Antics in Akaroa

Dec 2022/Jan 2023

 After a half day turnaround at home to drop off my side kick and repack with clean clothes, I was back on the road again – this time just over the hill to Akaroa – around a 1.5 hr drive. 

It was a lovely day and it was not surprising that the small town was bustling.  Akaroa only has a permanent population of just under 1,000 but that probably triples over the holiday season.  After a quick stop in town for lunch and a short stroll, I quickly left the ‘madness’ of town behind and headed out on a narrow winding road (I sense a theme here – at least it was sealed) to my accommodation.

On the way, I stopped to admire a small Māori settlement of Ōnuku, consisting of a few houses, a beautiful small church and beautifully carved Whare Tīpuna (ancestral house).   These are reminders of what was once a thriving Māori community.  The church was built in 1878 and was a plain timber building and one of the first non-denominational church in the country.  It was refurbished and extended with the traditional carved porch in the 1940s as part of the Akaroa centenary and as a memorial to the early Māori of the area.  This was also one of the sites of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

There was no sign for my Air BnB accommodation, but it was the right number so I headed down the track and found somewhere to park, before wandering along a narrow path until I finally found a sign that said “cabins”.  My host appeared and showed me to my room.  It was all very rustic with a kitchen and bathroom shared with another cabin, but it was peaceful, surrounded by bird song and it had lovely view from my balcony – it was perfect for me.

I spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing.  There was a beautiful sunset and amazing night sky to admire – annoyingly I had left my tripod in my other bag so no good night photos despite the beautiful clear night but I did my best!  (Did I mention that this was New Years Eve – I didn’t even make it to midnight lol.)

I had a great night’s sleep before taking the 10 minute drive down to town around 8.30am – it was so quiet and calm.  It’s lovely to be here before all the day-trippers turn up.  I took advantage of the peace and enjoyed a walk around the waterfront and joined a long line for coffee 🥴

My original nature cruise booking was cancelled at 9.15pm the night before as they did not have enough people booked on it, but thankfully I could book on another one – this time with Akaroa Dolphins.  They are a small family-owned business who donate part of their profits to conservation and research efforts in the area, in particular for the Hector’s dolphins.

Not only that, they have the cutest “dolphin spotting” dog – Albie.  Don’t ask me how he is supposed to ‘spot’ or ‘sense’ dolphins, and to be fair he spent most of the trip asleep on someone’s lap – but he was very cute ❤️😂.

As we left the town, we were given some really interesting history of the area – geological and human.  I won’t bore you with it (for a change lol) but I highly recommend the trip if you are interested.

Out of the shelter of the bay it was much cooler and definitely rougher than I thought it would be – thankful I was prepared for both, with my puffer jacket and pre-consumed seasickness tablets lol.   I was grateful for both as people started throwing up.  (I should note they did have warm jackets on board for people if they had not brought their own, sadly they only had sickbags for the seasickness and no miracle cure.

The star of the show is of course the Hector dolphins and we were fortunate to see a number of small groups (or maybe it was the same small group moving around the bay … who knows).

Hector dolphins are the smallest dolphin in the world and the population of approximately 15,000 are only found around the coast of New Zealand’s South Island (though a few do sometimes make their way north for short periods of time).  Not to be confused with their lookalike North Island cousins the Māui dolphin of which there are only around 50!

The dolphin ‘cousins’ are unique in the dolphin world with their distinct black facial markings, stocky bodies and mickey mouse ear shaped dorsal fin. Unlike other dolphins, they also only tend to be in small social groups rather than large pods, and we were so lucky to see so many but it was so hard to take photos with us moving, them moving and the swell🥴lol

In between running around the boat spotting dolphins we saw cormorants (or shags as we call them here in New Zealand), white flippered penguins (which I visited in October 2020), giant petrels feeding on a dead seal (🥲) and seals hanging out on the rocks around the peninsula.

We passed a couple of “farms”, one for the award winning Akaroa Salmon – a family run business one of the pioneers of commercial salmon farming in New Zealand.  The second was a Paua (Abalone to others in the world) pearl farm – the source of New Zealand’s famous blue “pearls” (though colour can vary as much as the shell of the paua vary).  If you are keen to know more, they have their gallery on the wharf where the boats moor.

We were lucky enough to have 7 or 8 sightings of dolphins and as we sailed back towards the wharf the seas thankfully got calmer and we spotted yet another mother and calf – one final opportunity to get another crap photo 😂 Next time I think I will focus on taking videos as at least that way I can take decent screen shots from it.

It was a great morning and I would highly recommend a harbour tour with Akaroa Dolphins.

Back on land, I strolled around the town a little more – I love the old heritage cottages and gardens, many of which dating back to the mid-late 1800’s and many of which have been lovingly cared for.   (If you recall, Akaroa is Canterbury’s oldest European town, founded in 1840 by French settlers.)

I have been to Akaroa many times, but I had never visited one of the “must dos” – The Giant’s House.  It was a bit of a walk up the hill, in what was now a hot day, to this very unique attraction.  The Giant’s House itself was built around 1880, but the main attraction is the garden, apparently a “garden of international significance” and its original sculptures and mosaics that fill the garden and its multitude of terraces.  Often described as a wonderland, it is the colourful and quirky creation of local artist Josie Martin. 

It reminded me of the Gaudi designed Park Güell in Barcelona and it was a lovely place to explore and enjoy afternoon tea from the café.  That said, the entry was a bit steep (and so was the driveway to get there 😂) at $25 per person, and it was not until you got to the top of the steep driveway that it showed what the price was.

Back down in town, I had lunch with some friends who were also in town for a couple of nights, and a spot of shopping before heading back out to my quiet oasis for a quiet afternoon and to enjoy the beautiful sunset.

I love the idea of sleeping in when I am on holiday, but I never can.  I wake early and always feel like I should be doing something so on my last morning was up and out by 7.30!  Of course, this gives me plenty of time to stop and see sights on my drive.  First up was the new Takapūneke Reserve.  After many years of advocacy, the area has only recently been named a protected reserve due to its culturally and historical significance for the local Ngai Tahu Māori and the history of New Zealand.

In 1830, the bay was the site of numerous horrific battles.  Te Rauparaha, a chief from Ngai Toa had revenge in mind when he convinced a British captain to take him and his warriors to the bay, concealed below deck.  The local chief was welcomed onboard and taken prisoner by Te Rauparaha, whilst is warriors attacked the village, destroying it and killing many of its inhabitants.

The British captain escaped being brought to justice for his part in the attack, but the battle was the catalyst for the appointment of a British Resident in New Zealand and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 10 years later.

The first stage of the reserve is just a small area with the first of four beautifully carved Pou (carved wooden post) which will tell the story of the 200 year history.  This was only unveiled in June 2022.

Further down the road from the sacred reserve, and I came across the old Akaroa lighthouse.  In 1880, the lighthouse sat out on the Akaroa Heads and it was moved to its current location in the town after being decommissioned in 1980 by the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society.

Back over the hills towards Christchurch I took a detour to the small settlement of Birdlings Flats, on the Kaitorete Spit.  Another important site for the local Ngāi Tahu for food gathering. The spit itself was created around 6,000 years ago by gravel being brought down by the Rakaia River and then swept north by ocean currents before being deposited on the spit.  It is very stony and pretty wild.  Apparently, it is possible to find gems on the beach but I was not so lucky this time.  Instead I just slogged through the stones, passed fisherman and small flocks of red bills gulls and terns hanging out together.

I decided I would try and drive down to the far end of the spit, where it tapers to 100m wide (from over 3km wide at it’s eastern end).  After 20 odd kilometres, the sealed road turned to gravel and then dirt.  I considered turning around a number of times as it appeared to be a gravel road to nowhere but I kept thinking I have gone too far to give up!

Finally, not far from the end (I think), I admitted defeat as the road became sand and it was hard going.  There was also no cell reception so if I got stuck I could not call anyone for help to get out!  It did give me an opportunity to use my All Wheel drive for the first time was kind of exciting and of course it is all in a day of adventuring …

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