Friday, March 16, 2012

Invercargill: Almost as far south as you can go

Beach across from The Pavillion.
 Invercargill is a tidy city, capital of the Southland, with a horse racing track and the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, known for its breeding program with the tuatara, a "living fossil," the only survivor of a strain of reptiles that lived along with the dinosaurs.

Tip: Invercargill is blissfully flat.

My home away from home was the Ascot Park Hotel, near the track and more motel than hotel with an indoor pool and a good restaurant. Rooms were large and well equipped and the staff as friendly and helpful as any encountered in New Zealand, especially Peter Risdale, the genial executive manager. An avid hunter and fisherman, he even raided his own freezer so our group of travel writers could sample the Southland's wild delicacies. We might not have appreciated the locally esteemed mutton bird, but we adored his enthusiasm and generosity.

Southland Museum.


Baby tuatara.

You can't miss the Southland Museum - it's in the largest pyramid in the Southern hemisphere (try that for a bar bet). I'm told it has some great exhibits but I went straight to the tuatara area where we met curator Lindsay Hazley and his protege, Henry, a sometimes affable lizard who is the patriarch of the breeding group. Hazley filled us in on tuatara (pronounced too-ah-tah-rah) lore.

Female tuatara peeking out from her burrow.
Patience is required in the breeding of tuatara. After all, it could be the least evolved creature on earth, having hardly changed since it shared earth with the dinosaurs 250 million years ago.

Once every two to five years the female will be ready to mate. If she's interested in the male sitting outside her burrow they will mate and eight or nine months later she will lay and bury six to 10 eggs. Then it's an 11- to 16-month wait for babies to hatch. If the soil around the eggs is warm, most if not all will be males. If it is cool, look for females.

Harry has a shy moment.
Hazley soon had us laughing over Henry's plight. After being mate-less for so long Henry went wild when faced with a number of compliant females, becoming a father for the first time in 2008 at the randy old age of 111. However, so busy did Henry become that fewer and fewer of the eggs his ladies laid were actually fertilized. Henry was enthusiastically going through the motions but shooting blanks.

One of Henry's male "helpers
Quality rather than quantity is a hard lesson to get across to a lusty lizard. Fortunately, Henry is no longer alone in the mature male department and little tuataras are springing up regularly.

Once hatched the tuatara is here to stay. They mature sexually in 15 to 20 years and can live to be over 100. Perhaps we could, too, if we could do without water, breathe only once an hour and had a third eye on the top of our heads. And, dear readers, that's no doubt the most lizard lore you'll ever encounter in a travel story.

Speedy Burt Munro Indian
You may not care an oil can about motorcycles, but do stop in at E. Hayes & Sons, Ltd. It's the home of the original Indian, owned by Burt Munro, on which he broke so many land speed records. The speedy Southlander set the World Record class S-A 1000cc with an average speed of 183.568 (one way 190.07 mph).  That was at Bonneville in 1967. Monroe had done all the  modification work himself. The bike was 47 years old, Monroe was 68. The record still stands.

Bikes and birdhouses share space at E. Hayes.
The Hayes family's collection of classic motorcycles and cars is interspersed with their stock, the likes of which you probably haven't encountered under one roof. It ranges from every tool and machine part you have and haven't heard of and camping gear from tents to shoes to kitchenware, fine linens, porcelain and crystal. Their block-sized store would leave Wal-mart green with envy and you won't find it easy to leave. I was lucky to have emerged with only Munro memorabilia for the motorcycle and speed enthusiast on my Christmas list and a Warhol-like sheep motif dish towel for myself.

The Te Hikoi, Heritage and Cultural Centre , Southern Journey Museum, is about 25 minutes from Invercargill and well worth a visit.  Start with a movie in the sailing ship theater and learn about the area's past and the wealth of characters who filled it.

Owen McShane's products.
 Owen McShane, for example, was famous for brewing beer and distilling cabbage tree rum and whiskey - Cooper's Schnapps and McShane's Chained Lightening to the whalers who bought it. One of the area's many characters, the Irishman came here in the mid-1800s but never got rich, drinking up most of his profits.

The Pavillion.
Carrot cake at the Pavillion.
While you're out that way, stop in at The Pavillion on Colac Bay for more beautiful scenery and some really good food. If they have carrot cake, don't miss it.


Post a Comment