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Southland places

by  David Grant

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in the Southland region.


Invercargill is New Zealand’s southernmost city, and the capital of Southland, with a 2013 population of 47,892.

Mostly flat, Invercargill stretches over an open plain beside the Waihopai River estuary. The city depends mainly on its farming hinterland, and to a lesser extent on the aluminium smelter 20 km to the south. The importance of the region’s productive pastures to the city is symbolised by the Blade of Grass, a revolving statue of polished steel outside the administration buildings in Esk Street.

River roads

When surveyor John Turnbull Thomson laid out Invercargill in the 1850s he named principal streets after Scottish rivers – Dee, Tweed, Tay and Clyde. He provided for spacious 40 m wide streets, which allowed ample scope for growth in traffic in years to come.


John Turnbull Thomson, chief surveyor for the Otago province, selected the site for the new town, and laid out the streets in 1856. Sections were first sold in March 1857. By December the town had 14 houses, two hotels and three stores. A hospital serving Invercargill and surrounding districts first opened in 1861. The Invercargill Times, later the Southland Times, was founded in 1862.

Boom and bust: 1860–1870

After Southland separated from Otago province in 1861, Invercargill became the centre of the new province. The gold rush in Otago’s Wakatipu district, closer to Invercargill than to Dunedin, boosted the town in 1863 but was not repeated. Railway lines to Winton and Bluff were started but not finished, and the debt-ridden province reunited with Otago in 1870.


Invercargill’s first settler was Irishman John Kelly, a seaman who was living on Ruapuke Island. In March 1856, he moored his boat in the Ōtepuni Creek, put up the settlement’s first building for his wife and children, and ferried settlers up the estuary and into the hinterland. For a while, the new settlement was named Inverkelly after him. (‘Inver’ is a Gaelic prefix meaning ‘at the mouth of’.) It was only later that the growing town was named in honour of Captain William Cargill, the Superintendent of Otago province.

A growing town: 1870 to early 1900s

The first borough (town) elections were held in August 1871. Immigration, promoted by the government during the 1870s, saw the population increase. Gasworks opened in 1876 and waterworks in 1888: Invercargill’s 300,000-brick water tower remains one of the city’s landmarks. Horse-drawn trams first operated in the 1880s and cycling boomed in the flat town.

Farming industries developed rapidly through the 1890s and early 1900s. Dairy factories and freezing works opened throughout the province, and Invercargill’s population doubled between 1891 and 1916.


Invercargill was marked by its Presbyterianism. Its churches were substantial constructions. The First Presbyterian Church building, completed in 1915, is in the Italo-Byzantine style, with a 32-metre tower. Presbyterians were a strong force in voting the town ‘dry’ in 1905; it stayed that way until 1943.

1900 to 1930s

A number of suburban districts joined the town in 1909 and the tramway system was electrified in 1912. At that time Invercargill had the world’s southernmost trams and electric lamp posts.

In the First World War (1914–18), 430 Invercargill young men went to fight; 98 did not return.

Between the world wars (1918–39), Invercargill rivalled Whanganui for the rank of largest town after the four main centres. It acquired city status in 1930.

Post-war boom: 1945–1975

Southland’s pastoral economy thrived after the Second World War, and Invercargill followed suit. Its population rose from 27,500 in 1945 to 47,000 in 1971 (the year in which the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter opened at Bluff) – a satisfactory result for the city’s ‘40,000 club’.

Downturn from the 1980s

After the growth of the post-war years, Invercargill began to stagnate. Returns from farming were flat. The smelter did not lead to downstream industries as hoped, as it was cheaper to ship aluminium to markets than finished products.

Over 20 years, the city’s population dropped from 53,868 (in 1981) to 46,311 (2001). In a controversial move, primary and intermediate schools were merged, and two secondary schools closed in 1997. The Christchurch–Invercargill ‘Southerner’ passenger rail service ceased in 2002.

The Shadbolt era

The enthusiastic public relations of mayor Tim Shadbolt (a well-known former political radical) put paid to Invercargill’s conservative image, and gave the city a national profile. Auckland-born and raised Shadbolt was first elected mayor in 1992 and was still in office in 2020.

Japanese sister

Invercargill’s James Hargest College operates an exchange programme with Kumagaya Nishi High School in Japan – Kumagaya is Invercargill’s twin city.


A $465 million revamp of the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter in 1996 indicated the confidence of Comalco (since 2006 Rio Tinto New Zealand) in the industry. However, the smelter is scheduled to close in 2024. The Southern Sting team dominated the national netball competition for the 10 years it ran, from 1998 to 2007, with sell-out crowds filling the new Stadium Southland. The Invercargill Licensing Trust’s underwriting of the ‘no fees’ policy of local tertiary institutions saw a big increase in student numbers at the Southern Institute of Technology. The population increased by 1,100 between 2006 and 2013.

Marae and gallery

The Murihiku marae, in the south-east of the city, dates from 1983, when the wharekai (eating house) was opened. The wharenui (meeting house), Te Rakitauneke, was opened in 1990.

The pyramid-shaped building of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, on the edge of Queens Park, is home to art and historical exhibitions, and to 50 live tuatara.

Around Invercargill

East to Gorge Road

The settlements of Tisbury, Waimatua, Timpanys, Mokotua, Kāpuka, Ashers and Gorge Road are on the road east from Invercargill. Ōteramika and Waituna are north of the road; Kāpuka South is south of it.

The first European settlers established sheep and dairy farms in these districts. Flax milling began in the 1900s and continued until the 1970s.

Townships have now largely disappeared. Many farms have either merged or been split into four-hectare lots for Invercargill workers. Five primary schools were closed in 1969, and pupils are bussed to Gorge Road School, which had a roll of just 52 in 2015.

North-east on State Highway 1

Kennington (8 km north-east of Invercargill) has a variety of industries including a wood-veneer plant, sawmill and venison-processing factory

Woodlands (18 km north-east) was named after William de Gouge Wood who settled there in 1858. It is the site of an agricultural research station, and had a 2013 population of 261.

Dacre (25 km north-east) is the site of AM radio transmitters for the radio stations 4YZ, Newstalk ZB and the Radio Sport Network. The two-teacher Dacre School celebrated its centenary in 1999.

North on State Highway 6

Lorneville (10 km north of Invercargill at the junction with State Highways 98 and 99) was known as Wallace Junction until 1930. The Alliance Group freezing works there is one of the largest in the country.

Makarewa (15 km north) was an early farming settlement. The Invercargill–Makarewa railway, opened in 1864, was the country’s first passenger service. The freezing works, opened in 1912, still operates. In Māori, ‘maka’ means fish hook, and ‘rewa’ means to float. The story goes that a party fishing for eels in the river found their hook swept to the surface in a storm.


Wallacetown lies 15 km north-west of Invercargill, with a 2013 population of 663. The Underwood Milk Preserving Works opened there in 1892. The Nestlé organisation took it over in 1938, and it became best known for making Highlander Sweetened Condensed Milk, before production was transferred to Auckland in 1964. Many Wallacetown residents work in Invercargill.

West Plains

Lying 10 km from Invercargill, West Plains comprises mostly farmlets running a variety of stock – sheep, deer, horses, ostriches and llamas.

A flying first

Invercargill engineer Herbert Pither claimed to have achieved Southland's – and New Zealand's – first powered flight in his home-built plane, flying for a mile (1.6 km) along Ōreti Beach on 5 July 1910.


Ōtatara, 4 km west of Invercargill, just past the city’s airport, has a hall, school and reserve. Nearby is the Teretonga international car-racing circuit. Just south and west of Teretonga lies Sandy Point. Surrounded by bush walks and wetlands, it is a centre for rowing, sailing and boating.

Ōreti Beach (8 km west) faces out to Foveaux Strait. For decades, car and motorcycle races were held along its 13 km of firm sands (it was the home base for legendary Invercargill motorcycle racer Burt Munro). Toheroa shellfish were dug up by thousands of locals in a short season, until declining numbers saw almost all harvesting end in 1981.The dunes are a favourite training ground for runners.

Bluff and the south coast


2013 population: 1,794

Bluff (27 km south of Invercargill) is New Zealand’s southernmost town, and Southland’s port. When sailors off the brig Perseverance arrived in the harbour in 1813 they found a Ngāi Tahu settlement on the seaward side of the 265-metre Bluff Hill (Motupōhue).

Flax-processing ventures failed, but in 1824 James Spencer (Timi Katoa or ‘Jimmy the Strong’) set up a trading post. In 1836 Captain William Stirling started a whaling station for pioneer merchant Johnny Jones. A town, originally named Campbelltown, was surveyed in 1856 and became a customs port: a freight and passenger service to Melbourne lasted for 60 years. The Bluff Harbour Board was formed in 1877, and a borough council in 1878. In 1917 the town was re-named Bluff – which is what locals had always called it.

A busy port town

Bluff thrived on its productive hinterland. It had two freezing works until 1925. A new island harbour equipped with automatic meat loaders opened in 1960, and more than doubled the port’s capacity. The Tīwai Point aluminium smelter began production in 1971 but is scheduled to close in 2024, at the cost of nearly 1000 employees.

There have been previous setbacks: Ocean Beach freezing works closed in 1991, and the parasite Bonomia devastated the harvest of Foveaux Strait oysters from 1986 to the mid-1990s. But Bluff remains home to a fishing fleet which harvests rock lobster and blue cod, and dredges for oysters. There are more fish and shellfish landed at Bluff than at any other New Zealand port. Many of the locals in the fishing industry work in or out of Bluff.

Today the town is best known for the Bluff Oyster and Food festival held every May – a celebration of the nationally-loved delicacy which includes oyster-opening and -eating competitions.

Te Rau Aroha marae, of the Awarua Rūnanga of the Ngāi Tahu tribe, is located in Bluff.

Pāua outage

Bluff couple Fred and Myrtle Flutey created a tourist attraction by covering their house with polished pāua shells and opening it to the public from 1963. Later, after the couple’s deaths, mystery surrounded the destination of the collection when the house was stripped of its 1,170 shells, which were shipped off on a removal truck at night in February 2007. The collection went on display at Canterbury Museum in July 2008, including a re-creation of the Fluteys’ shell-adorned lounge.

Awarua wetlands

The Awarua wetlands comprise nearly 18,000 hectares, with estuarine areas, swamps, forest, tussock land and sand dunes in blocks of land between the New River estuary and Toetoes Bay. The area is home to migratory birds from the northern hemisphere, and birds native to New Zealand.

The wetlands include the Waituna scientific reserve, 3,500 hectares of peat land fronting onto the Waituna Lagoon. In 1976 it was designated a wetland of international importance.


The small, windswept settlement of Fortrose sits near a lagoon at the mouth of the Mataura River on Toetoes Bay, in Southland's south-east.

The site of an early Māori settlement and a whaling station for a couple of years in the 1830s, it thrived as a port until the railway from Invercargill reached nearby Waimāhaka in 1899, making it practical to ship goods through the larger port at Bluff. Today a few houses and cribs (holiday homes) remain with a community hall, cafe and cemetery.

Waimāhaka, 10 km north of Fortrose, began as a flax-milling centre in the 1890s. Waimāhaka homestead is a substantial neo-Georgian house built in 1929.


Tokanui (11 km east of Fortrose) began in the 1880s on the back of timber, flax milling and dairying. Today it is a farm service township. The four-teacher primary school, established in 1888, draws children from a wide catchment, having absorbed Fortrose, Ōtara and Quarry Hills schools in 1993.


The farming area of Waikawa is 15 km south-east of Tokanui, on the estuary of the Waikawa River. Waikawa is close to Slope Point, the southernmost point in the South Island. There was a whaling station between 1838 and 1843, after which the settlement became a port for timber, flax and farm produce.

Today, as well as sheep and cattle farming, it offers fishing and dolphin tours. The Curio Bay Jurassic-age fossil forest is nearby, as is Niagara, jokingly named for its modest waterfall. Between Waikawa and Chaslands, the Southern Scenic Highway crosses the Otago–Southland border and enters the heart of the Catlins district.

Eastern Southland


2013 population: 7,353 (town); 9,552 (urban area, including Mataura).

Gore (65 km north-east of Invercargill) is Southland’s second largest town. It lies on the banks of the Mataura River, famed for its brown trout.

Origins and growth

In 1862 sawmiller Daniel Morton opened Long Ford House, an accommodation house providing stables, beds and liquor for travellers. The first sections were surveyed that year, and the town was named after Thomas Gore Browne, governor of New Zealand between 1855 and 1861. However, Gore did not become a borough until 1885.

The settlement expanded rapidly in the 1890s and 1900s, after which growth remained steady. After the Second World War, three prosperous decades saw the population rise from 5,000 in 1945 to 9,000 in 1976. During the 1960s it was reputed to have the highest per-capita retail turnover of any New Zealand town.

A flaming mystery

In 1959, on windless nights with a full moon, a series of fires razed buildings in Gore that were owned, rented or even considered for purchase by the borough council. An arsonist with war experience and some grudge against the council was suspected. After a period of high drama, the fires ceased. The culprit was never identified.


The farm sector was not as buoyant after 1976, and since then the population has fallen. Related businesses have closed, including the cereal mill that had processed oats and other grains since 1877.


Gore remains a town of many facets, including the hosting of the national country music awards. Te Whānau ō Hokonui marae is on Charlton Road. The Hokonui Moonshine Museum has displays on the moonshine whisky ‘pioneers’ of the Hokonui Hills. Eastern Southland Gallery secured expatriate New Zealander Dr John Money’s extensive and valuable 300-piece art collection for permanent display in 2002, and also has rooms dedicated to artist Ralph Hōtere.

Around Gore

Charlton is home to Gore’s racecourse, airport and saleyards. The names of former settlements – Chatton, East Chatton, Chatton North, Knapdale, Mandeville, McNab and Pukerau – now identify farming districts. A family marae, Ō te Ika Rama, is located at McNab. Willowbank, Maitland, Wendon Valley and Waikākā are in the Waikākā Valley, where gold was mined until around 1940.

Waimumu (14 km south-west of Gore) has hosted biennial ‘southern field days’, where businesses promote rural technology and services, since 1982. Coal mines operate nearby at New Vale and Goodwin.


2013 population: 1,509

Twelve km south of Gore, Mataura sits beside the Mataura Falls, known to Māori as Te Au Nui, and a source of kanakana (lampreys).

Founded in 1859, the town was shaped by industry – a paper mill (1876), a dairy factory (1887) and freezing works (1893). The falls were blasted by dynamite to harness water for industry, so they are much smaller than originally.

The freezing works still operate, but the dairy factory closed in 1984 and the paper mill in 2000, as did a nearby opencast mine whose principal customer had been the paper mill.

Sawmilling and fibreboard plants remain. Tulloch Transport runs more than 100 trucks throughout the South Island. Cardigan Bay Road is named after Mataura-born Cardigan Bay, New Zealand’s first standard-bred horse to win over $1 million. In the 2010s Trustpower was planning a 240-megawatt wind farm at Kaiwera Downs, 10 km to the east.

At Tuturau a monument commemorates the 1836 defeat by Murihiku Māori of Te Pūoho and his war party from the North Island. Te Hono o te Ika a Māui ki Ngāi Tahu marae is located in Mataura.


2013 population: 555

This settlement is 38 km north-east of Invercargill and 27 km south of Gore. New Zealand’s first dairy factory was built here, after the sheep-station manager Thomas Brydone suggested in 1881 that dairying might be more profitable than running sheep. The plant, much extended, is now the only one in Southland apart from the town milk supply in Invercargill.


2013 population: 534

Wyndham is a farm service centre 10 km east of Edendale, close to the Menzies Ferry crossing of the Mataura River, first bridged in 1874. Redan and Mokoreta districts lie east of the town. Mokoreta is in the valley of the same name, which reaches the western side of Catlins Forest Park.

Wyndham was first surveyed in 1869, and is named after General Sir Charles Windham. During the Crimean War (1854–56) he led an (unsuccessful) attack on a Russian fortress known as the Great Redan – hence the name of nearby Redan.

Mataura River

The Mataura is the most easterly of the four main rivers that have formed the Southland Plains. The headwaters fall just short of draining Lake Wakatipu, but have captured the upper catchment of the Ōreti River. From Athol the Mataura snakes south-east, joining the Waikaia River near Riversdale and following a direct route to the ocean from Gore.

The river is internationally known for its brown trout fly-fishing. The main lower tributary is the Mimihau, which joins the Mataura south of Wyndham, and is also an excellent trout river.

Northern Southland


2013 population: 405

Lumsden is a farm service centre for the western Waimea Plains, 84 km north of Invercargill. It was originally known as ‘The Elbow’ because the Ōreti River turns 90° from east to south at this point.

The town is at the junction of State Highway 6, which runs north to Queenstown and south to Invercargill via Josephville hill, and State Highway 94, which runs north-west to Te Anau, Manapōuri and Milford Sound, and south-east to Gore.

The Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu tribes fought on the nearby Five Rivers plain about 300 years ago. European settlers took up land in the district from 1861, and the first building, the Elbow Hotel, was built in 1862 on the east side of the Ōreti River. The name was changed in 1876 as a compliment to the Honourable George Lumsden, a Scottish trader who became a politician.

Railway lines reached Lumsden from Invercargill in 1878 and Gore in 1880, and the town became a rail junction. Rail services stopped in 1971, but the station building remains a major feature.

Fescue to the rescue

In the 1890s Mossburn farmer George Chewings developed a successful grass seed for the district’s infertile soil. ‘Chewings fescue’ was planted in many New Zealand farms, and sold around the world until the 1950s.


2013 population: 210

Mossburn is 19 km north-west of Lumsden on the road to Te Anau and Milford Sound. A conspicuous stag monument proclaims it ‘the venison capital of the world’. New Zealand’s first deer farm was established nearby in 1972 and a game-processing works has been in operation since 1962. A 29-turbine wind farm has been set up by Meridian Energy at nearby White Hill. West Dome (1,271 m) and Mt Hamilton (1,487 m) are prominent local landmarks.

Where the rivers run

Three of the four main Southland rivers have their headwaters in the Eyre Mountains, between Lake Wakatipu and the Lumsden–Te Anau highway. The Ōreti River approaches within a kilometre of the Māraroa (tributary of the Waiau) and Mataura rivers. Long ago the Ōreti ‘captured’ the headwaters of the fourth river, the Aparima, which rises in the Tākitimu Mountains, south of the highway.

Lumsden to Kingston

Due north of Lumsden, State Highway 6 bisects the Five Rivers district before passing through Athol and Garston and their surrounding sheep stations.

Here the plains give way to rugged country – the Eyre Mountains on the west and the Hector and Garvie Mountains on the east. The area is popular with cross-country skiers, trampers and climbers.

The road continues past Fairlight to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. From 1971 the Kingston Flyer vintage steam train ran as a tourist service. In the early 21st century it operated between Kingston and Fairlight, 14 km to the south.

Waimea Plains

Settlements between Lumsden and Gore are:

  • Balfour (2013 population: 126)
  • Riversdale (2013 population: 372)
  • Mandeville.

Vintage aircraft can be seen at Mandeville, where an 1885 homestead has survived.

The Waimea Plains railway company opened the line between Gore and Lumsden in 1880. In 1886 a number of political figures got the government to buy the line, to shore up their land speculation in the district.


Waikaia is 15 km north of Riversdale, in more rugged country. The first visitors were Māori hunting moa on the tussocklands of the Garvie Mountains and Old Man Range.

Gold discoveries further up the valley in 1862 brought a rambunctious town, known then as Switzers, with hotels, dancing halls and gambling dens. The last productive claim was King Solomon’s Mine, which closed in 1937. A rail line operated from 1909 to 1959.

Sheep and cattle farming are important today, with large runs in the hinterland including the 300,000-hectare Glenaray Station. Deer are also farmed.

Central Southland


2013 population: 2,211

Southland’s third largest centre, Winton is 32 km north of Invercargill. It is named after Tom Winton, a stockman who found lost animals grazing there in 1862. He then camped with his stock by a stream which was named Winton’s Creek.

The district thrived with the development of sheep and fat-lamb farms in the early 1900s. Later, dairy farming became the staple economy, although the town has also seen sawmills, and flax and linen-flax industries.

Not a baby minder

Winton’s most infamous resident was Minnie Dean. She ran a ‘baby farming’ business from the late 1880s, placing babies, mostly illegitimate, in foster homes. Dean was convicted of and hanged for the murder of one of the infants in her care.

Today Winton thrives as an agricultural service town and stop-off for travellers on the Invercargill–Queenstown highway. Its population is not declining, partly because farmers retire there, attracted by a climate that is warmer, drier and calmer than Invercargill or Southland’s coastal districts.


Eighty years ago Browns, 8 km east of Winton, had two sawmills, a lime works, brickworks and tile works, all using local deposits. Only the lime works survives, but the township still has the usual rural services.


Further east towards Gore, Hedgehope was originally noted for its sawmills, flax mills, coal deposits and dairy factory. Today, milling the forestry plantation at nearby Pebbly Hills vies with dairy and sheep farming in keeping its economy buoyant.


Limehills, 10 km north of Winton, is named for the nearby limestone summit that was quarried and processed. It is a centre for farms and some lifestyle blocks, and has a 150-pupil school and a solar-heated swimming pool. The scenic Ōtāpiri Gorge, 10 km to the east, is on a back road through the Hokonui Hills between Gore and Winton.


Situated 28 km north of Winton, Dipton straddles the Ōreti River. One of the earliest European settlements in Southland, at one time it had two schools, three hotels, three general stores, a bakery, saddlery, butcher, bootmaker, dairy factory and flax mill. The Taringatura Hills (highest point 666 m) lie west of the township and are now mostly in pasture.


Drummond, 19 km west of Winton, was formed in 1881 and named after either a local surveyor or William Francis Drummond Jervois, governor of New Zealand from 1882 to 1889.

The township grew after 1893, when the Gladfield Estate was broken into smaller lots. Settlers drained swamps, farmed sheep, and grew oats, wheat, linseed and grasses.

Today Drummond is a typical rural Southland settlement with school, church, store, tavern, garage, rural businesses and community groups – and a striking memorial avenue of trees.

Ōreti River

The 169-km Ōreti River forms at a confluence of streams in the Eyre and Thomson mountains south of Lake Wakatipu. The Ōreti flows east to Lumsden and then south again through central Southland, reaching the sea through the New River estuary at Invercargill. Rainbow and brown trout are caught throughout its length. The Ōreti is the only Southland river that is braided in parts.

The Southland bush

Before European settlement, the flat plains all over Southland were covered by bush – mataī, rimu, lowland beech, kānuka and mānuka, interspersed with tussock grasslands, and swamp and bog in low-lying areas.

The bush settlements

Early settlers named their districts after the bush they cleared. These places still have much in common – small rural settlements usually close to bigger provincial towns, built to serve local farms.

There are at least 18 ‘bushes’. Some remain settlements; others survive only as the name of a district.

  • Bush Siding is a community near Gorge Road, east of Invercargill.
  • Centre Bush, 13 km north of Winton, was first settled in 1865. It retains two churches, craft shops, a school and a rugby club.
  • Croydon Bush, 13 km west of Gore, is named for a tract of bush and the neighbouring district of some 50 sheep and dairy farms, and lifestyle blocks.
  • Eastern Bush covers farmland in the Wairio River valley, 15 km north of Tūātapere.
  • Gropers Bush is equidistant from Ōtautau and Riverton/Aparima. It was said to have been named Hāpuka (groper, a coastal fish) by Māori, because the bush was shaped like the fish. Today, only a tiny library remains.
  • Grove Bush, 20 km north-east of Invercargill, has farms with sheep, cattle and deer.
  • Gummies Bush, just north of Riverton/Aparima, was named after whaler and later pig-farmer James Leader, nicknamed ‘Gummie’ because he had no teeth.
  • Heddon Bush serves a rich cropping and sheep-farming district 20 km north-west of Winton.
  • Longbush, on State Highway 1 near Woodlands, was named after a long stretch of native bush. It now has only a dairy, on the main road.
  • Mabel Bush is close to Grove Bush and serves local farms. It had sawmills and flax mills until the 1930s.
  • Myross Bush, 11 km north-east of Invercargill, is a rich farming district which once had a school, hall, post office and church. The school and hall remain, but most land is lightly farmed by city workers on 4-hectare blocks.
  • Ōtaitai Bush grew as a farming area because it was near the port of Riverton/Aparima. Today, it is home to thoroughbred horse trainers.
  • Roslyn Bush forms a triangle of close farming settlements with Longbush and Myross Bush.
  • Ryal Bush sits between Invercargill and Winton, close to State Highway 6. Sheep, cropping and dairying predominate, and the old schoolhouse serves as a community centre.
  • Seaward Bush skirts the south-east boundary of Invercargill and is now home to a native bush reserve.
  • Spar Bush sits 12 km north-west of Ryal Bush.
  • Wreys Bush community covers an area a few kilometres south-west of Nightcaps, straddling the upper Aparima River.
  • Wrights Bush is a productive sheep- and dairy-farming area between Invercargill and Riverton/Aparima. A transport company is still based there and the community gathers in the hall.
  • Waipango, about 10 km north-west of Riverton/Aparima, was originally known as Wild Bush.

Hokonui Hills

The Hokonui Hills lie between the main Southland plain and the Waimea Plains, rising to between 600 and 700 metres. They were one of Southland’s main forested districts at the time of European settlement, but are now largely in pasture.

Hokonui moonshine

The hills became well-known as a site for illicit distilling. After the arrival of the Highland Scottish McRae clan (skilled distillers from Kintail in western Scotland) in the 1870s, the production of ‘Hokonui moonshine’ spread throughout the province. The whisky, 94% proof at its most potent, was popular with many sections of the community. But it was the scourge of temperance campaigners, police and excise officials between 1903 and 1954, when Gore was ‘dry’. After that, the ‘industry’ waned.

February 2007 saw the inaugural Moonshine Trail races at Gore’s Moonshine Festival – with a 40-km mountain bike race and 30- or 15-km runs across the Hokonui Hills. The US company Rayonier owns forests at the eastern end of the hills.

Riverton / Aparima


2006 population: 1,431

This district lies 38 km west of Invercargill, close to the sea on both sides of the estuary of the Aparima River (also known as the Jacobs River).

It is the oldest Pākehā settlement in Southland and Otago. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was home to a substantial Māori called Aparima, the inhabitants attracted by the harbour and ample seafood. In the mid-1830s, Captain John Howell established a whaling station there. He took a Māori woman of high rank as his wife and thereby acquired a lot of land. Today, a large memorial beside the Aparima River estuary commemorates Howell.

Farming has been the most important economic activity in the district, but there has also been timber and flax milling, gold mining and fishing. Chinese miners worked at Round Hill – about 300 were there in 1888. The port was active for commerce until a railway opened to Invercargill in 1879. Since then it has only been used for fishing and recreation.

Riverton has kept many colonial buildings, and cribs (small holiday homes) have been built on the west side of the estuary, and at the Rocks, on Howell Point. Pleasure craft and fishing boats ply the adjacent seas. Known as ‘Southland’s Riviera’, it is a mecca for artists and craftspeople. The Riverton Racing Club’s two-day Easter carnival is Southland’s best-known race meeting. Te Hīkoi, the Riverton heritage centre, opened in 2007.

Riverton firsts

As Southland’s oldest Pākehā settlement, Riverton/Aparima won a number of firsts for Southland province: the first school was opened in 1837, and within a few years there were three, including one for Māori. The first hospital opened in 1861. Also in 1861, the first recorded horse race was held at a newly built track on the edge of town.

Colac Bay/Ōraka

Colac Bay/Ōraka is 12 km west of Riverton/Aparima. The area has a long history of Māori settlement. European settlers arrived to mill timber in the 1850s, and the settlement boomed after the railway arrived in 1881. By 1900, the township contained some 2,000 inhabitants, and a post office, hall, school, blacksmiths, various shops, three hotels and even a sail maker. Nearby were the Chinese gold diggings at Round Hill.

Today there are sheep, deer and cattle farms, and it is a popular holiday resort with a tavern, cafeteria–bar, shop, camping ground and many holiday homes. Also sited there is the Takutai o te Tītī marae of the Ōraka-Aparima rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. The local surf beach is the most popular in Southland.


Orepuki is a farming centre 30 km west of Riverton/Aparima, on the eastern side of Te Waewae Bay. The name is a corruption of Aropaki (‘bright expanse’). The area is said to have been named by a group of Ngāi Tahu people as they emerged from the dense forest of Pahia Bush Hill and saw the bay for the first time.

The discovery of coal and shale in 1879 put Orepuki on the map. Shale was extracted in huge amounts by the London-based New Zealand Coal and Oil Company. A mine was built, and extraction and processing works operated between 1899 and the beginning of 1903. The workers who stayed turned their hand to sawmilling, but this ended in the 1950s.


From 1880 Thornbury was an important junction, at which rail lines from Invercargill to Riverton and to Nightcaps separated. Its former dairy factory is now a tannery for slink-skins (baby lambskins), which are sent from all over New Zealand.

Aparima River

Formerly known as Jacobs River, this 104-km river rises in the hills between Mossburn and Ōhai, and flows into the sea through a large estuary at Riverton (still named for Jacobs River). It is Southland’s whitebait river. Fisherfolk in their hundreds line the river upstream from Riverton during the season, seeking the tiny, tasty fish. Fishermen also catch brown and rainbow trout, flounder and mullet in the estuary.

Western Southland


2013 population: 672

Ōtautau (tautau means a style of greenstone pendant) is 50 km north-west of Invercargill, in the foothills of the Longwood Range.

Ōtautau began as a wagon stop on the route between Riverton and Wakatipu. It was the administrative hub of Wallace county (western Southland) for nearly a century. Sawmills processed timber from the nearby Longwood Range, and the township has long served the local farms. The saleyards once handled tens of thousands of sheep annually, but were closed in the 1990s.


2013 population: 294

Lying 82 km north-west of Invercargill, Nightcaps unfurls along the foothills that mark the north-western perimeter of the Southland Plains. The settlement developed from 1880 to exploit the massive coal field – a wide band running across Northern Southland.

Nightcaps was a tightly knit ‘company town’ with a strong miners’ union. The Nightcaps Coal Company built its own railway and produced some 1.8 million tonnes of coal, mostly low-grade lignite (or ‘brown coal’), from underground mines. It operated for over 40 years before the mines were exhausted and miners shifted to nearby Ōhai. In the 2010s some opencast mining is carried out.


2013 population: 303

Settlement 8 km north-west of Nightcaps. Ōhai developed in the 1920s as a coal-mining settlement, replacing Nightcaps. Many of the immigrant miners were ‘Geordies’, from north-east England. Underground mining was replaced by opencast mining in 2003, and mining was cut back further after the loss of a major contract from 2008.

A tale of two mines

From 2003 Solid Energy’s opencast mine at Ōhai had a contract to supply coal to Fonterrra’s Clandeboye dairy plant, near Timaru, South Canterbury. But in September 2008 the contract went to Eastern Corporation’s Tākitimu mine at nearby Nightcaps. Mining was to cease at Ōhai in June 2009, but continue at Nightcaps for at least the two years of the contract.


2013 population: 558

Tūātapere lies 87 km north-west of Invercargill and 9 km inland from Te Waewae Bay. It started as a sawmilling centre in the 1880s. Through the 1920s and 1930s, seven mills worked the timber from both the Longwood Range in the east and the Rowallan Forest to the west.

Two sawmills still operate, but sheep, deer, dairying and potato-growing are more important. The town is also a southern gateway to Fiordland National Park, and to the recently developed Hump Ridge and Waitutu tracks. It claims to be New Zealand’s ‘sausage capital’. State Highway 99 ends at Tūātapere.

North of Tūātapere

The western sector of the southern scenic highway follows the Waiau valley north to Te Anau. The Waiau River drains Lakes Te Anau and Manapōuri, flowing from Manapōuri south to Te Waewae Bay. Salmon as well as trout are caught in the Waiau and its tributaries. Since the commissioning of the Manapōuri hydroelectric scheme, most of the Waiau's former flow has been diverted through the West Arm power station into Doubtful Souind.


Pukemāori (11 km north-east of Tūātapere) serves local farms and is home to a sizable transport company. Nearby Ōrawia first developed when surrounding land was broken up for closer settlement after 1895.


Clifden (14 km north of Tūātapere) is best known for its long suspension bridge, built in 1899 to open up land for settlement west of the Waiau River. Limestone caves and Māori rock drawings are local features. Gentians have been sold in Japan and other northern hemisphere markets from a local property.


Blackmount (28 km north of Tūātapere) was a sawmilling centre. Blackmount School closed in 2014. It lies at the foot of the Tākitimu Mountains (highest point 1,634 m), which are still mostly forested.

Fiordland’s coast

A remote and rugged region

Most of Fiordland (nearly 1 million hectares) was made a scenic reserve in 1904 and a national park in 1952. The Hollyford valley, formerly farmed, was added to the park in the 1960s, and the Waitutu forest in 1998.

Much of Fiordland consists of crystalline rocks, including granite. Some of New Zealand’s oldest rocks are found there. Hard and resistant, they retain their form in the face of high rainfall. The area’s high-sided valleys, waterfalls and fiords were gouged by glaciers between 75,000 and 15,000 years ago.

Fiordland’s sounds

Long-fingered fiords – mostly called ‘sounds’ – reach into the ranges from the coast. North to south they are Milford, Sutherland, Bligh, George, Caswell, Charles, Nancy, Thompson, Doubtful, Dagg, Breaksea and Dusky.

Two inlets – Chalky and Preservation – lead into Cunaris Sound and Long Sound respectively. Ten marine reserves are found along the coast, from Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) to Preservation Inlet (Rakituma).

Sounds like a fiord

The coastal inlets of Fiordland are each named ‘sounds’ (such as Doubtful Sound), but are collectively known as ‘fiords’. ‘Sound’ was used when the waters were charted by Captain John Stokes of the British navy ship Acheron in the early 1850s. The word comes from ‘sund’, Old Norse for ‘swimming’ or ‘strait’. ‘Fiord’ is from the Norwegian ‘fjord’, and relates to the verb ‘to ford’. It was first used in New Zealand in the 1860s – perhaps because Norway’s fjords were popular with British travellers at that time.

Doubtful Sound

One of the most extensive sounds on Fiordland’s coast, Doubtful Sound (Patea) has several spectacular waterfalls and cataracts. The water that drives the Manapōuri power station is discharged into Deep Cove, at the head of the sound.

British navigator James Cook saw the entrance to the sound on his first voyage in 1770, and named it Doubtful Harbour. Felipe Bauzá y Cañas, a cartographer with the explorer Alessandro Malaspina, investigated the sound in 1793, and sealers visited in the early 1800s.

Dusky Sound

Dusky Sound (Tamatea) is the largest in Fiordland. The English explorer James Cook and his crew spent six and a half weeks there in 1773. Other explorers followed, and sealers who were left at the sound in 1792 were the first European residents of New Zealand.

Sealers and whalers were active through the early 1800s. They hunted seals almost to extinction, and from the 1840s the area was deserted.

Resolution Island

Resolution Island (Tau Moana) was named after the ship of British navigator James Cook on his second voyage to New Zealand. The fifth-largest island in New Zealand, it was the site of the country’s first bird sanctuary in 1894. However, it did not succeed, as it was not far enough from the mainland to remain free from predators.

Preservation Inlet

The Ngāti Māmoe people lived in Preservation Inlet (Rakituma), having fled from tribal warfare in Otago. But in the later 1700s the settlement was obliterated by Ngāi Tahu.

As at Dusky Sound, European whalers and sealers were active in the early 1800s, and a whaling station was established in 1829. A failed attempt at a settlement was made in the 1890s – neither gold mining nor fishing thrived.

Lost and found

People have speculated that some Ngāti Māmoe took refuge in Fiordland in the late 18th century, and their descendants were still there. James Cowan, writing in 1930, thought there was more chance of finding a vanished bird than vanished people: ‘[B]y all means let [a] search party get busy this summer. Though they are not likely to discover the bush tribe, they are certain to find a lot of other items of scientific interest, mayhap that rara avis, the takahea, the notornis like a blue turkey. My own private theory concerning those Ngati-Mamoe is that they were all bitten to death long ago by the sandflies and mosquitoes.’ 1 No lost tribe was ever located, but takahē were found just 18 years later and the sandflies are still biting.

Puysegur Point

Puysegur Point lighthouse was built in 1879 on this most south-westerly point of the South Island. The isolated lighthouse families were served by occasional boats and amphibian aircraft. The lighthouse has been automated since 1989.


Two timber mills opened in 1918 at Port Craig, on the west side of Te Waewae Bay, to log Waitutu Forest. However, both closed in 1928 because of falling prices, and never re-opened.

A 48,000-hectare forest was added to Fiordland National Park in 1998. The adjacent 2,171-hectare block of the Waitutu Incorporation is managed as part of the national park.

The coastal Waitutu Track crosses the Percy Burn viaduct, which is 36 m high and 125 m long. It is one of three such viaducts, and was built from timber in the 1920s to support a logging tramway. The Hump Ridge Track, a route between Port Craig and Lake Hauroko originally used by Māori seeking pounamu (greenstone), was opened by Prime Minister Helen Clark on 3 November 2001.

    • James Cowan, ‘Picture of New Zealand life.’ The New Zealand Railways Magazine 5 no. 7 (1 December 1930), › Back

Fiordland’s lakes

Lakes formed by glaciation mark Fiordland’s eastern boundary, just as sounds (fiords), open to the ocean, mark its west. The lakes are effectively freshwater fiords. From north to south they are Te Anau, Manapōuri, Monowai, Hauroko and Poteriteri.

Lake Te Anau

Lake Te Anau (348 sq km) is New Zealand’s second largest lake after Taupō (606 sq km). It is 212 m above sea level, 61 km long and 276 m at its deepest point. Its three fiords – South, Middle and North – separate the Kepler, Murchison, Stuart and Franklin mountains.

The eastern shore of the lake abuts the Southland Plains. The western shoreline gets 1,700 mm of rain each year, the east around 1,100 mm. Glow-worm caves lie on the west side, between the middle and south fiords. The lake yields both trout and land-locked salmon.

Te Anau town

2013 population: 1,911

The settlement was first surveyed in 1893, shortly after the Milford Track opened. But a town only developed after the opening of the Homer Tunnel and road route to Milford in 1953.

Māraroa River

The Māraroa, the longest tributary of the Waiau, rises in the mountains between Lake Te Anau and Lake Wakatipu. It joins the Waiau a few kilometres downstream from Lake Manapōuri.

The two Mavora lakes on the river are popular sites for camping and boating. In 2004 the Māraroa was the first river in New Zealand found to be infected with the alga didymo, which greatly restricted fishing. The Waiau is now also infected.

Lake Manapōuri

Its banks dense with beech forest, its waters scattered with islands and its horizon dominated by the Kepler Mountains, Lake Manapōuri has long been regarded as New Zealand’s most beautiful lake. It is 143 sq km, 178 m above sea level, with a maximum depth of 444 m.

It was known to Māori as Moturau, and its present-day name appears to have been the result of a surveyor’s error.

Hydroelectric power station

The Manapōuri hydroelectric power station, New Zealand’s largest, was built between 1963 and 1971. Plans to raise the level of the lake for power generation led to nationwide protests from 1969 to 1972. To generate power, water is diverted down vertical penstocks at the west arm of the lake into a cathedral-like powerhouse 213 m below ground. Here, seven huge turbines each drive a 100,000-kW generator. The water is discharged along a 10-km tailrace tunnel into Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound.

Much of the power is transmitted 160 km to supply the aluminium smelter at Tīwai Point, near Bluff. A second tailrace tunnel was added in 2002.

Sixteen men were killed underground and during construction of the road over Wilmot Pass, built to link the two ends of the tunnel. They are commemorated on a plaque in the power station.


2013 population: 228

The township of Manapōuri is at the south-east corner of the lake. A popular excursion involves a boat trip to the west arm of the lake, a descent to the powerhouse, a bus ride over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove and a boat trip up Doubtful Sound to the open sea.

Lake Monowai

Boomerang-shaped Lake Monowai was raised 2 m in 1925 to provide more water flow for a power station, which today supplies about 5% of Southland’s electricity. As a result, dead trees line the lake’s banks, marring the landscape and making shore fishing difficult.

Lake Hauroko

South-west of Lake Monowai lies Lake Hauroko, which at 462 m is the deepest lake in New Zealand and the 16th deepest in the world. A Māori burial cave, with remains dating from around 350 years ago, is on Mary Island. The lake is the starting point for a 10-day tramp to Doubtful Sound.

Lakes Monowai and Hauroko are renowned for brown trout and rainbow trout fishing.

Milford Sound and north

Milford Sound

Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is 120 km by road from Te Anau. Its surroundings are dominated by Mitre Peak, which rises 1,700 m out of the water. From valleys gouged by glaciers, impressive waterfalls (Bowen and Stirling) pour into the sea.

The sound’s Māori name, Piopiotahi, means a single thrush: the mythical hero Māui is said to have brought a thrush with him from Hawaiki. When Māui was crushed between the thighs of Hine-nui-te-pō (the goddess of death), the bird fled south, to give its name to the sound.

The combination of heavy rainfall (6,300 mm per year) and dense bush produces a permanent layer of fresh water on the surface of the sound, which reduces light levels in the water beneath. Many species live here that would normally only be found in deep water, beyond diving range – a phenomenon called ‘deep water emergence’. As in other fiords, divers can explore black coral trees, and lustrous red corals beneath them.


By 1914, Milford Sound had become one of the country’s top resorts, despite the fact that most visitors had to walk in (some came by sea). Numbers increased exponentially after the Homer Tunnel opened in 1953, providing road access. Scenic flights to Milford were pioneered by Queenstown-based Fred ‘Popeye’ Lucas in the 1950s.

In the early 2000s, over 450,000 visited annually despite the massive rainfall, sandflies, and winter avalanche danger near the Homer Tunnel.

Milford Track

Often called ‘the finest walk in the world’, the 53.5-km (33-mile) Milford Track has attracted international trampers for more than 100 years.

Scottish immigrant and surveyor Quintin McKinnon discovered the pass that now bears his name (spelt as Mackinnon) in 1888. He accepted a contract to form a track, and to guide visitors and carry mail along it, and made a series of notable journeys of exploration in the area.

Walking the track

The four-day and three-night tramp begins with a launch trip up Te Anau and a short walk  to Glade House or Clinton Hut. The next day there is a 16-km walk beside the Clinton River, through native beech forest to Pompolona Lodge or Mintaro Hut.

The next day, a 15-km walk to Quintin Lodge or Dumpling Hut involves a climb over Mackinnon Pass, with views back down Clinton Canyon, and north into Arthur Valley, with mountains on all sides.

From Quintin Lodge trampers can make a side trip west to the Sutherland Falls – named after Donald Sutherland, who discovered them in 1880. At 580 m they are not only New Zealand’s tallest falls, but one of the highest in the world.

A long way to fall

At 580 metres, Sutherland Falls are among the highest in the world. The highest are the Angel Falls in Venezuela, at 979 metres. Many of the world’s other high falls are in another glaciated country – Norway. 

The last day’s walk (21 km) winds down the Arthur Valley, skirting Lake Brown and Lake Ada. It then follows the Arthur River to Sandfly Point, where trampers are collected to travel the last 3 km to Milford Sound by launch.

Hollyford River and valley

The Hollyford River rises near the Homer Tunnel and follows a northward course. In its lower reaches the river broadens out into the 15-km-long Lake McKerrow/Whakatipu Waitai, which gives way to a lagoon before the ocean is reached.

Runholders took up land in the valley in the 1860s. In 1870 the Otago provincial government laid out Jamestown on the east side of the lake and brought in settlers, but the settlement didn’t thrive.

The valley was added to Fiordland National Park in the 1960s. Walking tracks through beech forest follow the river to the sea at Martins Bay. A side track follows the Pyke River upstream past photogenic Lake Alabaster/Wāwāhi Waka and Lake Wilmot, crossing a low watershed and the Waiuna Lagoon to reach Big Bay.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Grant, 'Southland places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

He kōrero nā David Grant, i tāngia i te 8 o Hepetema 2008, updated 25 o Mei 2015