Road trips: Banks Peninsula and Hurunui District


The late afternoon light of a golden autumn day slanted through the roadside poplars as we eased our vehicle onto another long and beckoning one-way bridge. Below us, the milky turquoise water trickling through the river bed below hinted of a recent rain.

The hills themselves were a light shade of green. They may have been jealous of the surrounding trees, resplendent in every type of yellow from sienna to gold, and russets from a deep burnished red to a bone-dry brown. A cloudless cobalt sky defied the date. It was the last week of April and I had been told to expect a bitter, bone-seeping cold. Instead I was hopefully searching through bags of heavy clothes for something fresh and light.

I should not have been surprised. The day before, the deeply moving Anzac Day ceremony at Victoria Park had failed to deliver the anticipated crisp dawn. Far below us the city was shrouded in a smoky fog, but here – high on the ridgeline of the Port Hills – I found myself overdressed. By mid-morning we were positively gasping for air as we headed the car to Banks Peninsula on a single-lane shingle road with a terrifying drop off to the valley deep below. It was exhilarating winding down to Pigeon Bay.

It’s easy to reflect on a time when Pigeon Bay was a horse-and-dray town serviced solely from the sea. There’s a waterfront campground, dotted with vintage caravans. It’s an idyllic setting for summer holidaymakers.

The nearby historic settlement of Okains Bay features Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum. This unique museum, comprising more than 20,000 Maori and early-European artefacts, includes a sacred God-stick dating back to 1400AD; a traditional meeting place; and a pair of 150-year-old waka (war canoes) still used during Waitangi Day celebrations.

The colonial displays are housed in traditional buildings, including stables, a saddler and colonial village, together with the recently acquired – and now fully reconstructed – Akaroa Grandstand.

Campers and RVers are in for a real treat at Okains Bay Motorcamp, which generously latches itself onto a decent swathe of surf beach, as well as the broad lagoon. It must be a heavenly place to stay in summer under the cool pines.

It was hard to tear away from this tranquil enclave, but after a light snack at a picnic table on the waterfront reserve we nosed back up to the ridgeline where a breath-taking view over Akaroa Harbour was awaiting to beckon us closer.

We scampered around lovely, bustling Akaroa for a short time before heading back over the hills to Birdlings Flat for another fossick for gemstones along the shoreline. Time was of the essence. A long and lovely Anzac Day was drawing to a close and while we had crammed a great deal in to day one, there were many more treats still in store.

Rivernear Hanmer

The following day I picked up our motorhome. We planned to once again head for the hills – this time deep into the Hurunui District. Once through Amberley, the main service town of the Hurunui region, this would be all-new territory for me and I was looking forward to the drive. Our route would take us forty minutes north of Christchurch on SH1, before turning left onto SH7 at Waipara and eventually right on to SH70 – the Inland Road to Kaikoura – apparently a mecca for motorhomers, judging by the sheer numbers we passed.

Quiet Culverden is actually a mecca for shopping. Once a year, around the end of October, it hosts The Culverden Christmas Fete (New Zealand’s largest fete) where more than 200 stallholders showcase their glorious wares.

The nearby Balmoral Recreation Reserve Camping Ground, close to the Hurunui River Bridge, is a popular place for self-contained RVers who love to fish for salmon and trout. Also close are two famous North Canterbury landmarks: the picture postcard pretty Hurunui Hotel, built in 1868 to serve drovers, and Black Hills Station, where tours of the hand-hewn limestone and cob farm buildings can be arranged.

Shortly after passing Culverden Golf Club – at which we could have enjoyed a round for a green fee of just $15 – we turned right onto Rotherham Road at the Red Post Corner and scooted past the small cluster of buildings that make up this quiet rural outpost.

Quiet Rotherham may be, yet there is treasure at its heart, as I was to find soon afterwards when we encountered the magnificent one-lane, two-passing-bay bridge over the Waiua River – absolutely my favourite of the many one-way bridges (I have so far encountered) of the South Island. Shortly after crossing the bridge into the tiny township of Waiau, we took a left turn into Leslie Street, which quickly becomes the Inland Road.

There’s a lovely little motorcamp here, with a scattering of shops and an attractive domain to explore. Instead, with half an hour’s drive still to go before reaching our destination, we pressed on into the twilight, past gracious homesteads and exquisite rolling countryside on mostly straight roads. The next morning we retraced our steps back to Flintoft Mouse Point Road to rejoin SH7 for the drive to Hanmer Springs. Once again, it was the magnificent Waiau River that took my breath away. This time it was the death-defying drop from the narrow gorge bridge and the view of the broad valley ablaze with autumn colours, stretching far into the distance.

Canterbury at any time of the year has a great deal to offer travellers, but in autumn the blaze of the trees will set your heart on fire.

Things to see and do

Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum: treasures from the region’s past are presented in a truly unique setting.

ThrillSeekers Adventures: this Hanmer Springs tourism company provides all manner of excitement, including jetboats, bungy, rafting, quadbikes, and target practice.

Pohatu Sea-kayaking: this is the best way to experience Pohatu Marine Reserve, a refuge for many endemic species. You’ll encounter penguins, seals, sea birds, and often Hector’s dolphins.

Waiau River: if you’re an angler at heart, don’t miss the trout brimming in these waters. The salmon run during February and March. Access via Waiau and Rotherham.

Watters Cottage: erected by John Watters in the 1880s, this is a perfect example of an original sod cottage. Set in landscaped grounds in Rotherham.

Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools: an award-winning spa set in breath-taking natural landscape.

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