Friday, May 26, 2006

Day 12 - The Banks Peninsula

This was a day of stunning scenery and changeable weather. During the course of the day we went from cloudy, grey and wet to bright glorious sunshine with blue skies. Doesn't make for great sightseeing conditions as such but it was a photographers paradise with dramatic skies around every corner.

By this time I had realised that breakfast was never going to be on the agenda and had stocked up with things like manuka honey and bread. When you have so little time in such a beautiful place a thing like breakfast does become a bit of a luxury, so whatever I could cram into my mouth before leaving the hotel/motel/cabin was all I was ever going to get.

We had researched our route around the Banks Peninsula in advance of our arrival in NZ. Not knowing what the roads were like in general in NZ we had been concerned that some of the roads around Banks were described as unsealed and only suitable for large 4-wheel drive vehicles. Kate was concerned that these might not be well signposted as such and we might end up down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere with just sheep for company. Yet despite this trepidation we set off, eager to explore.

The first stop was Lyttelton Harbour. Lyttelton Harbour is a tiny place consisting mainly of docks and very little else. We only stopped briefly here at the side of the road. Nothing was open as it was still before 9am but the working docks had just begun to kick into life. Lyttleton harbour cannot exactly be described as picturesque but it did have character derived from its rough and ready nature. For us Lyttelton was a nice to see and we were only there really because it linked up with a coastal road which would take us the pretty route down to Banks.

From here we followed the road which lead us past Govenors Bay and on to Diamond Harbour. The road takes you on the opposite side of the harbour to Lyttelton and allows views back across the water towards it. It's actually a very small area of coast as the crow files but when driving it could take 45 minutes to an hour with stops for photos.

The dramtically changing weather during this part of the day allowed us to get some fatastic shots across the bay, which we would have missed had we gone the quick route from Christchurch to Akaroa (route 75).

Disappointingly there isn't actually that much to see and do when you get to Diamond Harbour, particularly for us as when we reached there it had begun to rain. There are a few short walks and this is apparently a hotspot for spotting the worlds smallest and rarest dolphin, the Hectors Dolphin (I dunno who Hector was but he's got a bunch of Dolphins named after him), so on a clear day I'm sure it would've been better. If you have a 4WD vehicle you have the opportunity of continuing along the road here, and following it all the way around the peninsula to Akaroa. Our vehicle was nowhere near capable enough for this journey so we headed back the way we came, capturing a few more photos along the way.

I mentioned it fleetingly before that ultimate destination for the day was Akaroa which lies at the heart of the peninsula. Now here's a tip for people planning on doing the same journey. To get back onto the SH-75 without going back to Christchurch, as you head back instead of taking the road back towards Govenors Bay take the fork in the road signposted Gebbie's Pass. This is a great shortcut and can shave 30 mins off your trip.

Back on the SH-75 our journey took us through many beautiful bays and tranquil villages. We stopped every hundred yards or so to take photograph after photograph of the landscape which was formed as a result of violent eruptions from three ancient volcanoes.

Travelling along the SH75 the first town of note we came across was Little River. Little River is a very small comunity, with only a smattering of tourist facilities. There's a store which features a cafe, bar and bakery and also an arts and crafts shop. Other than that there isn't much on offer apart from the fact it's a pretty little town.

Carrying on from Little River the road eventually crests at the Hilltop Tavern and I recommend that everybody should just pull over into the car park for a moment and admire the view. From here you get your first real glimpse of what Banks Peninsula has to offer, and you can see exactly where your journey will take you in the next half hour.

The steep descent from here takes you down into Barry's Bay, at the beginning of Akaroa Harbour. Here you can find Barry's Bay Cheese Factory, a traditional dairy which had it's roots planted right after the original settlers moved in. Here you can sample some of the many cheeses on offer, there's nowhere to sit and eat which is a shame but you can buy a few provisions and eat them on the way back to you car, just like we did. It's worth a stop at least.

Here's another tip. Don't leave your left over cheese rind in the car, sorry Ezy I don't think we ever took ours out of the ashtray.

Finally we reached Akaroa, the site of the only attempted settlement by the French in New Zealand. By this stage the weather turned for the worse and it started to rain. We therefore decided to park up and find somewhere dry to get some lunch and a hot drink.

Up to this point we'd met very little traffic on the ever-winding roads which snake uphill and then downhill like a giant rollercoaster track. However everyone on the peninsula was in Akaroa. It took a while to find a parking space and then by pure chance we found a table in a popular little cafe which was otherwise filled with a senior citizen coach trip and residents from a local care home (harsh but true).

Akaroa is a bit of a tourist trap and gets very busy. We were lucky to find a table anywhere, and on a sunny day this wouldn't have been a problem. Akaroa is full of French-style cafes and deli's, getting a take-out and finding somewhere pretty to sit isn't usually a problem here.

We wandered through the rest of Akaroa which was pleasant enough despite the weather. The French influence is still evident in the street names and cuisine of many restaurants but I suspect it was a tourist draw rather than any real sense of French pride. Nevertheless the buildings were very quaint, vibrantly painted and featured an array of art galleries and gift shops to wander around. In nicer weather it is possible to take boat trips around the harbour and adjoining bays which I imagine to be worthwhile. However, today they were all cancelled due to the wind and rain. Again Hectors Dolphin can be found around the bay here and there is a couple of tour companies which leave from Akaroa Harbour and allow you to swim with the dolphins, if you missed it in Kaikoura that is.

Akaroa is a pretty little place and very different to anywhere else on NZ.

We popped into the local store here for some breakfast provisions, and whilst we were queuing up to pay got into a conversation with a local about a missing British tourist. Apparently a middle-aged woman had gone on a day-hike in Arthur's Pass, and simply hadn't turned up at the other end. She'd been gone for a few days now, and it was a mystery as to what had happened. Locally it was all the talk, and people were genuinely worried as things like this never seem to happen in this part of the world. It was a bit of a concern for us too as Arthur's Pass was to be tomorrow's journey.

Our route back to Christchurch followed a new set of twisting roads around the north side of the peninsula, known as the Summit Road.

The Summit Road is a fully sealed road but unlike the SH75 much of it is single track. This is a stunning drive and time should be allowed for it. We were very lucky in that the weather made a sudden change for the better and we could fully appreciate the amazing vistas on offer. If you are anything like us you'll be stopping every few minutes to admire the view and grab a sneaky photo. The road here climbs so high you get a real birds-eye view of what the shape of the peninsula really looks like, it's truly incredible.

There is even an occasional house built right up here on the peaks, and it has to be said they must awake every day to one of the most spectacular views the world has to offer.

There are a few roads that adjoin this one, many of which led down to some spectacularly deserted bays. If you fancy a bit of quiet time out here in NZ these are the bays to head for, I can almost guarantee that you'll either be alone on these stunning beaches or have one other couple so far away on the same stretch of beach that you'll never know they are there.

We visited Okains Bay, Little Akaroa Bay and also drove around the clifftops in the surrounding area.

Heading off down these roads travellers should be warned that they are unsealed roads (loose stone), and a 5km trip down to each of them could take 20-30 minutes as you have to drive so slowly and carefully.

Okains Bay is a pleasant beachy cove, with houses lining the edge of the grassy dunes which overlook the sea itself. You could spend a while here at this almost tropical looking beach and it even reminded us of a past holiday we enjoyed in Tobago. At this point in the day the sun had decided to come out with only a few white fluffy clouds in the sky. We dipped our feet in the ocean and wished we had a hour or two (and a picnic) to sit and truly appreciate this bay but alas we had to move on.

5 minutes back up the road there is a turing off to the right which leads to Little Akaroa Bay. This is a windy, cliff top drive which overlooks a couple of private bays, one with a farm right on the beach and is a nice, slow drive.

Little Akaroa Bay seemed slightly larger than Okains and as a result there were at least 3 people to be found sunbathing. Again it's a very pretty cove and time could be well spent there.

If you are desperate for a toilet break there are some "amusing" facilities down at Little Akaroa Bay. The "open air" toilets on offer here have no roof as such, but there is a tin sheet over the one cubicle. I was amazed by how clean the toilets actually were.

The rest of our journey took us through farmland that rolled out to the ocean, where cows and sheep had the greatest views imaginable, and past houses which perched alone on gently rounded hills overlooking spectacular coastland.

It was a long, exhausting drive but worth it in every way. There are a number of scenic drives you can do around Banks Peninsula, which are signposted along the way. We chose to create our own but if you want more details of the four scenic drives available you can check out the Banks Peninsula website.

We arrived back in Christchurch early evening time and headed straight out to an Indian restaurant 5 minutes down the road. We wondered if we should have booked in advance but our fears were not justified as apart from a couple that came in half way through our meal we were the restaurants only patrons. The food was reasonably priced and of a good standard. A good end to the day.


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