Size matters: The 1964 guide to the roadside attractions of the South Island

BACK IN 2013, IN SEASON 1 OF THE SERIES HOUSE OF CARDS¸ CONGRESSMAN FRANK UNDERWOOD FACES A POLITICAL CRISIS IN THE FORM OF THE PEACHOID, A 41-METRE-HIGH PEACH-SHAPED WATER TOWER IN GAFFNEY, SOUTH CAROLINA. THE STRUCTURE, WHICH UNDERWOOD HAD CHAMPIONED, IS IMPLICATED IN A FATAL CAR ACCIDENT. THE DRIVER WAS TEXTING HER BOYFRIEND WHEN SHE CRASHED, HER FINAL WORDS IMMORTALISED AS A TRUNCATED SMS: “DOESN’T THE PEACHOID LOOK LIKE A GIANT…”.

The plotline is effective not just because Kevin Spacey, who before being accused of sexual predation and outed as a hugely disagreeable person was brilliant as Underwood, but because who hasn’t been distracted by a huge unintentionally filthy object on the side of a highway? For example, the town of Duncan, British Columbia, near where I grew up, is home to the world’s biggest hockey stick. It’s 205 feet long and points decidedly upwards.

Roadside attractions seem to have originated in North America, where erecting big objects to boost visitor numbers has a long history. The first such novelty structure was possibly Lucy the Elephant, built in 1881 by James Vincent de Paul Lafferty Jr to attract buyers to some properties he owned in South Atlantic City. No word on whether the titanic mastodon caused a spike in New Jersey real estate sales (Location! Views! Elephant!), but Lucy still stands. She has her own website where you can buy Lucy baseball caps and a reproduction of Lafferty’s original blueprints for the elephant.

Since Lucy, big things by the side of the road have proliferated, not just in Canada (see Vegreville, Alberta’s nine-metre-high Easter Egg) and the United States (as in the world’s largest Ten Commandments tablet in Murphy, North Carolina), but in Australasia too, as anyone who has witnessed the immense roof-mounted cooked prawn in Ballina, New South Wales can attest. We’ve got them too, with passers-by greeted by oversized somethings in South Island towns from top to bottom, east to west. Here are some of the best.

The Colac Bay surfer

Colac Bay is a tiny coastal settlement about 30 minutes east of Invercargill with a permanent population of about 60. But there’s nothing tiny about the surfer riding a giant fibreglass wave outside the Colac Bay Tavern. Like the tavern itself, the surfer is a little worse for wear; Southland’s persistent salt-infused Westerlies are probably hard on outdoor art. That only makes him more iconic. Colac Bay is a surf town without typical surf town weather, and his wettie, board and golden locks all seem to bear scars that speak to the toughness of those who brave the cold, sharky waters of these parts. And the way he smiles as he slices through the blue face of the wave speaks to why they do it.

That Colac Bay surfer. PHOTO: Laura Williamson

The Springfield doughnut

Of course there’s a Springfield doughnut! No, not that Springfield. This is the doughnut of Springfield, Canterbury, although the other Springfield is relevant here. In 2007, as part of promoting the premiere of The Simpsons Movie, 20th Century Fox gave the Canterbury town its own enormous doughnut. A similar structure played a key role in the ‘Marge vs. the Monorail’ episode of The Simpsons, in which a shoddy solar-powered monorail runs amok until Homer, who is working as the train’s conductor, stops it by hooking the giant doughnut on top of the Lard Lad store with a lasso. “Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” he asks. No, there is not.

The New Zealand version is Mark II. An arsonist set fire to the original sculpture in 2009, which was for a while replaced by a pink-painted tyre. The current six-tonne concrete, and fireproof, version was unveiled in 2012. Mmmm, doughnut.

Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do? PHOTO: Selwyn NZ

The Rakaia big salmon and the big brown trout of Gore

Nothing says “stop here and catch a fish” than a massive curb-mounted trout, or salmon. Both Rakaia and Gore subscribe to the “informative” school when it comes to novelty architecture. Rakaia boasts the country’s best salmon fishing and is known as the Salmon Capital of New Zealand. Their big fish, set on the side of State Highway One about 40 minutes south of Christchurch, is next to the Salmon World building, which itself is actually shaped like a salmon. Gore, of course, boasts 150 kilometres of easy-access fishable waters, with the Mataura River serving up some of the best dry-fly fishing on earth. Fun fact: Gore’s immense trout statue was the subject of a viral story that claimed the statue was to be removed following complaints from an offended vegan. Not true.

The Gore trout statue.

The Cardrona bra fence

This classic is so famous/infamous, it has its own Wikipedia page. It’s a long story, but in the late nineties, people took to hooking bras to a section of rural fencing in the Cardrona Valley. A note for our overseas readers: Attaching items to fences, including gumboots, bicycles and, for some reason, desiccated rabbit corpses, is a thing in Aotearoa.

The number of undergarments grew, tourists started taking photos (often of themselves modelling said garments), traffic issues ensued, as well as a touch of moral panic, and the whole thing was moved off the main highway into a driveway, though it’s still visible from the road. Pop by and bring some cash – the ‘Bradrona’ fence now has a collection box for the Breast Cancer Foundation. As of 2021, donations had topped $120,000.

The Cromwell fruit sculpture

The fruit sculpture in the Central Otago town of Cromwell was built in 1989 by the Cromwell Rotary Club. Featuring an apple, pear and what might be an apricot, it went up not long before the Clyde Dam flooded the town’s original business district and the valley upstream, including 86 hectares of orchards. More than just being a concrete curiosity and the subject of the odd Peachoid-esque remark, the fruit stands as a sort of monument to a community altered by the bullish “progress” of the Think Big years. So, while some might question whether the place is enhanced by the monolithic fruit salad that casts its shadow across its central business district, I’m for it, in a lest we forget kind of way.

RIP: The Tuatapere sausage

Tuatapere is known as the “sausage capital of New Zealand”, which is obviously a designation worthy of a roadside attraction. ZM Radio listeners agreed, when they voted Tuatapere the small town most deserving of a monument in 2015. The station commissioned a three-metre-long “sausage-on-a-fork” and shipped it down to the township, where it had pride of place. Alas, on a trip through Tuatapere this summer, we found not a sausage. Apparently, the supersized snarler is broken and might be out for some time. It’s small fry by comparison, but the Welcome to Tuatapere sign does feature a sausage wearing a cap, so there’s that. 

L​AURA W​ILLIAMSON


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