BANKS PENINSULA CRUISING

Cyclists high on the Summit Road above Akaroa Harbour during the iconic race, Le Race. Photo credit; Tailwind Events

Banks Peninsula offers a huge variety of options to cruise on the bike, both for road and mountain biking. The area starting life as a volcanic island and the Peninsula’s two major volcanos’ have now sunk 2500 meters over a very long period of time, providing the wonderful harbours of Akaroa and Lyttelton.

Over time alluvium from the Southern Alps extended from the mainland shoreline to link up with the once isolated volcanoes, providing the flat areas that surround the peninsula.

There are numerous ways of attacking climbs throughout Banks Peninsula, but we’d thought we look at a unique ride that starts in Christchurch and finishes in Akaroa with a boat trip thrown in along the way.

Heading along Colombo Street towards the Port Hills of Banks Peninsula you eventually arrive at the bottom of Dyers Pass, just under the first two kilometres of this portion of the road up Dyers Pass is filled with thousands of very keen cycling fans in early January each year for the Calder Stewart New Zealand elite cycling champs. In late March each year the climb all the way to the top sorts things out early for the iconic 100 kilometre Christchurch to Akaroa Le Race cycle race, being held this year on the 23rd of March.

The gradient is quite steep in places but after you past the Cup and Emperor’s New Clothes cafes and the iconic Sign of the Tahake it flattens out into a nice steady climb to about 300 metres above sea level at the Sign of the Kiwi which provides magnificent views across Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains towards the Southern Alps and to the south across Lyttelton Harbour.

From here it’s downhill towards Governors Bay and then a left turn towards Lyttelton. This is really nice rolling terrain which is quite quiet as the road beyond Lyttelton has been closed since the earthquakes so much of the traffic uses the Lyttelton tunnel rather than this piece of road.

Looking out across the harbour there are great views of Quail Island, named after the now extinct native Quail (koreke) by Captain William Mein Smith. The island has a fascinating history; it was originally used as a quarantine station and as a small leprosy colony by the early European settlers.

From 1934 till 1975 the Island was leased out for farming and was then converted to a recreational reserve. Today the focus is on restoring native vegetation and the island is home to loads of native birds and the rare white flippered little blue penguins.

Recently the Kiwi Ranger programme started up on the island, a fun and interactive programme initiated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) that incorporates various sites, such as national parks, ecosanctuaries, heritage centres and reserves across the country. Black Cat Cruises run trips to the island and it’s a good chance to take a lunch and swimming togs for a great family day out.

Once into Lyttelton it’s down to the harbour and jumping on board (with your bike) Black Cat Cruise’s Diamond Harbour Ferry. Legend has it that Diamond Harbour got its name because one of the early settlers observed the sun reflecting on the water and thought it looked like a thousand shining diamonds. There’s no doubt that Diamond Harbour remains one of the sunniest and unspoilt destinations on Banks Peninsula and the ferry ride only takes five minutes across the harbour.

From Diamond Harbour, you ride east along some lovely rolling terrain until you descend into Purau and its very nice bay. Then it’s all uphill for a while with a long climb up the Purau Port Levy Road. Once at the top it’s a fast descent down into Port Levy – watch for the tight hairpin halfway down – and onto a gravel section made ‘infamous’ in the 90s by legendary road cyclist Brian Fowler who used to come the other way on long training rides during his tour winning days in the Tour of Southland.

It’s mostly hard packed gravel and mud which is just as well as it’s a steep five kilometre climb up to over 600 metres up Wild Cattle Hill. After riding through the barren hills scattered with sheep and some trees there is another descent of five kilometres and it’s finally back onto sealed road again at Pigeon Bay.

Pigeon Bay is usually a magnificent turquoise colour and a good spot for stopping to take in the views and get some food and drinks on board before another tough climb up the Pigeon Bay Road for six kilometres to the rim of the Akaroa crater and the Summit Road again.

Once again there are magnificent views, again in most directions; down into Duvauchelle Bay, back into Pigeon Bay and up Akaroa Harbour. Turning left and heading south along the Summit Road you are once again on the final quarter of the route used for Le Race, including a climb up to 700 metres and a head rush of a downhill down Long Bay Road into Akaroa, the South Island’s oldest colonial town and New Zealand’s sole French Settlement.

First stop is a good local cafe for food and coffee, then a chance to kick back and reflect on an awesome day out on the bike. While in Akaroa it would be a shame not to stay and check out the harbour the following day. Black Cat have been cruising the waters of Banks Peninsula for more than 26 years and is a must see Akaroa activity so finding their office in the Main Street or on the wharf is a good idea.

They know all there is to know about Akaroa Harbour and the diversity of marine wildlife, birdlife and its volcanic origins. You can swim with hector’s dolphins year round, or do an Akaroa Harbour Nature cruise. Black Cat Cruises helps create some of the most memorable experiences to be had on the water anywhere on New Zealand’s Canterbury coastline, and great way to round off two fantastic days on Bank Peninsula. If you are super keen you can always ride back to Christchurch via Hill Top and Little River on the main Christchurch to Akaroa Highway – its only another 85 kilometres.