Thursday, March 19, 2009

Akaroa? I hardly know her (Banks Peninsula, 1)

If you ever find yourself in Akaroa, New Zealand, kindly remember that its location is NOT "the Banks peninsula" but in fact only "Banks peninsula." That is, if you say "I am going to spend the weekend on the Banks peninsula" you will have spoken incorrectly, and probably the nearest Kiwi will point this out and laugh. The more times you make this mistake, the more said Kiwi will laugh. I suppose it's a bit like saying "I'm going to spend the weekend on the Cape Cod," but it took me awhile to catch on to the idea.

Anyway, Banks peninsula is a little knob of land sticking out of the otherwise smoothish coastline south of Christchurch. I first spotted it while dreamily playing around with Google maps on my lunch break at work last winter. It looks very odd on a map, a growth in New Zealand's side, and when I found out that it was actually an enormous submerged volcano (also called a "caldera") soaked in Maori history I was hooked.

Beautiful Banks Peninsula scenery

I rode the Akaroa Connection, a glorified shuttle bus, from Christchurch to Akaroa (shocking!), the biggest settlement on the peninsula (you can say "the" in this case, but not when you add "Banks" to the equation). Upon arrival, I found my way to Chez La Mer, a charming hostel/ repurposed Victorian house. The name is French because everything in Akaroa is as well. A little known historical fact: the French actually "discovered" New Zealand, stumbling upon it on an exploring jaunt focused on other south sea locations. Because they were on a separate mission they had to sail back to Europe to ask permission to claim the land for France and bring back settlers, but in the interim the British arrived and made accords with the local Maori-- something like two days before. That means only 50-odd hours separate a British versus a French New Zealand, which would make for quite a different world.

Anyway, the French sulked and took Akaroa as their consolation prize, the one French settlement in New Zealand. It's a charming one-street little town, stretching itself around Akaroa harbor, one of countless harbors on the peninsula (because it is a submerged volcano, there are both harbors inside the crater and around the outside where the mountain comes out of the ocean). There are a host of bars, coffee shops, a little cinema, a grocer, and lots of farmers in the mountains. All the signage in French, although that's about all the French culture that remains. Borrowing a bicycle from my hostel, I went exploring, enjoying a fudge shop, poking into art galleries, and looking into another cute local museum. The so-called "Giant's House," an art garden where everything was intricately mosaiced, called to me, but the entrance fee was too steep, and I passed it by.

Instead, I rode my bike to Onuku Marae. In Maori a "marae" is a ceremonial compound that includes a sacred space and a meeting house, often in the middle of a Maori community-- where there is a marae there are certainly Maori. Here I encountered my first instance of the famous Kiwi understatement. New Zealander's lack of apparent enthusiasm is famous among travelers in New Zealand. I'm not saying that they actually don't feel strongly about anything, only that they often don't show it. An attraction that is fabulous-out-of-this-world is termed "well worth a look" and an hour and a half bike ride up and down small mountains is a "forty-five minute ride with maybe two big hills." At least that's what the owner of Chez La Mer told me as I set off on my mission to Onuku. I wanted a chance to enjoy the scenery, and I had never seen a "real" marae (that is, one outside of a museum.) As I will have plenty of opportunity to discuss in the future, I prefer to encounter culture when it exists for itself, rather than a paying audience, and the chance to see Maori life outside of a tawdry amusement setting was really appealing.

The bike ride was beautiful but incredibly challenging. In the end I walked the bike almost as much as I rode it. I was rewarded, however, with a peaceful Maori settlement nestled among mountains, from which emanated the sounds of traditional singing-- practice for the upcoming Waitangi Day (New Zealand independence day) celebrations.

Onuku Marae

I rested and ate some celebratory fudge, looked into a tiny carved church, and pondered the problem at hand: how to get the bike back to Akaroa? I thought I might be able to make the trek back, but it would take hours and put me out of commission for the rest of the week. I had, as the saying goes, bitten off more than I could chew.

The church at Onuku

My saviors came in the form of three middle aged British ladies who were also visiting the marae but who, wisely, had come by car. They may have been gray haired, but at least one of them was in better shape than I, and when she heard my predicament she consulted with her friends and very generously offered to ride the bike back for me while I rode in the car with her companions. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to finish the job and felt a stab of regret as we crested the last hill back to Akaroa, but part of traveling is accepting your limits and I certainly had reached mine that day.

Sunset after my bike ride

The highlight of my time in Akaroa came the next morning, when I woke bright and early to go out with the Akaroa Rural Postal Run--I spent 5 hours driving all over the peninsula with the postman as he delivered mail, newspapers, and medicine for the elderly. It was a fantastic way to see the area, which is very rural, confusing, and difficult to access without a car and a working knowledge of local geography, culture, and history. And I got the tour all to myself, which was even better.

A glimpse of rural NZ life

As we drove, the postman would tell me little snatches about the people we were delivering to: this family had been farming for generations on the peninsula since they came from Scotland; this one's father built the church on the hill with his bare hands, working for 30 years; this man has Parkinson's, isn't it a shame; this one has lived alone here his whole life; this one is an odd American who is building a Buddhist temple. Through maybe twenty different bays, through fog and sunshine, on paved roads and roads that were little more than dirt paths, we visited everyone on the route and I got to see the backstage life of a quiet, beautiful place unfold with the daily farmer's circular.

At the midpoint, the postman laid out a "morning tea" of crackers, cheese, muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee, to eat at a picnic table overlooking a beautiful inlet where, he said, dolphins sometimes come to feed.

A pretty nice spot for tea
In the last village, where the postman himself lived, we paused at the local school, where the students came running up to the van and he gave each a piece of mail to deliver.

Running to meet the mail

View along the postal route
And in tiny Okain's Bay we watched preparations for the next day's Waitangi festivities. A waka (Maori war canoe) sat in a river shed waiting to be paddled. Nearby, people dug a hole to hold the hangi, or traditional feast. The Okain's Bay celebration would be the biggest in the south island, and as we drove back to Akaroa, I made up my mind that I would change my plans and make it there. I just didn't know how yet.

Okain's Bay General Store

Waka in a shed at Okain's Bay

[Note: It was suggested to me that as I endeavor to catch up with my current travels I might include my present location in my blog entries. So I'm inaugurating a new "current location" feature in this entry. And I am thrilled to tell you that my current location is: Osaka, Japan. I am very, very psyched to tell you all about it.]

No comments: