Posted by: scribe9 | December 31, 2009

43 degrees and 2 degrees

As long as we were going to Christchurch (just north of 43 degrees South), we decided to take a couple of days to visit nearby Banks Peninsula, a little knob on the east coast of the South Island.

The peninsula is named for Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Cook on his first visit, in 1769-70. Cook guessed, wrongly, that the peninsula was an island, and so it was named until a new survey in 1809.

Unlike the alluvial plains on which Christchurch and surrounding farmland sit, the peninsula is the remains of three volcanoes. Its big harbor, Akaroa (South Island Maori for “long harbor”), is essentially a salt-water equivalent of Crater Lake, although it’s long and convoluted and not so deep. Its water sometimes looks like that in a mountain lake, when the wind and currents bring glacial flour, washed down the Southern Alps west of Christchurch, into the Pacific. When the wind swings around, the currents carry the glacial flour away and the water becomes clear.

The town of Akaroa is cute, as it still has many houses and small public buildings from the second half of the nineteenth century.

It’s quasi-French—halfway through the town the street names switch from French to English. That’s because back in 1840 the French attempted to settle here and make a claim on the South Island, but ran into bad luck and lost the race with the British by a matter of hours. Most of the French stayed and became British citizens. A French flag flies on the seawall near where their original boats anchored.

Also near the seawall are three large iron pots on a hearth, which had been used for boiling whale blubber.

We were lucky to be there the week before Christmas. Right after the holiday, and for about the next three weeks, thousands will pour into this little town of 500 permanent residents. Many will come by boat; cruise ships bring in a couple of thousand at a time. The hillsides are filling up with vacation homes, mainly for those escaping from Christchurch, an hour and a half away, but there are also a few owned by foreigners who may come for a week or two once a year, and we heard various languages on the street.

There are hotels, campgrounds, and Bed and Breakfasts ranging from five-star places with spa tubs all the way to farmstays. We chose a simple one—just three guestrooms, with a shared bathroom down the hall in a nice, comfortable old house.

The owner moved to town fifteen years ago, but is still a farmer at heart, raising fruits and vegetables and a chicken for eggs. She has a lovely flower garden, and we were delighted to find  lavender and pink sweet peas on the dresser.

 She also drives the town taxi. She calls her place called “Room With a View,” and the views of the flower garden and of the harbor are lovely.

Just across the road along the hill was a nature reserve, full of birds, and it was delightful to sit in the sun on the porch, dozing and listening to birdsong. The first night, a Dutch bicyclist also stayed there; he was seeing New Zealand before taking off for Fiji. He had the standard six-week European vacation.

One morning, we cruised on a 47’ sailing yach built in 1946. All that varnished wood to maintain! But the owner was happy to have it. He’d been a businessman in Auckland, sailing just as a hobby. He’d started seeing men his age drop dead. His doctor told him to lighten up. So three years ago he quit his job, and he and his wife sold everything except the cat, and set off for a ten-year sail around the world. They got as far as Akaroa, less than seven hundred miles south of Auckland, and put down anchor.

It was still when we left the dock, so we cheated and used the motor for a while. Once the wind came up, the engine was turned off, and we sailed quietly up the harbor and tacked back. Rick and I both took a turn at the helm, which of course was backward from the tiller we were accustomed to on much smaller boats. (No big deal–we’re accustomed to things being opposite down here. Could this be through the looking glass?)

We had hoped to see Hector’s dolphins, a small species that frequents the bay, but they were at sea that day.

When we got back to the dock, the wind wouldn’t allow us to go in on the usual side, just stepping out of the boat. So we went to the other side, and had to clamber up a ladder and swing around the top of it onto the dock. Our immediate thought was, “Never in America!” But we were very glad to have been on a small, quiet boat, with one captain and eight passengers. Three of the passengers were from Switzerland, not looking forward to returning to a frigid Europe. The other boats out that morning were big motorboats with dozens crammed on. At least one of the motor cruises promises that customers will see or swim with dolphins, so that was a bad day for them.

One of the restaurants, which had such good food we went twice, is named for a particularly nasty American pirate. And the best croissants and baguettes were not at a bakery but at a deli.

This signpost in the center of town has two different cemetery arrows: the one to the left for the Anglican cemetery, the one top right to the RC and Dissenting cemetery. The Anglican cemetery is far larger, and on much more level land, than the other—the Roman Catholics and Presbyterians rest on a very steep, narrow strip of ground.

This cute little wooden lighthouse was built more than a century ago at the mouth of the harbor. After the government decommissioned it, a preservation group bought it for $1, dismantled it, and moved it inland. A couple of days during the Christmas holidays it’s fired up, to the great surprise of those moored in the harbor.

We decided to return to Christchurch on the longer, narrower, twistier, more scenic route. Like the Long Straight in Australia, it’s something you only need to do once, one way, but the harbor views are great.

 The hillsides are corduroyed by decades of grazing by cows and sheep. In their effort to make New Zealand an “other Eden, demi-paradise,” the settlers logged the hills and made pastures of them, so now they look like the British Isles.

At least one Irish immigrant thinks New Zealand is Ireland on steroids; someone else described it as Scotland without the sophistication.

Christchurch itself is said to be more English than any English city. We got back to it just before lunch, dropped our bags in our hotel room, and headed out for lunch. The first person we saw on the street, just outside the hotel lobby, was the Dutch bicyclist. We’ve been told that in New Zealand there are only two degrees of separation, and we certainly believe it.

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