I arrived in Invercargill on a Friday night around dinnertime, a few hours behind schedule. According to my original sketched-out plan for the roadtrip, ETA was a bit earlier in the day, so as to give me most of the afternoon to explore the city. But I had sorely miscalculated how long it would take to drive from Dunedin via the Southern Scenic Route. Apparently, when you stop twice an hour for this vista here and that beach there, it stretches out what would’ve only taken about two and a half hours to a full day’s drive. So night had fallen by the time I finally pulled into New Zealand’s southernmost city.
Being an OCD-prone over-planner, especially when it comes to travels, I usually have the where’s and when’s nailed down ages before I ever pack my bags. But for some reason, for the first time I didn’t pre-book a hostel for my stay in Invercargill. Maybe because it was winter and maybe because it was, well, Invercargill, I didn’t expect to run into too much difficulty, plus, I wanted to know the feeling of arriving in a new town not entirely sure where you’d be resting your head for the night. You know, throw a little spontaneity into the mix. Rather than some hostels that were converted houses in more residential areas, I opted for the Tuatara Backpacker’s, a large, square building with a massive mural of its namesake that immediately caught my attention as I drove down one of the main streets in the city.
After a few issues with parking (which may or may not have involved me driving around the same loop three times), I checked into the Tuatara without a hitch and thought, Right. I’m in Invercargill on a Friday night by myself…what’s next? But a list of movie times in the hostel reception area and a conveniently-located cinema across the street answered that question for me. I even bought popcorn, so you know it was a good night.
Of course, all of this really has nothing to do with Invercargill as a city whatsoever. I could’ve spontaneously found a hostel and seen The Proposal in Christchurch for all you know. But even I didn’t get to properly acquaint myself with the city until after next day’s foray to Stewart Island. Because I hadn’t had the chance to see it my first night, I had to make the time on Sunday for a few hours before starting on the final leg of the trip to Queenstown. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it back again, so in a “go big or go home” kind of mood, returned to Invercargill Sunday morning with about two hours to spare.
In the world of travel, two hours to see a city is the equivalent of a two-minute speed dating session. I’d done it before in Belgium while on a weekend trip to Amsterdam, when the group I was with pulled off in Brugges for an extended lunch break and we had about an hour and a half to see the medieval city. The downside is, obviously, you miss a lot, but the benefit is that you usually see only the best of what the city has to offer. You get all the interesting architecture, well-planned parks and maybe a museum, without time to get lost, time for frustration over the transport system, and definitely not any time to get bored. It’s genius.
I had picked up a brochure outlining the Invercargill Heritage Trail, which was helpful in that I was able to scan it for must-sees and misses on my blitz of the city. Like many of the other cities I’ve seen on the South Island thus far, most of the historic buildings were constructed in mainly Edwardian and Victorian styles, so I appreciated the Art Deco-themed architecture that set the city apart. Invercargill slowly grew to life in the 1850s as people from Dunedin looked further south for land for sheep runs. In 1856, the Governor of New Zealand, Sir Thomas Gore Browne, gave his approval for both a new port at Bluff to address the stock needs of the farmers and for a new township nearby: Invercargill. He looked to John Turnbull Thomson, the chief surveyor of the Otago region, to map out of the city, to be named after William Cargill, Superintendent of Otago. Thomson’s plans for Invercargill included a grid-iron street layout, plenty of gardens and public reserves, and the spacious 40 meter wide streets that the city is now famous for. An aluminum smelter 20 kilometers to the south helps to give Invercargill the industrial feel many notice upon visiting.
Despite the significance of places like the Town Hall, Public Trust building, the Water Tower and even the YMCA, with its interesting fusion of turn-of-the-century architecture and modern murals, it’s not the buildings I will remember most about the city but its sculptures. If there’s one thing Invercargill has perfected, it would have to be the art of a well-placed and well-thought-out sculpture. In front of the city council building stands ‘Blade of Grass is Strength,’ the winning entry in a sculpture competition to commemorate Invercargill’s centennial celebration in 1971. The steel sculpture has one blade that arcs upward and another that loops once and then curves to meet the point of the first blade. As a plaque describes, it not only “symbolizes the importance of pasture to the economy of Invercargill,” but more specifically:
Points Upward à Aspiration, growth and progress
Entwined à Strength linked for cooperation
Revolving à For an all around view
Thirty years later, in conjunction with the new millennium, the city revealed yet another symbolic statue – an umbrella. Now before you begin thinking, much like I first did, of the randomness of such an object, several plaques clear up any questions: there is nothing random about this massive steel umbrella. Every facet of it represents something, from the spiral handle reflecting how our solar system is on one of the spiral arms of our galaxy to the alignment of the umbrella reflecting John Turnbull Thomson’s initial surveys of the city’s main streets. Overall, though, the sculpture draws its meaning from the fact that the umbrella is “one of the oldest inventions” (who knew?) and “symbolizes the protector from rain and Sun for the 5,013 Invercargill family names below.” Indeed, the ground surrounding the umbrella is paved with bricks that have all been inscribed with the names of the families living in Invercargill in the year 2000. Talk about cultivating community spirit. Titled “Our People – Time and Place,” the whole affair is very much based on the astronomical and cosmological significance of the region. Suffice it to say, both sculptures were a welcome chance to stop and think while running from building to building.
My architectural tour of the city complete, I paid a final visit to Queens Park and the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, bizarrely shaped like a pyramid. The gardens were part of Thomson’s first plans for the city, in which he set aside 80 hectares (about 200 acres) for public reserves. Hailed as “Southland’s premier park,” it certainly doesn’t disappoint. With its rose gardens, bandstand and pond, it was very much reminiscent of the parks in London, especially with the Peter Pan and Tinkerbell statue much like the one in the Kensington Gardens, but the kunekune pigs and wallabies in the Animal Reserve swiftly reminded that I am indeed in New Zealand.
I left the park feeling content and very happy about my brief encounter with Invercargill. It was a pleasant city and, as an immigration website describes it, one that “has all the benefits of city life with few of the drawbacks.”
I’ll need to spend more time there to disagree, but as for now, I wouldn’t be opposed to a second date…