It's hard to imagine but Banks Peninsula was once an Island that stood for 12 million years separated by 50km of sea from the closest landmass.
Banks Island had a very large volcanic mountain on it that was covered in snow most of the year (when it was not live).
Some 20,000 years ago, the mainland joined with the island because of enormous erosion from the Southern Alps. Rocks and pebbles rolled down gullies or were washed along in glaciers, rivers and streams to create the fertile Canterbury Plains and the Peninsula.
Many ancient lava flows can be observed from our vessels including Cathedral Cave near Akaroa which is the best example on the Peninsula of lava flows and erosion by the sea.
The two harbours of Akaroa and Lyttelton are actually the twin craters of the magnificent volcano. About 2 million years separated the eruptions of Lyttelton and Akaroa. Ash and dust from these eruptions would have entered the atmosphere, reducing the intensity of incoming sunlight. The resulting effect on the climate would have enhanced the conditions that favoured growing glacial ice sheets during the Ice Age.
Around 11 million years ago the sea rushed in to create the much more peaceful environment that you'll experience today.
Volcanoes are not the most solid of structures and are essentially piles of cinders. Erosion quickly eats into the softer material, and even the stronger rock cannot survive once it is left exposed. Once activity ceases the volcano begins to crumble away. An extinct volcano weathers away at the same rate it grew in the first place. This is extremely slow in human terms but is very rapid on the geological time scale.
The Akaroa volcano was similar in height to Mount Ruapehu, which is an active volcano located in the centre of New Zealand's North Island.
The area was first settled by the Waitaha, then the Ngati Mamoe, and later by the Ngai Tahu – now all collectively known as Ngai Tahu. The Waitaha arrived from their Eastern Polynesian homeland and first came to the North Island before moving to the South Island, possibly as early as 850 AD. The Waitaha gave the South Island one of the Maori names still used today “Te Wai Pounamu” (the waters of greenstone).
Lyttelton was known by local Maori as Whaka-raupo (place of bulrushes) and had two small settlements at Purau and Rapaki, which were much smaller than the main settlements in Akaroa and Kaiapoi.
Black Cat cruises pass by the sites of ancient fortified pa (forts) at Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour and Onawe Peninsula in Akaroa Harbour.
In 1830 an English trader, Captain Stewart, swapped a cargo of flax for transport for a North Island chief Te Rauparaha and his warriors. This raiding party was able to hide out on the ship and take the locals by surprise. The local Maori, armed with traditional weapons (clubs and spears), were no match for the musket carrying Northerners. Te Rauparaha also won a fierce battle on Onawe Peninsula in 1832 but he was repulsed by a South Island alliance some time later.
South Island chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6th 1840 at the Kaik near Akaroa. This allowed the British to take control of New Zealand. Today, however, settlements by the Waitangi Tribunal are redressing some of the effects the treaty had on the Maori population.
French aim to Settle Akaroa
In 1838 Jean Francois Langlois, commander of the whaling ship Cachalot visited Akaroa and was so impressed he began moves to establish a French settlement that would engage in whaling from the harbour. He bought almost all of Banks Peninsula for 2 cloaks, 6 pairs of trousers, 12 hats, 2 pairs of shoes, some pistols, axes and shirts from local Maori.
In 1840, 53 French and German settlers arrived at Akaroa after many months at sea, but to their utter dismay they saw the Union Jack flag flying on Green Point. New Zealand had just been annexed under the Treaty of Waitangi by the British. The settlers, however, decided to stay on and live under British rule.
To this day, Akaroa remains unique as the site of the only attempted settlement by the French in New Zealand. Many streets have French names, and there are descendants of the original French families still living in Akaroa.