We must go down to the sea again: in search of Hector’s Dolphins

27 November 2019

Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.

As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.

Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.

We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.

Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.

These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!

To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.

The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.

Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.

We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.

Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.

Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.

Another outstanding museum in “the middle of nowhere”

27 November 2019

We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.

The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.

The whare whakiro (meeting house)

The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:

These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …

The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.

SOURCE: Culture Tip website, retrieved 9 January 2020

Whare whakairo are usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs

The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.

Cottage built in 1883 from totara slabs and shingles

As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.

The historic Okains Bay Store. Dating from 1883, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand

Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.

Replica of a traditional Maori waka (canoe)

The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.

Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.

Outwitting the French? – the Akaroa story

25 / 26 November 2019

Akaroa has a lot to live up to. We’ve been on South Island for around a month, and during that time loads of fellow tourists have asked us if we’ve been to Akaroa. When we’ve responded that it will be the last place we stop off at before flying back to the UK they have – without exception – uttered words to the effect of “Great. You’ll LOVE Akaroa“.

OK, confession time, I’d never even heard of Akaroa until New Zealand in Depth suggested the itinerary for our trip. I now know it’s situated on Banks Peninsula, the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. The peninsula is made up of the eroded remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and Akaroa harbour is formed from the crater of one these volcanoes. The name Akaroa is derived from southern Maori dialect words meaning “long harbour”.

The story of Akaroa’s foundation is fascinating, at least to the nerds like me. The first Europeans to visit Akaroa Harbour regularly were whalers and deserters from whaling ships. The European town of Akaroa owes its origins to Akaroa Harbour’s being a favourite port of call for whaling ships, although it never developed as a whaling station.

It was a French whaler – Captain Jean François Langlois – who first decided that this would be a great place to establish a French colony. In pursuit of his vision, in 1838 he made a down payment in commodities to the value of £6 to 12 local Maori chiefs, with the promise of a further £234 worth of commodities to be paid at a later date.

Having done the deal, Langlois hot-footed it back to France to advertise for settlers to return with him to the other side of the world. However the Brits got wind of his plans, and inevitably were not best pleased by the turn of events. They’d lost Calais to the French in 1558 and were still sore about it. They were definitely not about to let the garlic brigade snatch the South Island of New Zealand from under their noses as well. Swift action was needed, so the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand despatched the ship HMS Britomart to formally claim the area for Great Britain.

Arriving on 16 August 1840, Captain Stanley of the Britomart raised the British flag, and held a court at each of the occupied settlements in the area to further make the point. Job done. When Langlois and 57 fellow countrymen arrived two days later they discovered the Brits were well and truly in charge, and that – as has so often happened in the history of those two great nations – the French had been royally shafted by perfidious albion.

No one would have blamed the thwarted colonists for turning round and going straight back to France, muttering profane Gallic curses as they left. But instead they stuck around and founded the town of Akaroa, although in a fit of pique they named the place Port Louis-Philippe, after the reigning King of France.

And although the name of the town later changed, the founders are said to have left an indelible mark on it. No lesser authority than the government’s official 100% Pure New Zealand website names Akaroa the “most French town in New Zealand” on account of its “French street names and charming colonial cottages”. But even governments get things wrong (!) and a 200 page report written by a professional historian and a heritage landscape architect in 2009 suggests that – street names notwithstanding – the French influence on modern Akaroa is overstated;

The fact that Akaroa was founded by settlers sent out by a French colonising company has misled some into thinking that Akaroa today has a French character. But the 19th and early 20th century buildings that set Akaroa’s character are of a “Colonial Vernacular” style that owes more to British than to French precedents.

SOURCE: John Wilson and Louise Beaumont: Akaroa Historical Overview, 2009, p5. Retrieved 9 January 2020

It may not be very French after all, but Akaroa is undoubtedly unusual.

Akaroa has the highest density of registered historic buildings anywhere in the country, surpassing even the historic towns of Russell and Arrowtown. Even by this rather clinical measure, Akaroa is a very special place

SOURCE: Akaroa Civic Trust Newsletter, November 2008, quoted in the Akaroa Historical Overview, page 1. Retrieved 9 January 2020.

As we wander the streets on a glorious, sunny day, we can well appreciate why the tourists we met earlier on this trip were so enthusiastic about Akaroa. It oozes character, and even the presence of a lot of other holidaymakers doesn’t detract from its quaint, peaceful charm.

And yet, regardless of the academic evidence to the contrary, the French get most of the credit. If he knew, Captain Langlois would doubtless shrug his shoulders and permit himself a Gallic chuckle at the irony of it all. C’est la vie, n’est pas?

Neither a typical New Zealand town nor a Southern Hemisphere outlier of French culture, Akaroa is one of a kind. It’s a good place for us to wind down as our epic voyage around New Zealand draws to a close.