Last week after spending a couple of days recuperating from our camping trip (and getting caught up on Internet), we prepared for our next sightseeing tour. Our friends Mark and Dana were returning with their friend after two weeks camping in the southern parts of the island, and would need the apartment to themselves for a few days. We decided to go to the Banks Peninsula which is a short drive from Christchurch. The Banks Peninsula is a beautiful rugged mountain area which was formed by huge volcanic activity about 9 million years ago. We saw a portion of it when we did the gondola and saw Lyttleton a couple of weeks ago. Akaroa, a town on the main bay, is the main destination. Akaroa was occupied first by the Maori. During the first days of settlement by Europeans, some people from France found Akaroa and decided to settle there. Today, it’s a tourist town, and they still try to maintain a touch of France. They have many wineries, a traditional cheese maker, and they even fly the French flag in town.
We started out by driving the main road down to the peninsula. The first stop was a turn off to Birdlings Flat which takes you to a beach on the ocean. This beach still has some work to do. Instead of sand, the beach is composed of stone. Most of the stone are hand-sized. The ocean has at least polished them to a round oval shape. But, they obviously have a long way to go to make sand. The water was a bright green – almost lime colored. Obviously shallow for up to a kilometer off shore. We noticed brown patches out on the water, and at first thought it was drifting wood. But, then the patches started to move – it was hundreds of birds, mostly ducks or cormorants!
After walking on the beach, we went to a nearby gem museum. Supposedly some of the gems were found on the beach. The museum is actually a gem store which a local gem collector (a serious collector) has built over the years. He has rocks and gems from all over the world – but, primarily from New Zealand. It is quite an impressive collection and worth a stop.
We jumped back on the main road and entered the hills of the Banks Peninsula. It was a beautiful curvy drive up and over the hills. Suddenly we reached the main ridge of the volcanic crater which leads to the main bay and town of Akaroa. It was a stupendous view with beautiful pastures, cultivated fields of grapes, trees, and a beautiful stretch of that lime green water (as seen in the photo above). We really enjoyed the drive down into the valley. We stopped at Barry’s Bay, a traditional cheese maker. We watched a video on how they make the cheese, did some tasting, and bought a selection of cheese.
Finally, we drove the rest of the way around the bay to Akaroa. The town was quite pretty and we were anxious to visit it. But, first we needed to make sure to get a spot at the campground. We drove almost straight up a hill to Top 10 Holiday Park – another one of those full-service campgrounds. It was a bit pricey ($34 a night for a campsite), but the view was spectacular of the lake and it was very convenient. After setting up our tent, we went back to town and did some sightseeing.
We stopped at a place called Black Cat Harbour Tours. They have tourist boats that do nature tours around the bay. One of the primary attractions is a chance to see Hector’s dolphins. A rare species of very small dolphins with a distinctive rounded fin. But, you also get to see other wildlife along the way. We ended up doing the tour the next day and we highly recommend it. We saw penguin, a variety of birds, hector dolphin, caves on the shore, and sea lions. Very picturesque and entertaining. We had a unique opportunity to photo a sea lion and penguin right next to each other. One of the staff asked for a copy of my photos of them. Make sure to check out the photo album from the entire trip here:
After two really nice days and nights in Akaroa, we headed back on Monday to Christchurch. But, instead of taking the main road back, we decided to take the scenic route through he volcanic mountains and around the bays of the peninsula. We had a wonderful time going through many curvy and mountain roads and encountering three main bays along the way. At one point, we ended up on 12-15 miles of single-laned dirt roads. There ended up being five cars coming the other way along the way. Each time we saw them far enough in advance to find a spot to let them around us. But, the fifth one was a young guy flying at about 60 kph (we were going 20) who almost hit us on a head on collision. It turns out he had just got on the road (we were near the end of the one lane part). He came to a scraping gravel stop less than a car length in front of us. That was close!
We had intended to continue on the summit road after nearing Lyttleton. But, we missed the turn, and I realize we were low on gas. So, we just went on down on the last stretch into Christchurch. We got back to the apartment in time to say goodbye to Mark’s friend Dan. We had left the apartment pretty clean three days earlier, they had completely trashed the place with all their gear by the time we got there. Although, right now the place is messy with backpacking gear because Mark and I are about to go out on a trek. We are going to go on a short two or three night hike to break in my new gear.
After their friend left, Mark, Dana, Karen and I walked into town for a Valentine’s Day dinner at a nice steakhouse. The service was really slow, but the food and company was great. We had a good time, and a nice walk back in the waning hours of the night. After the backpacking trip, Karen and I will probably head off and do a big multi-week tour of the southern parts of the island.
You can load a full map of our trip to Akaroa, and even a map of our harbour tour, into Google Earth as seen below.