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 …

Peninsula and Penguins

October 2020

You know you don’t always have to travel far from home to experience something new and feel like you have had a break.  I guess this is something many people are learning in the last 12 months or so (can you COVID has been with us for over a year!).

It seemed like ages (well at least a few weeks) since I had been away, so I booked a short overnight trip just over the hills in Banks Peninsula. It is just a 1.5 hour drive to Akaroa, the main town on the Peninsula, famed for its early French settlers, it is popular for day trips or long weekends from Christchurch. I arrived in time to wander around the town a little and visit the cute and very European feeling little Saturday morning market. The highlight of my short wander (besides a good coffee) was catching a beautiful bellbird in full song. It was singing its little heart out, puffing out its chest and bobbing up and down. I was so excited to see it and it was such a special moment as although they are not threatened you don’t see them in town very often.

I had booked an overnight trip with a local company called Pohatu Penguins, is a family-run business with a long standing history of protecting the penguins that nest in the area.  They offer evening trips to see the penguins as well as 24 and 48 hour trips. 

I had opted for a 24 hour trip that started with a short, guided tour as we drove out of Akaroa and further along the peninsula.  Now I have been to Akaroa many times but never further around the peninsula, so it was great to go a little further and learn a little more about the area. So off I set with my guide Sue who was oddly from Tasmania but had clearly done a lot of study about the region.

Banks Peninsula was formed by the activity of 3 volcanos, between 11 and 6 million years ago which led to the formation of overlapping volcanic cones.  When the volcanic activity stopped, the area was eroded, lower the height of the cones, and forming deep valleys that were flooded when the sea level rose about 6,000 years ago.  From this we get Akaroa (which means long harbour in Maori) and Lyttleton on the other side of the peninsula and the main harbour for the city of Christchurch.

When Captain Cook was mapping New Zealand during one of his voyages, he originally thought the Peninsula was an island, naming it Banks Island (after the naturalist and botanist on his voyage, Joseph Banks).  He is also responsible for calling the native manuka ‘tea tree’ because they would use the green leaves to make ‘tea’ – apparently it was also a remedy for sea sickness.

Having been cleared from the peninsular by early settlers who saw it as an invasive shrub, its regrowth is being encouraged for many reasons.  It assists with the regeneration of the eroded slopes, it creates shade and shelter which acts as a nursery for other native species and it grows taller than the introduced gorse (a true invasive shrub) depriving it of sunlight, so it eventually dies out.   It is also an important source of pollen and nectar for native bees (and other insects) and geckos.  Manuka honey is famous around the world.

As well as natural beauty, the peninsula has played some part in New Zealand’s history. Akaora is Canterbury’s oldest town, having been founded by French settlers in 1840, just after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with the British. They had been hoping to colonize the country, but the Treaty put an end to that. Coincidently, Ōnuku Bay, just around the corner from Akaroa, was the site of the first South Island signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

We had a quick stop at the top of one of the hills for a view of Akaora harbour and down to Ōnuku Bay.  It as incredibly windy and it felt like the gust could have blown me off the ridge, so I took a couple of quick photos before getting back to the shelter of the manuka.

Our next stop was at the headland of the peninsula and lighthouse (well not really a light ‘house’ anymore).  The first lighthouse was built in in 1880 and it was manned for almost 100 years before it was replaced by an automated light.  As an aside, the original lighthouse was given to the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society who moved it to a location in Akaroa – on a spot now known as Lighthouse Point.  The headlands are now form part of the Lighthouse Reserve and the foundations of the lighthouse keeper’s family homes still remain.  And don’t forget the views out onto the ocean.  If you look closely down on the rocks below you might me lucky enough to spot some of the local seals sunning themselves.

Sue then dropped me at a corner of the road called Mortlock’s Mistake – I hoped that would not become Elaine’s Mistake (lol) as it was here, I would start my walk down through Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve. It is one of the few remaining original tracks of native bush on Banks Peninsula as most was destroyed firstly by the Maori as they flushed out Moa, and then by Europeans who wanted to clear the remaining land for pasture. This small track of bush survived due to its position in a valley and the stream and waterfalls, keeping the bush damp.

The walk was so peaceful with just the sound of bird song and the stream running alongside of the track. Fantails, Tomtits and Bellbirds sang as I walked through the bush, some of which was over 400 years old!! The highlight of the walk was the waterfalls just off the side of the path. Some had swimming holes and although it was warm, I was not up for a swim. I did sit for some time by the last and in my opinion of the best of the waterfalls in as the watching the sun dance on the spray (and it helped that the spray cooled the air too).

The last part of track opened out into farmland where the cutest Teddy Bear faced lambs were grazing with their mothers.  They were truly just the cutest wee things.

The track took me down in to Flea Bay (also known as Pōhatu), one of the many small bays on the Peninsula.  Many of the bays you can only reach by boat, though this one had a 4WD accessible track (which I would use later).  Within the bay were a couple of buildings for overnight walkers (like me) and a family farm (some of which I had walked through early).

I had time to have a stroll around the house where I was staying and get to know the lovely local ram (male sheep) – I found out later he is a Valais Black Nose (I Swiss breed) called Bobby.    There was also time for a nap (which is always a plus) and cook my dinner (2 minutes noodles count as cooking right lol).

Sue, my guide, had told me to walk around to the next bay for 6pm (just a short walk) where I would meet her and the other people booked on the evening penguin tour, so I did just that. Unfortunately, there was no sign (except one saying private property) but lots of nesting boxes around so assumed I was in the right place!

There was no phone reception so no way to check -so I just sat by the road knowing I would see the vehicle coming … luckily it was a beautiful evening and view out to sea was not too shabby either.  Finally, at 6.20 they rock up as it appears the meeting time was not till 6.30!

Now, I lured you in with Penguins and bored you with geology and history – Penguin time is finally here!! The penguins that nest here are White Flippered Penguins, Canterbury’s own variant of Little Blue Penguins. The Helps family who own the land here have spent over 30 years protecting the colony that nest on their land and ensure only guided groups go near the nest boxes, so they are not disturbed. (If you are in New Zealand and caught Seven Sharp on February 5th, you would have seen an article about the family and the work they do.)

Some actually consider the White Flippered Penguin its own species rather than a subspecies of the Little Blue Penguin.  On top of the physical differences (not surprisingly these little guys have a white edge to their flippers as well as being a lighter steely blue) there is also some differences in their physiology e.g. the White Flippers tend to lay 2 eggs once per year, whilst the Little Blue lay twice a year. 

After getting dressed up in our camouflage coats (I kid you not) we set off on a short walk around the colony whilst the guide checked a couple of the boxes.  The box checking is part of the ongoing monitoring that they do to check on eggs and chicks.  Interestingly, despite this being a wild population, they do step in and take out under nourished chicks and take them to a rehab facility where they are hand raised to adulthood, ensuring the survival of the population.  (I have recently read that other colonies are losing a large number of chicks due to starvation this season, so this is an important part of the conversation programme.)

The guide had a list of specific boxes she needed to check (just a few boxes are checked each day) and the ones we checked each had a bird sitting on either an egg or a chick (we caught brief glimpses of them) and the parents themselves did not seem disturbed by our brief presence as most return year after year to the same burrow and are therefore used to being checked on.

We then walked further around the bay to viewpoint over the ocean from where we studied the sea looking for the penguins coming in for the night.  They normal come in in groups, called rafts, so are definitely easier to spot than individual penguins.  We saw a couple of small rafts but sadly we didn’t see any coming on to the beach.

The downside of doing it this way is that the guide could not stay late as she had to drive the others back to town but of course as I was staying onsite, I sat overlooking the beach until it got too dark to see anything even if they did come up 🥴!

Unfortunately, the guide could not tell me what time the penguins went out in the morning and I don’t think my 6.20 alarm was early enough as it was almost light (I have still it got set to daylight saving timing and with no internet could not check sunrise time). Regardless, I headed down to the beach and enjoyed the calm (ignoring the squawking of the Canadian geese and the screeching of the oyster catchers, annoyed by being woken by the Canadian geese squawking lol) and Plovers stretching their wings with a circuit around the bay.

There was no real sunrise from here either as we are in a bay and the headlands block the view oh, and it was cloudy – boy it really sounds like I am complaining 😂 sorry about that – it was definitely still beautiful and lovely to be out of the city.

I patted my handsome sheep friend before heading back for another short nap 😂 well I am kind of on holiday right 🤔 and as the wind had picked up (as forecast), my morning sea kayak had been cancelled.  And so, I just relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet before by pick up to take me back to Akaroa and my car for my drive home.

This trip may not be for everyone – thankfully I enjoy my own company and spending time in nature so I really enjoyed it, but I would highly recommend the Penguin tour and contributing to their conservation efforts.