Southland: An introduction

Southland, New Zealand's southernmost region, is famed for its native bird sanctuaries and vast protected natural environment.

Southland is one of the largest regions, taking up about a ninth of New Zealand, with its rugged coastline stretching for 3,400 kilometres (2,100 miles). A quarter of Southland’s land area is protected as part of the Fiordland and Rakiura national parks, and conservation and sustainability projects are key regional activities.

The region's biggest city is Invercargill, a stop-off point on the Southern Scenic route. Invercargill offers legendary southern hospitality and a base to explore the wild beauty of destinations like the Catlins coast and Curio Bay.

Bluff, a fishing port south of Invercargill, is famous for its oysters – a traditional New Zealand delicacy harvested from the southern ocean's chilly waters. Southlanders celebrate the oyster season each May with the Bluff oyster and seafood festival.

Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third-largest island and a haven for native birdlife such as kiwi, kereru (wood pigeon), bellbird, tui and saddleback. It lies across Foveaux Strait, a short ferry ride from Bluff.

Māori culture

Māori knew the Southland region as Murihiku or "tail end of the land". Stewart Island was Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui or "anchor stone of Maui’s canoe". These names recall the story of how Aotearoa New Zealand was formed when the great Polynesian navigator Maui fished the North Island up from the ocean. Maui’s canoe – Te Waka a Maui or the South Island – was anchored by Stewart Island.

Southland Māori were hunter-gatherers in pre-European times. As it was too cold to grow kumara (sweet potato), they relied on seals and giant moa birds as their main food sources.


European sealers arrived in the 1790s, followed by whalers who established whaling stations in the 1820s. Riverton, 38 kilometres (23 miles) from Invercargill, was one of the first European settlements established in New Zealand.

After gold was discovered in 1861, settlers from Otago and further afield colonised Southland. Impressive Victorian buildings were erected in Invercargill in the 1880s and 1890s, reflecting the region's new prosperity from farming, while the city's many examples of Edwardian architecture are testimony to the growth and prosperity arising from the timber and coal industries around the start of the 20th century. In the 1930s, some old facades were modernised to produce art deco buildings

Eight heritage trails, supported by museums around the region, tell the story of Southland's majestic physical environment, its people, culture and rich history.

Nature and wildlife

Southland’s precious and unique environment is the subject of some innovative conservation initiatives. The Southland’s protected national parks and marine reserves are home to a wide range of native birds, plants and marine life.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) has extensive pest eradication and breeding programmes for endangered birds inside the national parks. 

Rakiura National Park covers almost 85 per cent of Stewart Island and has fantastic coastal views and walking tracks, as well as some of New Zealand’s most endangered birds.  About 20,000 kiwi live on Stewart island – the world’s largest kiwi habitat – offering the best opportunity of seeing kiwi in the wild.

Ulva Island, a 10-minute water taxi ride from Stewart Island, has been an open sanctuary since 1997. Native flora and birds including South Island saddleback, mohua, rifleman and Stewart Island robin flourish in its predator-free environment.

The Catlins, on the south-east coast of the Southern Scenic Route, is famed for its coastal and marine wildlife, including the rare species Hector's dolphin, hoiho / yellow-eyed penguin and New Zealand sea lion. Great white sharks patrol the deeper waters.

Curio Bay, on the Catlins coast, has a 180-million-year-old fossilised forest. The petrified stumps, fallen trees and fern imprints are easily accessed at low tide or can be viewed from a platform above. The bay is a nesting site for hoiho / yellow-eyed penguin, and dolphins and seals often visit.

Adventure / outdoors

The region's many hiking routes – from short and day-long walks to multi-day treks through lush forests and across mountainous plains – offer visitors the chance to explore Southland's extreme and vast landscapes.

Rakiura track on Stewart Island, a 36 kilometre (22 mile) circuit that takes about three days to walk, follows the open coast, climbs over a 300 metre (980 foot) forested ridge and traverses the shores of Paterson Inlet.

Tuatapere Hump Ridge track is a three-day trek along rugged coastline, through podocarp and beech forest, and past sandstone outcrops. Walkers can travel the track independently or with a guide.

Southland’s 28 top fishing rivers and streams include some of New Zealand’s best trout fishing destinations. Mataura river, with the highest trout population and catch rates of any New Zealand river, is among the world’s best. Enthusiasts can take guided fly fishing trips to remote locations, or wade the lakes and rivers at their leisure.

The Around the Mountains Cycle Trail takes in Southland's farmlands and small character-filled towns on its circuit from Queenstown. More leisurely options are jetboating down the Wairarauhiri River to the coast, taking a mountaintop helicopter ride or saddling up for a coastal horse ride.

Glamping ("glamorous camping" in spacious canvas tents) is an accommodation option that allows visitors to fully appreciate the region's expansive landscapes.

Art and culture

Record-setting motorcyclist Burt Munro must have ignited an appetite for classic bikes and cars in Southland. His trusty Indian Scout motorbike, on which he set a land speed record that still stands, is the centrepiece of a display of classic, vintage and modern motorcycles and cars and memorabilia in E. Hayes and Sons Motorworks Collection, located within a sprawling hardware store in central Invercargill.

Also in Invercargill is Bill Richardson Transport World, the largest private collection of its type in the world. The museum features some 300 vehicles, 150 petrol bowsers, a Henry Ford collection, memorabilia, interactive displays, cafe, themed bathrooms and children's play areas.

The city's newly opened Classic Motorcycle Mecca has about 300 motorbikes, ranging from a 1902 Peugot through well-recognised makes to little-known brands such as Schwinn and Zundapp. Themed artwork complements the displays.

The Aviation Heritage Centre in Croydon houses a large collection of vintage aircraft, including some of New Zealand's most historic planes undergoing restoration work. See Southland from an aerial perspective by taking to the skies in an aircraft from the classic collection.

Southland also has palate-pleasing delicacies, including blue cod, crayfish (lobster) and many other fish species harvested from the region's famously clean coastal waters. Succulent Bluff oysters are the star attraction at the annual Bluff Oyster & Food Festival. Sparkling fresh seafood, fine cheeses and locally grown organic and game meats such as beef, lamb venison and elk can all be enjoyed in the region's eateries.

Visitors can sample southern-made craft beers on a guided tour of the Invercargill Brewery, or try their hand at making chocolate at the Seriously Good Chocolate Company.

And by the way...

  • Southland was home to speed legend Burt Munro, who still holds the world land speed record.
  • International star Anthony Hopkins portrayed Burt Munro in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian, which was mostly shot in Southland.
  • Southland has the longest summer daylight hours in New Zealand.
  • Curio Bay has a 180-million-year-old petrified forest.
  • Lake Hauroko is New Zealand's deepest lake (463 metres or 1,500 feet).
  • Real gemstones can be found on the beaches around Orepuki, about 50 minutes' drive from Invercargill.
  • Tuatapere, on the Southern Scenic Route, is New Zealand's sausage capital.
  • The region has 26 golf courses, with green fees averaging $18.