BANKS IS­LAND

with a French in­fu­sion

NZ Today - - BANKS ISLAND - STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLES COLE

Ap­pear­ing on maps as a bul­bous, stunted limb be­tween the Pa­cific Ocean and the vast plains of Can­ter­bury, Banks Penin­sula is ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tinc­tive, ris­ing abruptly from its flat hori­zons. It is quite un­der­stand­able that Cap­tain Cook la­belled it an is­land when he sailed past in 1770; un­der­stand­able also, that he hon­oured his ex­pe­di­tion’s botanist, Joseph Banks, by giv­ing his name to such a prom­i­nent fea­ture of the coast.

Liv­ing in Christchurch, I find it easy to for­get that some typ­i­cal New Zealand farm­ing hill coun­try is found al­most on my doorstep. I am re­minded pretty quickly as I head out on the road to Akaroa and the first hills of the penin­sula’s vol­canic pro­tru­sion ap­pear to the east.

Out­side the school at Tai Tapu, a sign ad­ver­tises the school’s cook­book, An Edi­ble Jour­ney, a con­cept which fol­lows this same route to Akaroa, high­light­ing many of the lo­cal food producers (see the sep­a­rate story on the fol­low­ing page). The road from Christchurch is still flat for the first 50 kilo­me­tres out to Lit­tle River and Coop­town and skirts around Lakes Ellesmere and Forsyth.

Lit­tle River is a tra­di­tional cof­feestop on the Akaroa road, but there is a lot more go­ing on in the area than just the pour­ing of trim milk and sa­chets of su­gar. Some­how, the quiet hills and val­leys nearby have at­tracted a num­ber of prac­ti­tion­ers of nat­u­ral medicine and holis­tic heal­ing. Mar­cus and Me­gan Puentener, who own the Lit­tle River Camp­ground in the Okuti Val­ley, give me a good overview of the area, and tell me that a lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of just 1000 supports three yoga classes!

There are plenty of bush walks, model aero­plan­ing at Lake Forsyth, an up­hill car race in Septem­ber and Lit­tle River is the gate­way to the iso­lated bays on the south side of the penin­sula, in­clud­ing Mag­net Bay, which pro­vide some se­cluded surf­ing. The lo­cal sum­mer fes­ti­val pro­gramme in­cludes a Well­ness Weekend, a Cu­ri­ous Places and Spa­ces Tour, a Walk­ing Weekend, and a Drum Fes­ti­val.

For those drawn to the area, there are some in­ter­est­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions. Mar­cus shows me around the camp­ground, the 7.5 hectares of which pro­vide a clas­sic fam­ily camp­ground ex­pe­ri­ence with river (trout, eel, lam­prey), mas­sive mud slide, na­tive bush walk, and great views of the sur­round­ing hills. Over ten years ago it used to be the site of Bird­lands, and con­tains an­cient kahikatea, matai and to­tara trees. In 1997, the then Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral Michael Hardie Boys, ded­i­cated an old matai tree to the mem­ory of Princess Diana and it still graces the land­scape.

Just along the road, James Mullins and Jane Rogers have Okuti Gar­dens, where the ac­com­mo­da­tion in­cludes four Mon­go­lian-style yurt tents, a teepee, a house truck and a cot­tage. The yurts are spread across a hill­side planted with pretty gar­dens, in­clud­ing an or­ganic vege gar­den, from which guests can pick herbs. It is all very well de­signed, in­clud­ing an out­door kitchen which merges into the peace­ful scene. It is the per­fect place for re­treats, med­i­ta­tion, or for any­one want­ing a peace­ful get­away. The sturdy yurts pro­vide nice com­fort­able beds, while pro­vid­ing an out­door camp­ing at­mos­phere.

BACK IN LIT­TLE RIVER IT­SELF, Stuart and Ange Wright-Stow are pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent twist on cir­cu­lar ac­com­mo­da­tion. Be­side their gen­eral store, cafe, and art gallery, Stuart is con­vert­ing nine si­los into unique ac­com­mo­da­tion units. The in­te­ri­ors of “Silo Stay” are still be­ing fit­ted out and Stuart shows me in­side one. There are two lev­els, the bot­tom be­ing a kitchen and liv­ing area, which is linked to the top level bed­room by a curved steel stair­case. The idea of mak­ing si­los into ac­com­mo­da­tion is cre­ative enough, but the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of putting it all to­gether has re­quired cre­ativ­ity at ev­ery turn, a sit­u­a­tion in which Stuart has rev­elled. He has de­signed and made his own lights us­ing spare pip­ing, used in­dus­trial taps and switches, clev­erly in­te­grated a rec­tan­gu­lar shower space into the bed­room with a glass wall, in­stalled roll-out ta­bles, and, on the out­side walls, pul­leys with which guests (in­clud­ing those cy­cling the Lit­tle River Rail Trail) can pull up their cy­cles se­curely, well clear of the ground. Other fea­tures in­clude the si­los’ plas­tic grain gauges (like lit­tle aper­tures in me­dieval tow­ers) that pro­vide ex­tra light on the stair­cases, wa­ter-con­serv­ing hand basins that are linked to the toi­let cis­terns and sky­lights di­rectly above the beds that give clear views of the South­ern Hemi­sphere’s stars. Silo Stay was al­ready tak­ing book­ings for stays from March 1, 2014.

My ac­com­mo­da­tion in Akaroa was to be of a more tra­di­tional sort. Af­ter the hilly and wind­ing drive across the very heart of the penin­sula (six kilo­me­tres up to the panoramic view at Hill­top, and six down) I pro­ceeded past the north­ern bays of Akaroa Har­bour and stopped at Akaroa Cot­tages, just a kilo­me­tre shy of Akaroa it­self.

HERE, TEN SE­CLUDED COT­TAGES are spread across a hill­side, mostly hid­den from each other by na­tive bush, and I am quick to en­joy the view from my bal­cony: French Bay be­low, with the French town spread out on the other side of the bay, and Akaroa Har­bour stretch­ing out to the south, all hori­zons end­ing with the sur­round­ing vol­canic hills. Akaroa is a most re­lax­ing place to stay, and this is why, in the sum­mer, tourists and hol­i­day home own­ers will boost the town’s pop­u­la­tion from sev­eral hun­dred to sev­eral thou­sand.

Akaroa Cot­tages are var­i­ously pri­vately owned, but man­aged by Me­gan and Kyle Hazel­dine on be­half of Her­itage Ho­tels. Pre­vi­ously, Me­gan and Kyle had the Akaroa butch­ery, be­fore work­ing in the ho­tel and prop­erty in­dus­tries, re­spec­tively. It seems to be a good com­bi­na­tion of the high stan­dards of a ho­tel chain, and of an in­ti­mate set­ting (“bou­tique”, I think, is the in­dus­try term), the am­bi­ence be­ing com­pleted with spa baths, log fires and bird­song.

I go for an evening stroll into Akaroa and up another bush-cov­ered hill­side to the old French ceme­tery on L’Aube Hill. It was the first con­se­crated burial ground in Can­ter­bury, dat­ing from the early 1840s, but, un­for­tu­nately, by 1925 most of the headstones had dis­ap­peared, and only some of the names of Akaroa’s orig­i­nal French set­tlers could be de­ci­phered from bro­ken headstones and wooden crosses.

Ac­cord­ingly, only 18 names are in­scribed on a lone stone slab, which, sur­rounded by a walled oblong lawn in a small, quiet clear­ing in the bush, seems as much to be com­mem­o­rat­ing the care­less loss of the recorded gravesites as the in­di­vid­ual pioneers them­selves.

Two orig­i­nal grave in­scrip­tions, how­ever, have been at­tached to the slab, show­ing through their verdi­gris that the 35-year-old navy cap­tain, Édouard Le Lièvre, died here in 1842, as did Pierre Le Buffe, a 26-year-old sailor. (Graves of French set­tlers who died at a later pe­riod still sur­vive in the Catholic sec­tion of the Akaroa Ceme­tery on the south side of the town.)

In con­trast, there has been no care­less­ness that has pre­vented the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the rais­ing of the Union Jack by the Bri­tish on Au­gust 11, 1840, just days be­fore the French ar­rived. The Brit­o­mart Mon­u­ment was un­veiled in 1898 at Greens Point, on the south­ern out­skirts of the town, in the pres­ence of Pre­mier Richard Sed­don with a salute from the guns of HMS Tau­ranga. A plaque on the obelisk states that here on that day in 1840, Cap­tain Owen Stan­ley of HMS Brit­o­mart “raised the Union Jack to demon­strate Bri­tish sovereignty to the peo­ple on Banks Penin­sula and to the French corvette L’Aube which ar­rived on 17 Au­gust.”

In other words, “We were here first, and we don’t care what set­tle­ment plans you Frog­gies think you have – and, by the way, we’ve been col­lect­ing Maori sig­na­tures on a doc­u­ment all around the coun­try. Put those other red, white and blue flags away, and bow to the Queen’s colours!”

The French set­tle­ment here in Akaroa, unique in New Zealand, was nev­er­the­less es­tab­lished on Bri­tish ter­ri­tory, and to­day there are many res­i­dents of Banks Penin­sula who can trace their an­ces­try back to th­ese early French set­tlers.

One of th­ese is Pip Waghorn, whose an­ces­tor from Nor­mandy, Éti­enne François Le Lièvre, came out as a black­smith on the whal­ing ship, Nil in 1838. He was a friend of Cap­tain Jean Lan­glois who set up the Nanto- Bor­de­laise Com­pany, and he re­turned to Akaroa with him on the com­pany’s emi­grant ship, the Comte de Paris, ar­riv­ing in Au­gust 1840 with a to­tal of 63 em­i­grants (at the same time as the French war­ship, L’Aube).

Pip and her hus­band Hugh, (whose an­ces­tors were very early set­tlers at Lit­tle Akaroa) farmed over the hills at Pi­geon Bay for 23 years, then at Horo­rata and Che­viot, be­fore re­turn­ing to Akaroa ten years ago. They set up the cruise com­pany, Akaroa Dol­phins, and now also run fish­ing char­ters, Cap­tain Hec­tor’s Boat Hire, and La Thai restau­rant on the water­front.

Hugh used to pi­lot the dol­phin tours, but now leaves that mostly to their busi­ness part­ner, Craig Rhodes. The Waghorn’s el­derly Cairn ter­rier, Hec­tor, used to al­ways go out in the boat, but his dol­phin-spot­ting role is now ably filled by Mur­phy, Craig’s six-year-old Jack Rus­sell-Bi­chon Frise cross.

I did not know it when I joined a dozen oth­ers on an af­ter­noon tour, led by Craig Rhodes and Re­becca Cooper, that Mur­phy was on board, let alone that he would be the star of the show.

Mur­phy will hear the dol­phins well be­fore they ap­pear, and will ex­cit­edly dash up to the bow of the boat and give a good few af­fir­ma­tive barks. When the dol­phins swim along­side the boat, he watches them closely over the side, but, they tell me, never falls in, al­though he’s al­ways wear­ing his lit­tle life jacket.

The dol­phins are Hec­tor’s Dol­phins, the rarest and small­est dol­phins in the world, and they fol­low the boat as we head south down the har­bour, some of them swim­ming sev­eral abreast right be­neath the bow, keep­ing ex­actly to the boat’s speed. They seem to find this pace an ab­so­lute breeze, for oc­ca­sion­ally one will flick its tail and put on a burst of speed which makes it dis­ap­pear into the greenblue fath­oms and out of reach of the boat within sec­onds. It is quite likely that such play­ful speed­sters are the very ones that ap­pear dou­bling back later on and cross­ing the boat’s path with en­er­getic leaps. Mur­phy has seen it all be­fore (since he was just three months old), but is still fas­ci­nated, and slightly dumb­founded in his dog­gish way, with th­ese strange, wet crea­tures from an in­ac­ces­si­ble world.

There are also a few sight­ings of lone, lit­tle blue pen­guins on the sur­face of the sea, some cloudy orange for­ma­tions of krill, and, on the western shore, a good num­ber of bask­ing seals and roost­ing shags.

Aside from the ma­rine life, we en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar views of the cliffs, of the har­bour, caves and rock for­ma­tions (one in the dis­tinc­tive shape of an ele­phant’s head). On the re­turn to Akaroa wharf, Mur­phy knows that the search for dol­phins is over and re­turns up­stairs to sleep on the floor of the bridge. Craig Rhodes’ an­ces­try also goes back to the whal­ing days of the area (his chil­dren are the sev­enth gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily). Is­rael Rhodes started farm­ing at Flea Bay, not far out­side the Akaroa heads, on a large farm that ex­tended back over the hills to Akaroa, and farm­ing con­tin­ued through the gen­er­a­tions (in­clud­ing Craig).

TO­DAY THE FARM AT FLEA bay is owned by Fran­cis and Shireen Helps, and later in the week I find my­self rolling up in front of Rhodes’s 1850s cot­tage there, for I am to join the Helps’ Po­hatu Pen­guin tour, which is timed for dusk to see the lit­tle blue pen­guins com­ing ashore for the night.

The cot­tage is one of the prop­er­ties that pro­vides ac­com­mo­da­tion on the 36-kilo­me­tre Banks Penin­sula Track (for the sec­ond night of the four-day walk that crosses seven pri­vate prop­er­ties and re­turns to Akaroa in an anti-clock­wise di­rec­tion, via Stony, Sleepy, and Long Bays. There is also a two-day ver­sion).

Out­side the Helps’ farm­house, I join a tour with some of the walk­ers, and some other tourists who have been picked up in Akaroa by one of the Po­hatu Pen­guin mini-buses (I have driven the 13 kilo­me­tres from Akaroa my­self – a steep drive up and down – in my 2WD, though the nar­row, gravel road is bet­ter suited to 4WDs).

Fran­cis Helps gives us cam­ou­flaged jer­seys so that we can blend into the hill­side of the nar­row bay and not dis­turb the pen­guins. They are very care­ful to wait in the mid­dle of the bay un­til night falls so that they avoid be­ing seen by birds of prey. Then, when they reach the shore, they as­cend the steep ter­rain in a ver­ti­cal line, straight to their bur­rows (no leisurely zig-zag­ging course when a nice warm bed is wait­ing!)

There is a lit­tle track along the cliffs to a view­ing plat­form where we are given binoc­u­lars to make out the pen­guins, but there aren’t many this evening, and Fran­cis thinks that the adults have not caught enough food to re­turn ashore to their chicks and de­cide it is not worth wait­ing for the day­light to dis­ap­pear. We are still able to see some of their pop­u­la­tion of 1,300: chicks that are al­ready en­sconsed in spe­cially built lit­tle boxes all around the path. Fran­cis briefly lifts some of the lids of th­ese and we have a few quick glimpses of the lit­tle birds timidly cow­er­ing in their refuges. They are very ner­vous and their heart rates can soar from such en­coun­ters, so Fran­cis quickly re­places the lids.

He re­mem­bers that th­ese pen­guins were very abun­dant when he was a child and would nest un­der­neath the farm build­ings, or any dark, en­closed space – even up­turned kayaks would be fair game for habi­ta­tion. The pop­u­la­tion suf­fered badly in the 1980s from stoats, weasels and other preda­tors and, with Mark Arm­strong of Stony Bay, Fran­cis took steps to pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion. They were on their own in the be­gin­ning, but with their grow­ing suc­cess, con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions be­gan to lend their sup­port, and now the pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ing by five per cent each year.

Lit­tle blues aside, that evening we were lucky to see a yel­low eyed pen­guin wad­dling up the steep ground to its nest. There are just a dozen of the birds on the south east cor­ner of the penin­sula, in­clud­ing three breed­ing pairs. This one paused cau­tiously ev­ery so of­ten to look about and did not vis­i­bly re­act to the in­tru­sion of the uni­formly cam­ou­flaged hu­manoids. We also got a great view of a seal bob­bing up and down just me­tres from the shore, where an oys­ter catcher and its chicks were walk­ing across the sand.

FUR­THER AROUND TO THE EAST are two of the bet­ter known bays of the penin­sula, Le Bons and Okains Bays, both with big, wide swim­ming beaches and their fair share of beach houses. I head down to Le Bons Bay in search of a Rus­sian church I have heard has been built here in re­cent years. The road, like all those that ac­cess the bays around here, winds steeply down the val­ley, and, with the help of Robin Burleigh (who takes tourists on his mail run around the bays, and hap­pens to be de­liv­er­ing in the bay when I ar­rive), I am able to find the church. It is hid­den from the road up a hill, and not open to the pub­lic, but I find the own­ers, Niko­lai and Natalia Koulanov, at home and happy to show me around.

This Rus­sian Or­tho­dox church is fur­ther up the hill from their house and its for­eign, onion-shaped domes pro­vide a strange sight among the sur­round­ing hills. The church was built in 2007, mod­elled on a tra­di­tional wooden church in Nov­gorod that is now part of that town’s Out­door Mu­seum of Wooden Ar­chi­tec­ture. The con­struc­tion was com­pletely tra­di­tional, in­ter­lock­ing logs of New Zealand Oregon, and was led by an ex­pert car­pen­ter from Nov­gorod. The orig­i­nal churches are pre­cious in Rus­sia, for many have been burned and de­stroyed over the cen­turies, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion in 1917.

Named the Church of Pro­tec­tion of the Holy Vir­gin, it was con­se­crated in 2011 by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Hi­lar­ion, First Hier­arch of the Rus­sian Church Abroad, with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of eight pri­ests from the Rus­sian, Ser­bian and Greek or­tho­dox churches, in­clud­ing Niko­lai and Natalia’s el­dest son, Eugene, who is a pri­est at Auck­land’s Or­tho­dox Church. Archi­man­drite Alexis, of the Holy Trans­fig­u­ra­tion Monastery in Aus­tralia, has been lead­ing the process of set­ting up the church, and painted its icons, most dur­ing his stay­ing here. Niko­lai tells me that they are in the style of the golden age of Rus­sian iconog­ra­phy of the Late Mid­dle Ages.

The whole thing is a beau­ti­ful as­set, and the church has some­times been used for ser­vices. Christchurch’s Or­tho­dox church holds the reg­u­lar ser­vices, and for the past 12 years has been us­ing the farm here for chil­dren’s sum­mer camps.

FROM NORTH­ERN RUS­SIA, I head north to Okains Bay via the Sum­mit Road, which pro­vides fan­tas­tic views of Akaroa Har­bour. The fa­mous fea­ture here is the Okains Bay Maori and Colo­nial Mu­seum, be­gun decades ago by lo­cal farmer, Mur­ray Thacker. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing lo­cal mu­seum, with a va­ri­ety of Maori taonga and colo­nial ob­jects, many from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs around lo­cal pas, and many that would be the envy of the coun­try’s ma­jor mu­se­ums. The col­lec­tion in­cludes old build­ings that have been saved from penin­sula farms and from fur­ther afield.

On Wai­tangi Day, the mu­seum is the fo­cus of a very suc­cess­ful com­mu­nity celebration that cen­tres on its marae and its two mighty waka that ar­rive at the land­ing on the Opara Stream, just across the road. I cross the road to have a look at the two craft, sit­ting high and dry in their stor­age shed. Both have fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ries. Kahukaka, over 60 feet in length, was made in about 1870 and lay aban­doned be­side the Whanganui River for many years (long enough for a 10-foot tree to sprout in­side her) be­fore be­ing res­cued and railed to Christchurch about 40 years ago. Lov­ingly re­stored, and the pride of the com­mu­nity, its mana grows with ev­ery Wai­tangi Day.

Each Wai­tangi Day the mu­seum usu­ally uses the oc­ca­sion to open up a new dis­play room, and this year it will be the inau­gu­ra­tion of a cheese cur­ing room, and a cocks­foot ma­chin­ery build­ing. I had vis­ited the mu­seum a cou­ple of years be­fore, and didn’t have time to check it out again, for I was meet­ing the mu­seum’s founder, Mur­ray Thacker, at his home up the hill that looks down over the bay. The oc­to­ge­nar­ian is still full of plans to help the Okains Bay com­mu­nity. He’s try­ing to get an old mill go­ing, and has the idea of a guided walk for tourists from the camp­ground up into the hills above. Over a fence, he shows me Pixie Caramel, his cow that is preg­nant again. Most years the calves are given to the school, and the pupils care for them and sell them to raise funds.

The growth of the mu­seum and its ef­fect on the Okains Bay com­mu­nity is re­mark­able. Over many years, each of the com­mu­ni­ties in the other bays of the penin­sula has lost its store and its school, both vi­tal parts of com­mu­nity life, leav­ing lit­tle rea­son for peo­ple to re­main (and a fair pro­por­tion of those who do re­main are only hol­i­day home own­ers). Mur­ray has tried to en­cour­age the em­ploy­ment of staff at the mu­seum and the ad­ja­cent store who can con­trib­ute to the build­ing of the com­mu­nity, and this has worked, par­tic­u­larly when they have chil­dren who help boost the school roll. There are also one or two houses that he has let at some­times quite favourable terms. We do a rough count of the school pupils: two mu­seum cus­to­di­ans have seven chil­dren be­tween them, there’s one pupil from the store, and four oth­ers come from the afore­said houses. I tell Mur­ray that he is there­fore re­spon­si­ble for 12 of the roll of 18 pupils.

“Dis­gust­ing, isn’t it?” he jokes. Another four of the pupils are chil­dren of his cousins. It’s a mas­sive in­crease from the time, a few years ago, when the roll was less than half this to­tal and clo­sure was threat­ened.

As it hap­pens, this very evening will see the school’s end-of-year con­cert in the school hall, and in another cou­ple of hours I am sit­ting in the au­di­ence with most of the Okains Bay com­mu­nity. The con­cert en­sem­ble of 18 con­sists of the en­tire school, com­posed evenly of ju­nior and se­nior, male and fe­male pupils, and as I watch them per­form the Nutcracker, Kapa Haka, and a play about sock stew, I am aware that the very fact that they are here at all is a tri­umph. One of the lit­tle girls who sits cross­legged at the front of the stage while the older pupils per­form Kapa Haka, un­apolo­get­i­cally combs her mousy hair right down to hide her face. She may not know it, but Le Bons Bay School closed at the end of 2012, and last year the gov­ern­ment pro­posed to close Okains Bay School, the last of the bays’ schools out­side Akaroa. The com­mu­nity had a meet­ing to put for­ward their case, and pro­vide the gov­ern­ment with in­for­ma­tion they had not pos­sessed: the re­sult: the school con­tin­ues, with a prin­ci­pal and a part-time teacher. Tonight, the re­tir­ing chair of the school board is pre­sented with a part­ing gift and gives a heart­felt speech in which he refers to the po­ten­tial clos­ing of the school. It is clear that the board and the com­mu­nity have worked hard to keep the school and the com­mu­nity go­ing.

The mas­sive com­mu­nity spirit of this small school can be wit­nessed by the tourists from the cruise ships that have called at Akaroa since the wharf at Lyt­tel­ton suf­fered earth­quake dam­age. They come over the hills to tour the mu­seum, where they re­ceive a tra­di­tional Maori wel­come onto the marae. The powhiri is fol­lowed by a per­for­mance by the school’s Kapa Haka group, and all guests re­ceive a hongi from ev­ery one of the chil­dren. It is a unique ex­pe­ri­ence, a real wel­come from a real heart­land com­mu­nity that they will not re­ceive else­where.

EV­ERY­ONE IN THE BUSI­NESS com­mu­nity here tells me that with­out the cruise ships, it would have been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for many busi­nesses to sur­vive the post-earth­quake de­cline in tourist visi­tors.

Dur­ing the sum­mer about two cruise ships visit Akaroa each week, and I wit­ness two dur­ing my week’s stay. I don’t no­tice a big in­flux of tourists on the day that the Cale­do­nian Sky vis­its, for its pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity isn’t much more than 100, but two days later the Di­a­mond Princess puts up an­chor, with a pos­si­ble 2,600 pas­sen­gers and 1,200 crew.

It’s a lovely sunny day, and lit­tle land­ing boats shut­tle back and forth be­tween the ship and wharf, help­ing fill Akaroa’s streets with strollers. Cam­eras are out to record French flags, cute cot­tages; one fo­cuses on a rose bloom well past its best in the front gar­den of a mo­tel, another on a wisp of cloud above the hills, yet another on a bride and groom on the beach.

The sculp­tor of the statue of the French artist Charles Meryon paint­ing an imag­i­nary can­vas would be do­ing nicely if he had a dol­lar for ev­ery tourist that has posed for a photo in its empty frame.

The nov­elty of Akaroa’s unique French her­itage has not been lost on the town’s busi­nesses: a tri­colour flys out­side the “La Boucherie”, there’s a “Chez la Mer” back­pack­ers, a sign for “L’essence” out­side the petrol sta­tion – even the po­lice sta­tion gets in on the act with “Gen­darmerie” – not to men­tion all the signs on the streets named af­ter the early French set­tlers (and named “Rues” in the 1960s).

I stroll up Rue Balguerie, past quaint cot­tages and picket fences, and stop to pho­to­graph num­ber 44, the birth­place of Frank Wors­ley, Akaroa’s most fa­mous son.

He was the cap­tain of the En­durance, the ship of Ernest Shack­le­ton’s 1914-17 Antarc­tic Ex­pe­di­tion which be­came trapped in ice for months be­fore be­ing crushed and sunk. Wors­ley’s skills in nav­i­gat­ing the lifeboat, the James Caird, took Shack­le­ton 1,300 kilo­me­tres across ter­ri­ble seas to South Ge­or­gia so that an ex­pe­di­tion could be mounted to res­cue the 22 men they had left, stranded on Ele­phant Is­land.

His fa­ther farmed in the hills above Akaroa, and his mother came to stay in this cot­tage to give birth. While just a boy, he helped his fa­ther fell trees on the penin­sula, which he later re­gret­ted: “It was a mad waste: the colonists in their greed for more grass seed and sheep pas­ture burned mil­lions of pounds worth of tim­ber, reck­lessly de­stroy­ing the won­der­ful beauty of the bush...”

Wors­ley is also re­mem­bered in Akaroa with a bust near the main wharf, and an ex­hi­bi­tion about his life and achieve­ment in the mu­seum (though fol­low­ing the earth­quakes the wing in which it was dis­played is closed).

I CON­TINUE UP RUE BALGUERIE to num­ber 68, the Gi­ant’s House. This “mag­i­cal mo­saic sculp­ture gar­den” has been rec­om­mended to me, but I re­ally am not pre­pared to be over­whelmed by the large num­ber of larg­erthan-life-size sculpted fig­ures packed ar­tis­ti­cally into the ter­raced gar­den, linked by tile and mo­saic paths, steps and low walls.

There are clowns, acro­bats, mu­si­cians, zoo an­i­mals, a lit­tle blue pen­guin, a large boat, even an Adam and Eve.

Then, when one starts to take it all in, piece by piece, the care­ful de­tail in ev­ery square inch, one mar­vels at the use of bright colours, and their clever cre­ation by the painstak­ing con­struc­tion of mo­saic sur­faces (thou­sands of pieces of bro­ken china are the most re­mark­able of the ma­te­ri­als), and one mar­vels fur­ther when one re­alises the tech­ni­cal steel and con­crete work re­quired be­fore the artist fin­ishes the colour­ful mo­saic outer sur­faces of the fig­ures.

As im­por­tant as any­thing to the whole grand ef­fect are the hu­mor­ously con­ceived faces of the fig­ures and their re­la­tion­ships with each other through a most ac­com­plished com­po­si­tion.

As I wan­der about with de­light, all the other visi­tors, with­out ex­cep­tion, re­mark in amaze­ment, “What a lot of work’s been put into all this!”

It is a com­plete un­der­state­ment, es­pe­cially when you re­alise that this is all the work of one artist over a pe­riod of 15 years – and it wasn’t An­toni Gaudi play­ing tru­ant from Barcelona’s un­fin­ished Sagrada Fa­milia, though you may be for­given for think­ing so.

The artist is Josie Martin who lives on site in the lovely old (1880) wooden two-storey house. It’s large, high-ceilinged rooms are per­fect for show­ing her paint­ings to tour groups, as well as in­ter­est­ing ob­jects she’s ac­quired from all around the world (there is a sep­a­rate gallery show­ing ex­hi­bi­tions of Josie’s work at the back of the house).

It is ob­vi­ous that here, as in the gar­den, ev­ery­thing has been de­signed and ar­ranged with the eye of an artist. Josie is trained in hor­ti­cul­ture and art, and has ex­hib­ited widely, taught in art work­shops, and at­tended nu­mer­ous art res­i­den­cies in Asia, Amer­ica and Europe (in­clud­ing Barcelona).

The sculpted fig­ures are filled with char­ac­ter, and many have names, some based on peo­ple whom Josie ad­mires: there’s Mar­cel Marceau, rolling a ball in the palm of his hand, and Ruby De­li­cious, a black singer Josie saw in a jazz club in Bris­bane. Ruby sits be­side a foun­tain with Jimmy (Jame Joyce), and, spy­ing on them from over a wall, are the cat and dog, Madame Chate­laine and Ma­jor Bif­fin Sir Gen­eral Fortesque-Smythe. The lat­ter pair, Josie says, are a trib­ute to the nosy peo­ple who, in the very early days, came look­ing over the fence at the first of her sculpted fig­ures.

The gar­den con­tin­ues to ex­pand, and Josie has ac­quired some neigh­bour­ing prop­erty, which I sup­pose she re­gards as an invit­ing blank can­vas, just as she did the cur­rent prop­erty when she moved in. She has plans for a huge gi­ant right be­side the house, and this will fi­nally ful­fil the prom­ise of the name of the place – as well as the imag­i­na­tion of the lit­tle girl who pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for it when she looked up at the house from the val­ley be­low and said it was so big it must be the house of a gi­ant. THERE IS MORE ART TO be seen back on Akaroa’s high street at the Menis­cus wine tast­ing room on Rue Lavaud, but this is only in­ci­den­tal to the busi­ness of try­ing the wine of Akaroa’s only vine­yard. In the his­toric 1860s cot­tage, vine­yard own­ers, David and Gay Ep­stein have lined the walls with their own col­lec­tion of paint­ings, in­spired by the at­mos­phere of Monet’s house in Giverny. There are sto­ries be­hind ev­ery one: some tra­di­tional oil paint­ings are by an an­ces­tor of Gay’s; one is a por­trait of David’s mother painted in Vi­enna; another is even painted by an ele­phant in Thai­land. The artis­tic theme con­tin­ues in the names of the Ep­stein’s two dachshunds, Sal­vador Dali and Pablo Pi­casso (and that com­pletes my Span­ish tri­fecta for the day).

It’s a lovely room in which to sit and re­lax (af­ter 2 pm on Fri­days, Satur­days, Sun­days and “cruise ship days”), and sam­ple Menis­cus’s Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Ries­ling or Bouri­aud Pinot (their rosé); and the lovely gar­den court­yard at the back is also very pleas­ant. There are even some old fash­ioned boiled sweets for sale, a his­toric re­minder of early set­tler, Madame Eteve­neaux, who made such sug­ary treats in this very cot­tage.

This Aus­tralian cou­ple have had the vine­yard in the hills above Akaroa since 2009, where, David tells me, the cli­mate is sim­i­lar to Al­sace. Yearly pro­duc­tion of 3 to 4,000 bot­tles is lim­ited by the small site as well as by deliberate trim­ming, and the wines are only avail­able in Akaroa restau­rants. When I visit the vine­yard, I find one of their French em­ploy­ees (the other is a barman at the tast­ing room) spray­ing the vines to pre­vent mildew. The vine­yard is not ir­ri­gated for th­ese hills re­ceive enough nat­u­ral rain­fall.

I LAY OFF THE WINE as it is time for me to drive back to Christchurch. On the way I make de­tours to Pi­geon and Lit­tle Akaloa Bays, two of the larger bays on the north coast of the penin­sula. Again, there are steep val­ley drives through hill coun­try farm­land to ac­cess th­ese long, peace­ful in­lets.

Lit­tle Akaloa Bay may be slightly less peace­ful when all its hol­i­day homes are full, but even so, I’m sure, would re­tain the feel­ing of soli­tude and iso­la­tion. Nice old wharves in both bays in­di­cate re­lax­ing fish­ing and boat­ing hol­i­days, and in Pi­geon Bay I see a pub­lic walk­way that leads out to the heads, which I will have to try out another time.

I do wan­der along the shore­line a lit­tle way, and am fas­ci­nated to see that all the stones and boul­ders are an un­usual dark black colour, as if they have been blacked by a car yard groomer – it’s a last re­minder that none of this penin­sula would be here to­day had it not been for a few vol­canic erup­tions.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Mar­cus and Me­gan Puentener at the Lit­tle River Camp­ground. And Mar­cus with the Matai tree ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of Princess Diana.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Tai Tapu School ad­ver­tises its cook­book out­side the school.

James Mullins and Jane Rogers in the out­door kitchen. James and Nut­meg with one of the yurts.

Stuart Wright-Stow with his silo ac­com­mo­da­tion – “Silo Stay”.

The me­mo­rial slab at the French Ceme­tery.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Two of the ten Akaroa Cot­tages. View from the bal­cony.

Pip and Hugh Waghorn with Hec­tor. Craig Rhodes and Re­becca Cooper.

The Brit­o­mart Mon­u­ment with the cruise ship, Cale­do­nian Sky, in the back­ground. The Union Jack flies at the Brit­o­mart Mon­u­ment.

Hec­tor’s Dol­phins. Be­low Krill.

Mur­phy, the four-legged dol­phin spot­ter.

Fran­cis Helps (right) briefs the group be­fore the tour. Ele­phant’s Head rock.

A Yel­low Eyed Pen­guin at Flea Bay.

The Church of Pro­tec­tion of the Holy Vir­gin, Le Bons Bay.

The iconos­ta­sis.

Mur­ray Thacker with Pixie Caramel at Okains Bay.

Carv­ings at the en­trance to the Okains Bay Maori and Colo­nial Mu­seum.

Josie Martin at her out­door pi­ano at the Gi­ant'ss House.

The bust of Frank Wors­ley near Akaroa's main wharf.

Adam and Eve's ap­ple.

Madame Chate­laine & Ma­jor Fortesque--Smythe

Adam and Eve, and ap­ple. Be­low Mar­cel Marceau

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