Summer read: George Driver heads to the end of the Earth to spend his birthday alone in New Zealand’s forgotten city.
First published on April 10, 2021
“Don’t go to Invercargill.”
I’d spent most of my life a couple of hours’ drive from Invercargill. But every time I considered going I was confronted with this advice: “Don’t go, it’s not worth it.” And as the city is all but on the way to nowhere, for 32 years I’d never found a reason to visit.
But Invercargill has developed a kind of mystique for me. I’ve seen the world, more or less. Hiked through blizzards in the Himalaya, over minefields in Laos, walked barefoot through sand dunes in the Sahara, squelched through mud on the battlefields of Passchendaele. I’ve seen enough cathedrals, monasteries and Roman ruins to fill multiple SD cards and driven the length of Aotearoa several times.
I’ve seen some shit.
I’ve never seen Invercargill.
So in a bid to resurrect my dormant travel writing career, I made a pitch: to visit Invercargill on my 32nd birthday, alone. A mediocre birthday (who celebrates 32?) in what some consider the country’s most mediocre town. Or as my editor put it: “A lonely birthday in the world’s loneliest town.”
As I left Central Otago those words began to lose their humour. I was leaving my partner, nearly eight months pregnant, behind. This would have been our last milestone together before parenthood. I was electing to spend it alone, in the loneliest place on Earth. Driving through the Roxburgh Gorge I momentarily thought about once again abandoning Invercargill. But then what better way to celebrate this final birthday than with one last supremely selfish act. I like travelling alone. I like not having to negotiate what to do, what to eat, not having to consider someone else’s feelings.
It would be an introvert’s ultimate birthday party.
At the end of the world.
On a Monday.
Driving south beyond Gore it was like the landscape finally gave up. Like the features had all been used up on either coast: the mountains of Fiordland and the raw coastline of the Catlins. In between, the green monochrome of the Southland Plains slumped towards Foveaux Strait, the landscape only disturbed by farm hedgerows and intermittent smokestacks from milk plants and sawmills.
It was almost a relief to reach the graveyard marking the edge of Invercargill. A light drizzle began to fall as I drove down the main strip, Tay Street, State Highway One, lined with brick and tile and weatherboard homes and vacant motels with colonial names: the Monarch, Admiral Court, Balmoral Lodge.
Entering the CBD, I parked outside a restaurant called Timaru Roast, put 50c – all the change I had – into an old fashioned parking meter, buying just 20 minutes to spend in town.
The main street was part 19th century grandeur, part typical regional centre, part construction site.
My side of the street was, refreshingly, mostly ma and pa stores: a bike shop, an outdoors store, a toy store, a kebab shop and something called Motorcycle Mecca. Opposite, across four busy lanes of traffic, was “Invercargill Central”. The council and a developer have gone in cahoots to build this $165m retail development, a kind of SodoSopa of the south, set to open next year. It would house a boutique food court, retail, office blocks, apartments and 675 car parks which would apparently bring 1500 people to the CBD each day. Starbucks and Farmers have already signed up as tenants. But at the moment the construction site envelops an entire city block, crammed with cranes erecting concrete slabs behind a handful of colonial facades which have been retained.
On the opposite corner is what looks like Invercargill’s last think big project, the H&J Smith department store, featuring an enormous 1970s digital clock, alternating between time and temperature: 10.50am, 13 degrees.
I intended to get more change for the parking meter, but at this point I wondered if I might leave with minutes to spare. But I persisted and around the corner, on Esk Street, were signs of life. Young families and retirees out running errands – including an elderly man walking around wearing a motorbike helmet – and workers and businessmen filled cafes lining small pedestrian-friendly streets. It was thriving for a drizzly Monday in March – not the rundown and abandoned centre I had anticipated.
It seemed 20 minutes would not suffice. After driving to park beyond the bounds of the parking meters, I wandered down Dee Street (they all seem to be monosyllabic) and entered Hubbers Emporium. Part antiques dealer, part secondhand shop, part refuse station, Hubbers is like a museum of southern kitsch and nostalgia, the priceless and the worthless jumbled together. Tobacco tins and silverware, antique clocks and candlestick holders, doll houses and deer antlers. A pile of swords and bayonets occupied an entire table; a dozen walking sticks filled a barrel beside it. The walls were lined with sickly sweet landscape paintings and portrait photographs of people nobody wanted on their walls anymore. I found a trophy awarded to fourth place in a 1999 fishing competition. Over 22 years it had found its way from Manukau City Trophies and Engraving to end up in Hubbers. It was like a steady flow of suburban detritus had flowed down the country and accumulated here, saved from being discarded into the southern sea. The place was thriving.
The elderly shop owner approached and asked me to refrain from taking photos. He explained the photos could end up online and be picked up by Chinese manufacturers who would mass produce his stock and run him out of business, but I could not quite imagine a factory churning out thousands of Weetbix tins from 1974. He said a doctor from Auckland once took a photo of one of his priceless paintings and they were now being printed in their thousands and sold around the country. One of the customers, a middle aged Invercargillian, overheard and backed him up. “If it’s a digital camera then you can delete the photos right now,” she pointed out.
I smiled and nodded. The woman warmed. She said there were a dozen antiques shops in Invercargill, but Hubber’s was known for having the most discerning stock. I smiled and nodded some more.
I came to learn that Hubbers was no anomaly. The southern city was filled with museums, stores and people you would find nowhere else – objects and characters that had filtered down the country and collected together just before the coast.
Down the road, past a row of colonial shop fronts and a century-old warehouse still inscribed with “Briscoe & Company Limited Wholesale Ironmongers”, I entered a hardware store. Among shelves of chainsaws and lubricants were more priceless artefacts, the possessions of perhaps Invercargill’s most celebrated eccentric, Burt Munro. From a workshop at his Invercargill home, Munro developed the “world’s fastest Indian” – a motorcycle that would set three world speed records, made from parts refabricated from old truck axles and other discarded junk. Before his death he sold some of his bikes to Norman Hayes, owner of E Hayes and Sons hardware store. A handful of his bikes and tools are now on display there in the middle of the shop, including Munro’s heavily modified 1936 500cc Velocette, the fastest of its kind in the world. You can still see the tape holding the seat together.
I would have stayed longer – there’s also a cafe, gift shop and car museum within the hardware store – but my 90 minutes parking was up and I drove to Queens Park. I believe you can judge a city solely by its public gardens and Queens Park is one of the best in the country. Over 80 hectares, the park includes an 18 hole golf course, a cafe and bar, an aviary, dozens of sculptures and numerous playgrounds, busy with young families. Somewhere in the sprawling forests and fields there were also alpacas, ostriches and wallabies.
I went straight to the park’s centrepiece, an enormous white pyramid. It once housed the city’s museum but has been closed for earthquake strengthening since 2018. Fortunately its most renowned exhibit is still open. A strip of windows look into an enclosure housing five tuatara, including one named Henry, said to be over 120 years old. The museum once housed over 100 tuatara but now fewer than 20 are left – the bulk moved to a Marlborough Sounds reserve. I spent a good 10 minutes with the little lizards. They did not move.
In the late afternoon the drizzle began to clear, the temperature soared into the mid teens and I drove 10 minutes to Oreti Beach, entertaining ideas of a birthday swim. The 26km strip of sand has the distinction of being one of the few beaches that you can legally drive on. I would like to write that I blatted along the sand with a renewed sense of freedom before parking up at a secluded spot and plunging into the Southern Ocean. But I had bought a new (to me) car a week earlier, the kind with a safety rating worthy of a newborn baby, and the thought of combining salt and sand with my most valuable possession filled me with middle-aged dread.
I parked on the sand, metres from the safety of the tarmac, rolled my jeans up to the knee and wadded with abandon, exercising the kind of caution befitting my 32 years.
I made it to Bluff in golden-hour light, stopping every few hundred metres to take photos like a helpless tourist, desperately erasing pictures of Delphi and Pompeii from my SD card as it continually reached capacity.
I ordered oysters and chips at a simple seaside shop and dined on a picnic table, fighting off seagulls in the sunset. Afterwards, I drove to the end of SH1 and watched as Tiwai Point’s smelter and the multicoloured containers at South Port began to glow as the light faded. Finding the town’s two pubs closed I returned to Invercargill for a birthday beer in a sports bar in a hotel lobby, seemingly the only place still open. I drank a can of Emerson’s alongside two old timers sharing a jug of Speights and we sat in silence, listening to the gentle sounds of the adjoining gaming lounge. It was one of the best birthdays I’ve had.
In the morning the drizzle returned, but I still had two more museums to visit. South Invercargill’s centre, South City, is home to what must surely be the country’s largest working video store. The United Video occupies almost an entire block and I spent 20 minutes walking through row after row of audiovisual nostalgia.
Surprisingly, the company’s website claims there are still 12 United Video stores nationwide, clinging to settlements on the edge of rural New Zealand: Ashburton, Gore, Masterton, Morrinsville, New Brighton, Palmerston North, Taradale, Te Puke, Timaru, Whangamatā and Whangarei. Sadly, the owner informed me the store was downsizing. They were selling half their stock – a Kiwibank and a pharmacy were moving in within weeks.
My final stop was Demolition World. On the fringe of the south end of town, just as the tarmac runs out on Bain Street, Demolition World is billed as “a place like no other” and “a journey back through time”. I had no idea what to expect.
Beyond the parking lot I was greeted by a flock of poultry a hundred strong, which I was forced to navigate through to reach the entrance. Chickens perched on the entrance gate. They did not move, riding the gate as I swung it open and shut.
Beyond, more birds descended on me, clucking and quaking in a state of anguish. At this point I went to leave, but the owner found me and waved me through a dark archway of overgrown plants as she proceeded to feed the birds a box of stale buns. The muddy yard turned into feathery chaos.
Down the archway I came to an entire village of gloomy shacks exclusively inhabited by mannequins. There was a chapel with bride and groom mannequins at the altar. There was a dental clinic, complete with dentist’s chair, a hospital with aging medical paraphernalia, dolls and mannequins playing patients, a solitary skeleton. There was a bar and bakery, a bank, a theatre, even a jail, all inhabited by mannequins and painstakingly decorated with on-theme junk.
The level of detail was astounding. The effort, the horror. On Bain Street.
The village was coated in a fine film of feathers and faeces from the hundreds of ducks, geese and chickens that have also made the place home.
I have seen some weird shit around the world. This is the weirdest place I have ever been.
At the reception I met the owner, Lee Fallow, who appeared remarkably not weird.
She said she had built the village over the past 27 years, slowly growing it as her husband acquired abandoned buildings in his demolition business. She ran a recycle and recovery business and continually acquired objects to decorate the salvaged shacks.
“It just feels like this was always meant to be here,” she said. I smiled and nodded.
Demolition World is now firmly on the southern tourist circuit and features in guidebooks around the world. It has broken into Tripadvisor’s top 10 things to do in Invercargill. Google Reviews gives it 4.5 stars.
“I never dreamed we’d have people coming from around the world to see it, but people keep coming and seem to love it,” Lee said.
After a remarkable 24 hours, I left wondering why I had never visited Invercargill before. Why has it been so derided by everyone I’ve met?
Sure, the city itself has no landscape or seafront, its museum and art gallery are shuttered, the downtown is cloaked in scaffolding and the weather is terrible. But the city offers something more valuable – the time and space for those on the fringe to hoard and create value from the weird and the worthless. It’s a conservative place that seems to celebrate the different – it has elected a radical leftwing activist and cannabis party candidate as mayor eight times.
And yet the city’s biggest investment in years involves turning the CBD into a megamall, making it a little more like everywhere else.
Hopefully some of the buildings being bulldozed will find their way to Demolition World.
Hopefully I’ll bring my daughter back soon to find out.
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