Saturday 28th November
The Banks Peninsula - Akaroa.
The pink light of dawn woke Bill at 5.40 as it illuminated the sky light.
The sunrise was spectacular so we raised the blind, admired the sky, photographed it many times.... and went back to sleep!
When we woke properly at 7 we were aware that whilst we were parked in a peaceful little grassy spot by ourselves, all the other freedom camping motor homes were squeezed bumper-to-bumper on a patch of gravel 100 metres away. This suggested to us that maybe we were not quite in the correct place.
There was another free camping area a bit further south in the lake shore at the Wainui Reserve, we set off there for breakfast... Loads of space and a big sign welcoming camper vans!
We watched the sea and a local fisherman netting for shrimp or crayfish.
After breakfast we were curious as to what lay further south on this peninsula beyond the 'no cars' sign. We ran along the shore as the road rose and fell around several pretty inlets and past a few small houses before reaching headland where there was a clear view out through the harbour mouth to the ocean. We turned back and then drive on to Akaroa, on the other side of the harbour.
Akaroa rather prides itself on its French roots and the scene was set as we drove into the town and saw the sign 'Le Mini Golf'!
The remainder of Akaroa was more tasteful, attractive and pleasantly busy. It was full of shops, cafes and restaurants stretched out along the scenic waterfront. With clear blue skies, turquoise seas and people drinking coffee at tables outside restaurants, it felt like a miniature cross between Nice and Salcombe.
There was no i-site, but the 'Akaroa Adventure and Information Centre' had a confusing wall map showing local walks, and a series of letters on the chart below to indicate which map leaflet you should buy. It seemed much less user-friendly than the usual comprehensive DOC leaflet that allows a quiet browse and some planning over coffee.
We chose what we thought looked interesting and paid our dollars for the privilege. In the course of this activity we discovered what Elrond, Lord of Rivendell does for his day job - he pops down from Middle earth to work at the tourist information office in Akaroa, renting out kayaks. He had worked some kind of elf magic on his pointy ears, but it was him all right - the pigtails, eyebrows and that weird intense expression were all there!...
We looked for somewhere not too pretentious down on the waterfront and found it at the Har-Bar. We ordered coffees and used the internet to catch up with our house sitter back at Brock, who seemed very happy.
From our vantage point on the sea front, overlooking the broad expanse of Akaroa Harbour, both the mountains and the sea looked inviting, as did the description of the sandy swimming beaches on the east coast.
Having bagged ourselves a sea view pitch at the Top Ten campsite overlooking the sea, we hired a kayak and set off across the harbour.
As we set off across the smooth blue waters the gentle breeze increased and we were soon having to paddle hard into a headwind and choppy seas to make progress. We crossed the bay and then hugged the shore and followed the rocky coastline, dodging large areas of kelp covering rocks just under the surface. We finally arrived at a sheltered sandy cove.... Just in time to paddle back again! We made a dash straight across the bay. This leg of the journey was very different. With wind and waves behind us we surfed home!
After our exertions we felt that we had earned a beer which was ably supplied by the Trading House on the harbour front. It also provided excellent seafood chowder and delicious roast cauliflower with hazelnuts and pomegranate salad.
We felt it was time to explore a bit more of the peninsula....
We set off up to the Summit Road which followed the rim of the original volcano. The route up to the road is a steep switchback but the views across the island were stunning, both the the west, over the sea and to the west over the green wooded valleys leading down steep sided valleys to beaches like Le Bons Bay and Okains Bay.
We had planned to climb to Panama Rock, a short steep walk with great 360 degree views. One approach was only accessible by 4WD driven by 'confident drivers'. The other access was suitable for 2WD. We drive on and turned onto the gravel track called Cameron's Track. The turn onto the track was a steep 130 degree angle drop off the main Tarmac road. We lurched forward and had to shunt a couple of times to make the turn, then we descended steeply down the road for about a kilometre. Then I noticed the small print on the map 'unsuitable for camper vans'. We could see the narrow single track winding its way over the hillside - no chance of turning round. We would have to reverse back up the track onto the main road, all 3.5 tonnes of us. To Bill's very great credit, that is what we did.
After that we abandoned any plans for a walk as on closer inspection of our map, we found that all the walking routes on our map involved similar access roads. We decided to go to the beach.
Le Bons Bay is one of two sandy swimming beaches on the peninsula. And we were the only ones there, apart from a young local woman and her small child . Admittedly it's quite a drive over the mountains, but it's beautiful.
We swam and walked along the beach, enjoying our last few hours of tranquil unspoilt solitude before returning to the camp site and getting ready for our onward journey.
The drive back was just as challenging and scenic as the way there - a winding narrow road clinging to the side of the crater rim.
We steeled ourselves for the camping at close quarters that seems the norm at paid sites. We did have an excellent pitch with panoramic views over the bay and the setting sun, but we were almost within touching distance of the camper vans on each side of us.
We turned our attention to practical matters including laundry and supper, and then joined the other campers in the ritual of sitting by our van at our camping table drinking wine and watching the sunset. It was very strange - respecting the collective privacy of the friendly nodding strangers sitting only six feet away on either side of us. We exchanged smiles and a few words and then each continued our private reminiscences of the day and plans for the next.
Dinner done we wandered down into the town to stroll the harbour and look up at the stars. We spotted the Southern Cross, Orion and Scorpio to name just a few.