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Friday 27th October: Christchurch to Christchurch - WAYNE FONTANA "Game of Love"

We were woken by the sound of Pete and Chantal leaving for work. After failed attempts at further sleep we rose and took to the van. Taking a heading back towards the South, we drove towards the Banks Peninsula.

A large craggy expanse of land created by volcanic eruptions in millennia past, the Banks Peninsula was an island at one time. Over millions of years, the small gap between the Southern Alps and the peninsula was filled in with rich sediment, creating the farming paradise of the Canterbury Plains.

The first part of the road went straight across the plains and offered very easy driving. Once on the long extinct volcanic terrain, however, driving was much slower going due to the difficulties of negotiating the switchbacks and right angled turns required to get round the various spurs, crags and inlets around the peninsula. The difficulty of the drive is demonstrated by the fact that it took nearly 2 hours to drive the 83km to Akaroa.

Akaroa is the main settlement on the peninsula, it happens to be a pleasant seaside community, heavily trading on its history as a French settlement. As a result, locals seem to walk around with a Parisienne pretension and all the local roads are called 'Rue' something or other. Despite this, the town offers a very scenic diversion.

From the boat on the way out onto Akaroa Harbour. A small lighthouse clings to the craggy cliff.

The reason for our visit was the dolphins. Akaroa provides a cheaper alternative to the dolphin experiences you can get in Kaikoura and so once again, we got wet suited up and set out on a boat trip with a party of French people and a couple of rugby league enthusiasts from Warrington to swim with the intelligent, yet small, Hector's Dolphins.

From left to right: A postcard type picture of Hector's Dolphins and a photo from our trip where you can see some snorkellers and a submerged dolphin (if you look hard!)

After heading out on a little boat into the harbour for about 30 minutes, the vessel slowed to allow the skipper to spot the little things. The skipper could obviously see some, but their location was not as immediately obvious to us. After a few more bursts on the ship's engines, some tiny fins could be seen in the wash behind us. Thankfully, their very curved, streamlined fins could never be confused with those of a shark and that's ignoring the fact that Hector's Dolphins are a little shorter, at only about 1m in length.

As they frolicked in and out of the wake, and also in and out of our sight, we one by one lowered ourselves into the freezing water. Aided by a snorkel we swum around within a few yards of the boat looking for the little fellows. At first, we failed to spot any of them as they proved to be fairly elusive. However, with the help of those who had stayed on the boat and their amazed pointing, we all succeeded in coming face to face with the dolphins. My own experience saw me playing a game of chase with one of them as he spun in and out of my vision. I would whirl round to catch up sight of him as he swum round me in quick circles. Just as I thought he would keep doing it all day, he swum underneath me, between my legs and away, my own swimming being nowhere near good enough to keep up as he disappeared into the cloudy murk of Akaroa Harbour.

We swam around for a good while longer - all of us having our own dolphin encounters and I had a good few more of them myself. The number of sightings started to decrease and the skipper called us back on board. And that was that.

Only, it wasn't. The skipper drove us out a few hundred yards more into the Harbour's mouth. It became clear to us almost immediately that there were a lot more dolphins this far out.

We leapt back into the water, our interest renewed. This time, the encounters were much more frequent and entertaining. I swam with a school of dolphins, 2 to my left and 3 to my right for a short distance before being involved in a game of chase the dolphin again. One time, I must have been chasing one for two or three minutes before he wheeled away underneath me, no doubt amused to see my attempt at a backward roll to follow him end up with a snorkel full of salt water. Dolphin 1 - Me 0.

We swam for a good while longer before the dolphins got bored (apparently, we were there to entertain them - not vice versa). We clambered out of the water and back on deck.

On the way back to Akaroa Harbour, we chanced upon a lone little blue penguin resting on the surface of the water, scanning the water below for sardines (or his own dolphin encounter maybe?) We also sailed close to some rocks on which seal pups lazed and lolloped awkwardly with that ungainly gait which they manage on dry land.

Then we were back in the harbour, back to the Dolphin Encounter shop for warm showers and a look at the souvenir section.

By now, the afternoon was pushing on. On the recommendation of Brian from work, we ravenously devoured a course of fish and chips from the nearby chip shop. Delicious, but sizeable. To add even more bulk to our frames, we then purchased ice creams and ate them as we sat in the pleasant war memorial park watching sparrows, dunnocks and blackbirds arguing over insect treats.

Akaroa Harbour as seen from the little cricket ground in the middle of town.

After sunning ourselves for a while, we completed a round about tour of the little town, taking in more souvenir shops, ladies with Dijon Freise dogs walking past us with airs and graces, the petanque field and somewhat unexpectedly, a cricket pitch.

After our winding drive to Akaroa, we decided to take an even more difficult route back; along the mountainous spine of Banks Peninsula on the summit road. The road afforded amazing views of the bright blue expanse of Akaroa harbour from roads with sheer drops down to the rocks below. Heart in mouth, I drove round hairpins and watched crazy locals speed round corners on the wrong side of the road - perhaps taking Akaroa's French connection slightly too far.

After reappearing on the main road a good while later, we soon turned off to cross the peninsula with the towering Mount Herbert on our right towards the historic harbour of Lyttleton.

Finding little of interest there, other than a large industrial port and some good views, we navigated the Port Hills over towards Christchurch. Still on the foothills, and thanks to some brisk winds, we took in a view of the whole of Christchurch City. Unsatisfied with this, we turned off the road at Heathcote to use the local gondola. This was apparently over a kilometre long, effectively rising from the Canterbury Plains up to the summit of the Port Hills.

The views were great and somewhat breathtaking as we ascended in the gondola. However, we realised belatedly, and no thanks to the tiny notice on the reception desk, that most of the summit station's facilities were closed. In fact, only the over priced souvenir shop was open. Even worse than this was the quality of the building's construction with doors on the observation deck which blew open with each gust of wind.

A view of Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury Plains as seen from the Port Hills.

Disappointed in the gondola, we soon took a car back down to the bottom, again admiring the splendid views. Back in the van, we headed back to Chantal and Pete's where we arrived by about 8pm.

It had been a long day, but it wasn't quite over. After collecting a load of cold beers from both their fridge and our camper's fridge into placing them into a cool bag, we headed out for dinner.

We opted for the nearby BYO Mexican restaurant, South of the Border. Kitted out in the type of gaudy mexicana that I've come to expect from Mexican restaurants in the Western world, we all opted for smaller meals. Jen and I due to our large Akaroan fish and chips, Pete and Chantal due to sandwiches at Pete's offices Friday drinks.

We ate, we drank and we talked. Much like the evening before. After eating, we continued to sit at our table and drink. Fortunately, custom seemed to be a bit slow so our table wasn't needed for anyone else. Even so, after a couple of hours (maybe?) they were obviously fed up with us sitting there drinking not earning them and money, so the bill was brought over and we paid and left.

Back at the house, we finished the beers off whilst continuing to chat. It didn't take long before the alcohol ran out and we gradually sloped out of the lounge to bed.

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