Our last bit of the south island before our return was the beautiful Banks peninsula. It sticks out just next to Christchurch and is roughly 80 km long and very hilly. The main town is called Akaroa and draws heavily on its French roots. Apart the French bakeries, flags and street names, it did not feel very different from other touristy coastal towns. There is only one main road to the town although a more scenic tourist route exists. That main road is quite windy, especially where it goes over a mountain pass.
Akaroa has a good selection of nice shops, cafés and restaurants along the sea promenade and feels very relaxed. The natural bay was very scenic and the water looked very enticing, but sadly was too cold to jump in. Banks peninsula is famous for Hector dolphins and white-flippered penguins. They look very similar to little blue penguins and are equally small but have just a bit more white around their wings. Hector dolphins are the special for two reasons: they are the smallest dolphin species and they only live around the south island of New Zealand. We contemplated kayaking vs going on a cruise as it was a sunny and warm day. In the end the bigger boat won and we boarded the catamaran of Black Cat Tours together with maybe 20 other people.
Akaroa is maybe 11km from the open sea and that is just a bit too much to kayak. Both sides of the bay had steep cliffs and high vertical rock faces which impressed us a lot. On the way out we watched birds and some seals near Cathedral Cove, before Zoë spotted the first of the local penguins. When we reached the open ocean, we spotted two more penguins just floating on the surface and disappearing for short dips.
While we were all watching them the captain spotted dolphins on the other side. Lady Luck was definitely on our side as they turned out to be two pods of dolphins with a total of eight of these 1.4 m long mammals. Usually pods are single sex and between two and five animals strong. Two of the eight turned out to be a mother and her calf, which was very exciting. The dolphins swam right underneath our boat and around us for quite a bit before disappearing. Just as we thought they were gone, they turned around and came back to us. We were too captivated by watching these sleek and beautiful animals to notice the time flying and it felt way too soon when the captain announced that we had to return.
On the way back we visited the seal colony living on the outer end of the bay before driving past a salmon and a mussel farm. Zoë kept spotting more and more penguins, but we didn’t have time to hang around or slow down to take better photos. Despite the sunshine the wind chill was quite cold so we made good use of the complimentary hot drinks.
Back on dry land lunch was overdue and we celebrated the successful wildlife encounter with yummy ice cream. To have a bit of a contrast to the sea we headed for the hills just behind Akaroa. We picked Hinewai Reserve from the long list in the i-Site, because it offers a multitude of walking options. We parked the car near Mikimiki Knob and explored the reserve from there. The carpark had some free maps and so navigating was easy. After ‘climbing’ Mikimiki Knob, we walked down into the valley. The path was quite steep but easy to walk. At the bottom we crossed the Boundary Falls before following the river upstream to the Hinewai Falls. At their lower end was a big pool and we decided that some skinny dipping and a quick wash were required. The water was freezing and so this was only very brief. After this refreshment we followed the trail through some more forest gorse bushes and past some more small falls back up to the visitor centre and back to the car park.
On our way back off the peninsula we followed the scenic road, which was definitely worthwhile. We stopped a couple of times for photos of the grand scenery and for a walk of the Onepatotu trail. This trail leads to an awesome viewpoint and to the top of a small hill. In total it was maybe 45min to walk.
We really enjoyed our time on Banks peninsula and were very lucky with the weather. When low clouds are about, it would be hardly worth it, but in the sun it was stunning. The other fantastic thing was camping. There are quite a few camping options, but we found two very good free campsites not far from Christchurch. They are called Chamberlains Ford Reserve and Coes Ford. They have toilets and Chamberlain also offers a bbq and a brand new picnic area.
In Christchurch we had booked an AirBnB in a peaceful suburb for a few days. As we arrived in glorious sunshine we went straight to the beach, but were quite surprised to find it covered in mist. It turned out to be caused by evaporating sea water off the beach. It was still very pretty for a walk.
The centre of Christchurch felt very open and had many open spaces and plots with more or less collapsed buildings thanks to the 2011 earthquake. Info boards showed us what it used to look like back in the older days. The centre used to feature a lot of old buildings which had been since replaced with modern ones. Nobody had even tried to make them look vaguely old.
The old cathedral is now half collapsed and misses its tower. Propped up by massive scaffolding it was a sad sight, despite the ongoing repair works. There was also one circular tram route going around the centre and out to the botanic gardens. It was great to see old carriages being driven around by drivers in traditional uniforms. Rather sadly they are a tourist attraction rather than a mode of transport and at $25 per person also not cheap.
One of our highlights in Christchurch was definitely the botanic gardens. We were lucky enough to visit them on a warm and sunny spring day when most of the flowers and trees were blossoming. Everywhere we went it smelled amazing and apart from the rose garden there were pretty colours everywhere.
Another one of the top sites and a must-see for us was the Antarctic Centre near the airport. Zoë had found a Bookme deal for half price entry and so we arranged it for after the return of our trusted little hire car. The exhibition started with the early antarctic expeditions and the circumstances these people lived in before comparing this to modern day research stations. Looking at a map some parts of the frozen continent are littered with permanent and temporary stations. We learned about the extreme yet fragile eco system and its inhabitants like seals, whales and most of all penguins. The centre also kept about ten blue and white-winged penguins that had been rescued from the wild. The penguin feeding that day happened on the beach of the enclosure due to the annual pool clean, but we still got another very close view of these cute animals.
In a marquee outside were some some huskies to cuddle and that was great fun too. As soon as we started they wanted more and soon each of us had two dogs to stroke and belly rub.
The most advertised indoor feature of the centre was an arctic storm. Visitors get a jacket and overshoes before stepping into a -8 degree Celsius room with real snow. In regular intervals a fan started blowing and together with some snow drop the windchill temperature down to -18 C. With wind speeds of 44km/h this storm was nowhere near the real arctic blizzards with up to 320 km/h. A class one storm in the Antarctic can kill people within minutes by freezing them inside out which sound terrible.
The last sledge dogs retired from active service in the mid 1990s. Nowadays ice trucks called Hagglunds are used to transport goods over ice and snow. The centre as a few of them and a ride in them is part of every entrance fee. A Hagglund consists of two square boxes on chain chassis (driver cabin and trailer) with space for 10 people in each box. At the beginning of the ride we took the road to a small field round the back of the museum where they had set up an obstacle course to show of the capabilities of these vehicles. We went over steep hills, 1.5m wide gaps, piles of tree trunks and a path made of car tyres. It was quite a bumpy ride and not too terrible. The experience was not improved by the view of the surrounding warehouses and storage buildings. We think adding some screens on the outside of the windows to create the impression of riding over ice would make it all a lot better.
Overall we are a bit in two minds about Christchurch. It had some nice things to do (botanics and antarctic centre), the rest of the city did not amaze us for very long. We spent a total of six days in the city; one day in transit to pick up the car and five days when we returned it. We used most of the time at the end for planning and relaxing instead of sightseeing. If pressed for time i.e. if we came here on a holiday we would recommend leaving out Christchurch and spending more time exploring the rest of the country.