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Southland and Stewart Island
"of oysters, tuatara, and bootleg hooch "
If you're the sort of person who likes to fossick around where other tourists rarely go, then go south to Invercargill and it's off-shore add-on, Stewart Island.
There are three reasons to go to Southland. Stewart Island is one. Another is oysters. The third is tuataras. (Or to be more grammatically correct (GC?), tuatara - Maori plurals do not add a final "s". GC is PC.
Let's dispose of the oysters first. (Delicious thought). Bluff oysters are a gourmet's delight. Big, succulent, and blessed with a particularly fine flavour as a result of growing wild in the cold waters of Foveaux Strait . . . well might anybody travel out of their way to find them in season, March to August.
If you're one of those folk who likes to go to extremes - then Bluff's a must, 27km from Invercargill, the point that most people consider to be the most southerly spot in NZ. Actually it's not, that honour belongs to Slope Point (see below), but it's a great deal easier to reach here and is generally enshrined in local lore - North Cape to the Bluff in NZ is like Land's End to John o' Groats in Britain.
There's a sign out there which will tell you just how far from home you really are. About as far as it's possible to get for anyone from the Northern Hemisphere.
Most provincial museums are rather boring collections of Victoriana - and Invercargill has some of that too - but it also has something quite unique, a tuatarium.
Dinosaurs, contrary to popular opinion, are not all extinct. The tuatara is a living relative of the prehistoric monster which disappeared 100 million years ago. It's often referred to as a "living fossil". They grow to about 60cm long (24ins) and among their more fascinating features is a rudimentary third eye. It is found in the wild on a few very remote islands, having been nearly extincted by rats, and is one of the most protected species in the country. Unfortunately some two-legged rats are among the worst predators - rot them - smuggling the beasts overseas to a lucrative black market trade.
One attraction of Stewart Island is that it's about as close to the South Pole as you are ever likely to reach - at that point you are close to Lat. 47 deg S. In the southern tip of South America - Patagonia, Tierra de Fuego, the Falklands etc - there are more southerly habitations, but you have to be a determined and intrepid adventurer to get there.
But apart from that, it's a place with its own special magic. It's one of those tranquil, unspoiled backwaters where time and life move at a more human pace than out here in the global funny-farm.
Back in 1909 an eminent botanist, Leonard Cockayne, described it as "an actual piece of the primeval world". And that primevality has been preserved for us to marvel at. Today over 90 per cent of the island is administered by the Department of Conservation which is charged with maintaining its pristine state. Much of the DoC conservation land has been incorporated into Rakiura National Park which was opened in March 2002.
Another botanist, the redoubtable Joseph Banks, who was on Capt. James Cook's explorations in the late18th century, described his foray into the primeval forest thus: "I was awed by the singing of the birds ashore. Their voices were the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells." On Stewart Island the wild music of the ancient forests can still be heard. And that alone should be sufficient reason fro you to go there, for nowhere else on this blighted planet will you connect so easily with your ancient heritage.
You can go bush-walking, fishing, hunting, scuba-diving . . . unhassled, unhurried, undisturbed.
It's probably the only place in New Zealand where you'll see kiwis - the real feathered sort - in their natural habitat.
There are a number of cruise operators who will take you fishing, diving, sightseeing - or transport you to walking track points.
Another way of exploring the coastline is sea kayaking.
Gumboot Theatre is a one-woman half-hour show held right on the waterfront in a tiny 20-seater theatre. 'Lamingtons and Confetti' is an entertaining insight into Stewart Island life.
While you're there you may have a chance to see the Aurora Australis, the southern equivalent of the Northern Lights. But even if they're not on display. catch the wildly coloured sunsets they get this far south.
Invercargill to Balclutha
The coast road through the Catlins Forest from Invercargill to Balclutha is by far the most interesting way to travel from to or from Dunedin. The other option is SH 1 through Gore, but rural Southland, beautifully manicured though it is, is probably nothing new at that stage.
Allow a day for the journey and stop to see and do the various things along the way.
The floor of Porpoise bay is a fossilised kauri and conifer forest that flourished 160m years ago. A forest of this age is rare anywhere in the world and it is absolutely protected.
Further along the road, if you've planned your attack right, you can visit Cathedral Caves at Waipati Beach, a series of inter-connected caves ranging from 30 to 50m in height and running up to 100m back into the cliff. The attraction is the acoustics. If you're a singer (or whistler) don't miss it..
OK that's the solitude, the tuatara, and the oysters, but what's the go on the bootleg hooch? Last century this area had a very strong Scottish strain among its settlers. And among the skills they brought was the canny ability to mix barley, water, and peat smoke to brew the wee dram for which Scotland is well known - whisky. Except here in the uncouth Antipodes it was illegal. The township of Hokonui and the hills behind it are famous for their connection with the illegal whisky industry. Indeed the word "Hokonui" probably means bootleg booze to most older New Zealanders, rather than the name of a simple provincial village. But when you pass through said rustic village you might have a look in on the Hokonui Moonshine Museum which celebrates this notorious past.
Bio-alert: Thanks to some half-wit fisherman who didn't clean his/her gear before coming here we now have rivers infected with didymo, or rock-snot as it is sometimes called. If you move from one river to another please, please clean your gear thoroughly. For more info go to the MAF website.
The rivers of Southland are famous for their fishing - mostly brown trout. The Mataura, the Oreti and 26 others are lurking locations for serious fish.
A New Zealand Travel Guide is written by David Morris and published by
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14 March 2012