Tiny town: Riverton

Tucked away on Foveaux Strait (approximately 30km from Invercargill) and boasting clear views across to Rakiura/Stewart Island, Pamela Wade says Aparima/Riverton is likely to be one of the last places people visit on a tour of Te Wai Pounamu.

That’s ironic, because this little town, located on the Southern Scenic Route, is one of the oldest in the country. It was the first settlement to be established in Southland by Europeans, who were alerted to its advantages by the pā already there.

Chief among these was the abundance of sea life, just waiting to be exploited, and whaling was big here for a good decade from 1830 until, unsurprisingly, catches dwindled. Fortunately, the sea had, and continues to have, much more to offer.

Today people still head out in charter boats from the cute little port to fish, this time for flounder, and sometimes spot right whales and humpbacks too. Closer to shore, enthusiasts come for miles to ride the big swells that roll onto the beaches both east and west of the town. Colac Bay, 10 minutes drive from Riverton, is perhaps the best known for surfing and is certainly notable for the giant surfer statue on the main street beside the local tavern, where the seafood comes highly recommended.

Surfing is a popular pastime at Riverton

It’s not all about the big waves. Riverton’s nickname is the Riviera of the South, and the long sandy beaches are certainly worth the title (as long as you have an open mind about acceptable sea temperatures).

To the east, the glorious long curve of Oreti Beach has something for everybody, from sandcastles to horse-riding and 4WD driving. This is where Burt Munro broke records on his motorbike, from 1957 to 1975, and The World’s Fastest Indian movie was filmed here. Fossickers will be happy to head west beyond Colac Bay towards Tuatapere to the accurately named Gemstone Beach at Orepuki.

Secretive St Arnaud

Here, at low tide, you’ll find conveniently ocean-tumbled stones. including jasper, quartz, garnet, and jade, in a range of appealing colours and patterns. It’s permissible to take some as souvenirs.

Riverton sits across the entrance to the Jacobs River estuary, a tidal lagoon popular with both bottlenose and Hector’s dolphins, which are also spotted along the coast. They are most common in summertime, and it’s always a thrill to see them leaping out of the water. There’s also an abundance of nature to enjoy on the many walkways in the area. Most striking is Mores Scenic Reserve with its huge and photogenic Balancing Rock, made of argillite and accessed along a loop track through the bush to the beach.

Gemstone Beach is rich in sea-tumbled gemstones

Most of these trails have spectacular coastal views, and you can even claim sections of Te Araroa, the 3000km track that runs from Cape Reinga to Bluff, as long as you’re not put off by names such as ‘Long Hilly Walking Track’ (it is actually much easier than it sounds). Along this one you’ll find information boards about the Chinese gold miners who lived here from the 1880s, their settlement called Canton to remind them of home.

Riverton boasts two centuries of history. One unmissable place to get a handle on it is the splendid Te Hikoi Southern Journey Heritage Museum. Located in a striking building perched on a hill overlooking the estuary, it’s run by knowledgeable enthusiasts and is both educational and entertaining, with displays artfully presented.

Life-sized dioramas focusing on colourful characters tell relatable and personal stories about life back when farming, fishing, flax milling, and logging were the main industries. Early Māori occupation is well covered and the harsh life of the Chinese miners, too. Most moving of all are the war displays, which are particularly well done.

New Plymouth: Cruising the Wild West
Take the time to stroll around Riverton. Photo: Tourism New Zealand

Video and audio features bring all the stories to life, and the geology display, going back 250 million years, will interest even non-rockhounds. Open daily, the entrance fee includes a short introduction movie and is well worth the $9.

There are attractive heritage buildings to enjoy on a wander around the town, too, including Kohi Kohi Cottage on Napier Street, possibly the first built in Riverton and certainly one of the few in the country that pre-date 1840. You’ll also come across plenty of cafés for refreshments, as well as studios and galleries showcasing the works of the town’s many artists.

One thing you shouldn’t, and actually can’t, miss is the Giant Pāua – its 1000 sheets of gleaming real pāua an eye-catching feature, four metres high, sitting beside the road at the entrance to the town. It references Riverton’s pāua fishery, which has also led to a lively business in pāua jewellery and souvenirs.

Also at the entrance to town is Riverton Racecourse, a training and racing facility that is the focus of social life during its Easter Race Days. Taking place over two days of entertainment for everyone from children upwards, that would be a fun time to visit, but Riverton has plenty to offer and enjoy whatever time you go.

Hector’s dolphins can be spotted in the estuary. Photo: Pamela Wade

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