THE BANKS PENINSULA - robmellors

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After our unscheduled visit to the 24 Hour medical centre in Christchurch we decided to spend a few days exploring the nearby Banks Peninsula. It's just over an hour away from the city but a world away and completely different from any other part of New Zealand.

Although it is now connected to the mainland this wasn't always the case. In pre-history Banks was an island but with the gradual silting up of a low lying sand bar a land bridge was established. Despite this the peninsula has retained an island feel. You notice it as soon as you come over the range of hills and find Akaroa Harbour spread out in front of you. In fact, when James Cook sailed past in 1769 he named it Banks Island after the botonist, James Banks, whose birthday had occured a few days before. Even he thought it was an island not a peninsula.

Akaroa harbour is what remains of the caldera of an enormous 10,000 ft volcano which blew in times past. What are now hills and jagged peaks surrounding the harbour were once the rim of the volcano. The whole Banks Peninsula is made up of three such caldera which gives it a unique structure of soaring hills and mountains, deep basins, valleys and huge sheltered natural harbours.

The main town in the peninsula is Akaroa which just has to be the most charming and beautiful of all New Zealand's towns, at least in our experience. For the most part Kiwi towns tend to be rather functional. Often laid out in grid form they tend to have one or two main streets and then side streets radiating from that. Not so Akaroa, partly due to its geography which dictates that anything built more than about 20 mtrs from the sea is up a steep hillside. However, its major influence comes not from its position but from the large French presence in the town in years gone by.

Various Europeans visited the peninsula in the 1700's for seal fur hunting and whaling. One of these was a French whaler, Francois Langlois, who concluded a treaty with the local tribes for their land and sailed back to France to secure backing for colonialisation of the area. The story goes that their ship put in at the Bay of Islands up in the North Island and, sailors being sailors, they went ashore and after copious amounts of spirit they revealed the French Government's intention of establishing a colony on Banks. The British were having none of this, having recently secured the Treaty of Waitangi which gave them dominion over the whole of New Zealand. They dispatched a fast frigate, The Britomart, and by the time the settlers arrived the Union Jack was flying over Akaroa. The French were denied sovereignty but were deemed to own the land so they were allowed to settle but had to pay their taxes to the crown.

It was a tough time for the early settlers but the French influence is very much in evidence in Akaroa today. Some of the buildings are distinctly French, street names are Gallic, surnames are French and it attracts a lot of visitors from the Old Country so it's not unusual to hear French being spoken.

Once again, we booked a bach to stay in; this time it was up a steep hill and was a room at the back of someones garage! That sounds awful but in fact it was a huge space and was immaculate throughout. We had cooking facilities and a large wooden deck with a a glorious view of the harbour and surrounding hills. Even garage conversions have their own stunning views in New Zealand.

We hit it off instantly with our hosts, Andy and Cush and there followed an evening sitting on their deck, chatting and listening to the kind of music us old ones like - Leonard Cohen, Dire Straits, Stng. All the GOOD stuff!.

The name Akaroa is Maori for long harbour and the best way to see it is to go out on the water. It is a very enclosed harbour and for the most part the sea is calm so, despite Jane's broken wrist, we decided to book a two hour harbour cruise aboard a very stable twin hulled vessel. The sea cliffs are very impressive and full of bird life. Little Blue Penguins can also be seen in the harbour and our boat was able to get quite close. But the undoubted star of the show was the Hector's Dolphin. This dolphin is endemic to New Zealand, is one of the world's rarest and is also its smallest, an adult ranging from 1.2 - 1.6 mtrs which is tiny compared with a Bottlenose, say.

Akaroa has one of the largest populations of these dolphins and we hadn't been at sea for long before the skipper' dog started barking. Yes, I know it sounds odd but the captain's little terrier travels aboard the boat and can usually spot or hear a dolphin before us humans. When he does so he starts running about, peering over the side. Before long we too had spotted a mother and calf. They came and investigated the boat and stayed with us a fair time showing that they weren't afraid of us or the dog. They really are beautiful little things - rather like lithe ballet dancers and these two gave us some lovely close ups.

Further out on the edge of the harbour where the waters are more churned up we came across a larger group of dolphins which were eager to ride our bow wave and generally frolic about the boat. It was a brilliant trip and once again New Zealand has given us great views of a rare creature.

In the end Jane has come to the conclusion that fracturing her wrist was a good thing because it meant we came to a really interesting part of New Zealand, met some wonderful people and saw one of the world's loveliest mammals.

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