Make the Most of Invercargill

If you want to head about as far south as you can before hitting Antarctica, book a ticket for Invercargill. It’s the southernmost and westernmost city on New Zealand’s South Island, and is often used as a base for travellers exploring wild and wonderful Fiordland, the Catlins and even Stewart Island. 

Many people refer to Invercargill as the City of Water and Light because it sits right on the Waihopai River estuary, has very long days during the summer, and is a prime spot for seeing the Aurora Australis (southern lights) during winter. Although nowhere near as well known as the northern lights, the southern version is just as spectacular. They can be unpredictable, but the best time to see them is between April and September, when the sky is clear and there’s little to no moon. You can set alerts on the Aurora Service website (or visit its Twitter account) to see when the aurora strength is high. 

With a rental car and a few days, expect to see the best of Invercargill and its surroundings. 


What to See in Invercargill 

You might originally have heard of Invercargill when you first watched The World’s Fastest Indian, the movie about Burt Munro, played by Anthony Hopkins, who set out from New Zealand to set the land speed record on his 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Find out more about Burt at the E Hayes Motorworks Collection where, as well as more than a hundred pieces of vintage farm machinery, engines and cars, you can see his famous motorbike. 

The city centre itself has beautiful Art Deco, Edwardian, and Victorian heritage buildings. In fact, you can follow the Invercargill Heritage Trail and take in 18 sites, including gardens and parks, best explored over half a day in your rental car. 

If the sun is shining, take the opportunity to go for a stroll through Queens Park, spread over 80 hectares with manicured gardens, wildlife habitats and sports areas. Be sure to head to the Winter Garden, filled with tropical and flowering plants. 

Just a few minutes’ drive from the centre of Invercargill is spectacular
Oreti Beach. It’s one of the few beaches in New Zealand where you can drive a 4WD or ride a motorcycle on the sand. A much better idea is to go for a long walk and cool down with a splash in the shallows afterwards. 

Head East to the Catlins 

There’s a direct inland route to the Catlins, but the coastal road trip is rugged and magical. You’ll discover deserted beaches, native forests, waterfalls, blow holes and a petrified forest. If that last highlight sounds unique that’s because it is. Head to Curio Bay as the tide is going out to see a 180-million-year-old fossil forest. It’s revealed as the water level drops. Curio Bay is also home to two endangered species. There’s a colony of yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) and a resident pod of Hector’s dolphins (upokohue) that you might be able to spot when you visit. 

Another must-see attraction will have you heading inland and taking a short walk. Purakaunui Falls is a three-tier cascade that pours more than 20 metres down through the surrounding bush. A longer 40-minute return walk into Catlins Conservation Park is McLean Falls. These dramatic 20-metre bridal-veil waterfalls drop into a deep gorge.


If you happen to be in the area when low tide is approaching, walk through the forest to Waipati Beach where you’ll find Cathedral Caves. Two-hundred metres of tunnels take you to a series of grand, 30-metre-high caverns. Access to them only opens two hours before low tide and closes an hour after for safety reasons. 


Head West to Fiordland 

It’s a two-hour drive in the rental car to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland and Milford Sound. Because it’s set on the edge of a lake, one of the best ways to explore and take in the scenery is on Cruise Te Anau’s Discovery Cruise. For three hours, you’ll see the best of the South Fiord of Lake Te Anau, getting close to the sheer mountains before hopping off to take a walk through the rainforest to Hidden Lakes. 

There’s also a cruise involved in one of the town’s other popular attractions. You’ll do a quick trip to the western side of Lake Te Anau on the way to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Over the past 12,000 years, these caves have been carved out of limestone by a river that runs through them. On their own, they’re a wonderful sight, but you’ll also get to jump into a small boat to venture to a hidden grotto where glow worms create a glittering display. 

If you’ve got time to overnight on the west coast, Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling once described as the eighth wonder of the natural world, is another two-hour drive from TeAnau. Set in Fiordland National Park, it’s a place of dramatic beauty. Take a day cruise to see the best of the scenery or walk along the foreshore trail or to Key Summit, where you’ll move through forests before arriving at the top for 360-degree views of the region. 


When you’re ready to explore Invercargill and Southland, hire a rental car to make it easy.