting beginning way back in 1911, and is now recognised as a Garden of National Significance. The wide boulevard of Coronation Avenue leads to the picturesque band rotunda, with many meandering pathways fanning out from there. There are fragrant rose gardens to discover, the Centennial Winter Gardens bursting with fantastical ferns and exotic plant species, duck ponds, immaculate and soothing Japanese gardens, spaces for golf, bowling, croquet and cricket, and one of New Zealand’s only stumperies. 

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