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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 8 (April 1, 1932.)

A Town of Trees and Birds

A Town of Trees and Birds.

A Northern visitor to Nelson recently expressed his delight at hearing the notes of the tui in the trees which adorn that city, and he praised the sylvan beauty of the place. Akaroa, a smaller town, arouses like pleasure in its visitors, who can listen to not only the tui but the bellbird in the gardens and orchards. The scenery of Banks Peninsula and the character and surroundings of Akaroa are described in this article.

Ruaimoko, the Maori God of the underworld, the personification of volcanic action, has done much for the Canterbury coast. But for that many-peaked uplift of land, indented in a score of bays and harbours, a huge nest of fiery furnaces in the remote past, it would have been a drear monotony of level shoreline, with never a navigable haven for ships. The convulsions of Nature which heaved this wildly broken massif above the ocean made the port that is now Lyttelton, and that even finer harbour Akaroa. The weathering down of the old volcanoes over untold centuries and tens of centuries, gave Banks Peninsula the richest of soil, made it the garden land it is to-day. Beauty of landscape, too, was produced by those forces that thrust up all manner of fantastic peaks, tors and crags, castle rocks of the Titans, haunt in Maori legend of those mystic folk the Patupaiarehe. Those dark fortresses of fairyland, those outjutting bastions and walls done in Nature's most erratic architecture of lava rock, those black and grey fingers and thumbs protruding from the richly grassed hills express the stormy past in skylines that are a complete contrast to the long sleek levels of the Canterbury Plains.

Geological history is here plain as printed words, the story of the rocks and peaks that all may read. I can imagine no more interesting journey for an observant lover of unusual landscapes than that combined rail and motor jaunt from Christchurch to Akaroa through this ancient playground of the gods.

From Bush to Farm.

It must have seemed an untamed mystery-laden land to the first white settlers who anchored in these bays. All the Peninsula, from the feet, of the lava crags to the cliffs and the waterside, was covered with tall dark forest. The bush was cleared gradually, the Peninsula forests supplied Canterbury with building timber for many a year. Then began the farming process, which made the hill country a rich productive region of cattle-raising, wool-growing and dairying. Today it is a country of moderate-sized farms, and the homes scattered about it are set, often enough, in places of great beauty. It is a land of glens. The little streams that come cascading down from the ranges rising between two and three thousand feet above ocean level are rocky-bedded and shaded by thickets of small bush, and there is infinite variety of scenery in these deep valleys and little gorges. There is one valley on the Lyttelton harbour side of the range that reminded an old settler acquaintance of mine of the famous Valley of the Doones, in Blackmore's great story, strewn about page 36 as it was with mossy old rocks and the cliffy places and little woods that made it a well-sheltered sanctuary.

The Road and the Town.

Your short train run from Christchurch to Little River station, at the foot of the hills, takes you past the shores of two Jakes of quite different characters— Ellesmere, the Waihora of the Maoris, raupo-reed edged, wide and shallow, teeming with wild ducks, pitkeko and black swan, and Lake Forsyth, or Wairewa, a deep, narrow loch which a poetic legend says the long-ago explorer Rakaihaitu hollowed out with his gigantic ko or digging implement, between the steep-to ranges. Then the transition from the plains to the hills is quick and dramatic. It is all ups and downs thence to that prettiest of small towns, Akaroa, set all among its trees and flowers and fruit on the curving shore of the most secure harbour on the Canterbury coast.

Many qualities of charm combine to give Akaroa its peculiar attractiveness for the visitor. When first I went there, over the hills in the old horse-coach days, I thought there was nothing in the settled parts of the Island so serenely beautiful as that look-out from Hilltop, the halfway halting place, over the long easy slants of green pasture-land and dark little copses of wildwood to the long harbour, calm as a quiet lake, glinting among its grassy slopes and its trees far below.

The town itself is in keeping with the blending of pastoral and sylvan loveliness in its approaches. Modernised as it is in the essentials of a town—electric light, drainage, and other necessary utilities of a comfortable urban life—it still partakes more of the country than the town in its character of beauty. It is a town of groves and gardens, of leafy old lanes, of lovers' walks and little parks, of bird-song and water-song, of scented hedgerows, and orchards that dangle their fruit-laden branches within tempting reach of the footpath stroller. There are old-fashioned homes and churches; the townspeople's homes often seem carved out of the tree-groves, native and exotic, rather than to have had those trees planted about them.

French Associations.

There are the memories of the early days to give the human interest of history to the town; the stories of the French and English founders, the French names of streets and roads and hills that recall the days of L'Aube and Le Rhin and Commodore Lavaud and his compatriots, whose hopes of founding a new France here were dashed by the British annexation. The French flavour of the town is pronounced enough in this respect; there are some descendants of those immigrants of 1840 living on the sites of the original homes.

The Bellbird and the Tin.

But the sweetest thing about Akaroa is to my mind the charm of its birds, our birds of the Maori forest. Here, at any rate, the native birds have not all been frightened away into the heart of the remnants of the bush. The bellbird and the tui breed and find their food in close company with the homes of man. They have adapted themselves to the happy blending of native and introduced trees. The little trilling riroriro nests in the trees where the English thrush sings, and the makomako, the bellbird, is everywhere in the shady copses and orchard-groves. Lying in bed in the early morning, in the principal hotel of the place, I have heard the tui's notes in the eucalyptus trees. Chuckles and deep gurgles of melody came from its throat as it dropped from bough to bough for the nectar in the gum flowers. When the pears are ripening, too, the tui and the makomako are there before the orchardist, but I must say that I never heard any complaint against the fruit-tasting ways of the Maori birds. Akaroa folk, true nature-lovers, like to hear the tui and its mellifluous little cousin in their gardens, and they do not begrudge them food-payment for their songs and their company.

page 37

Hillside Rest.

There is a cemetery at Akaroa that I thought was really the most inviting kind of long-sleeping ground I had ever seen. It ought to be a perfect ending to the round of life to be laid to rest in so idyllic a spot, on that sunny slope of land lying to the glass-smooth sea, with the tui making its immemorial deep rich music in the branches overhead.

The Flowery Ways

Those leafy roads of Akaroa, how they call one to go exploring up the gently
“As from a mountain's top the rainy mists of the morning Roll away, and afar we behold the landscape before us.”—Longfellow. (Rly. Publicity photo.) Akaroa Harbour, with its many pretty bays, viewed from Hilltop.

As from a mountain's top the rainy mists of the morning Roll away, and afar we behold the landscape before us.”—Longfellow.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Akaroa Harbour, with its many pretty bays, viewed from Hilltop.

sloping hillsides above the long main street; how fragrant they are in the time of flowers—which seems to last over a longer period at Akaroa than anywhere else! From these lanes you see giant old pear-trees and walnuts growing in conradely company with the children of the Maori forest. Some of the dwellings in Aylmer's Valley at the southern or “English” end of the town are embowered in grape-vines and climbing roses, and apricot trees are trained along cottage walls. Immense old eucalypts and oaks uplift canopies of green over the footways. There, are hedgerows of alders and hawthorns; the air is laden with the perfume of may, honeysuckle, and roses, of peach and plum tree and the acacia tree of delicious pendulous blossoms. Up one of those lanes, alongside a stream, I saw a bungalow home which seemed to have been cut lately from the kowhai and native fuschia and manuka bush; creeper-twisted light timber grew all about it and its roses and sweet peas, and the hillside rose above in a tangled bit of shady bush.

A Range-top Climb.

Stony-floored creeks, fed by innumerable springs and streamlets in the hills, descend many hundreds of feet in three or four miles, and flow through the town gardens and orchards to the harbour. The central stream, the Wai-iti, enters the town in Balguerie Street, and comes dancing down to the tideway in close companionship with that beautiful old road of flowers and foliage. There is a road from the head of Balguerie Street to the summit of the central range at the Stony Bay saddle, more than two thousand feet above, and I know of no pleasanter way of making intimate acquaintance with the characteristic scenery of the Peninsula than by following up this winding sylvan trail to the hilltop, page 38 where you may look out on the open Pacific over the green eastern farm lands, slanting to the many bays. So gradual is the ascent, so winding the way among the farms and little copses of light bush, that it is an easy climb until the last rather steep pinch comes under the northernmost dark castellated crags of the peak that the early French naval visitors named Mont Berard.

The townspeople's orchard - buried homes give place to farmhouses as the road twists upwards, and in some of the fields, about this time, the cocksfoot-grass harvesters are busy. Here and there are tall old trees—totara or matai—relics of the great forest that once covered all the Peninsula, and thickets of small bush shade every gully. This is the greatest charm of the landscape here, the generous sprinkling of native vegetation on every range slope and in every valley. “Trees are the most civil society,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Akaroa folk have these children of the forest ever about them, the tonic bush smell in their nostrils, the forest-birds' song often in their ears.

The Peninsula people should be happy, free as they are from the nerve-racking noises and sordid sights of the towns, their lives cast in such pleasant flowery valleys by the running waters.

As we stroll up along the easy road, once crossing the small river at a shallow ford where a tree felled across the watercourse makes a level crossing for carts and sledges, we are tempted every now and again to take it easier still on the grassy and mossy banks under the leafy roof of kotukutuku and ngaio, and now and again a feathery kowhai or a kawakawa, the “pepper-tree.” The wawara-wai, as the Maori musically has it, the babble of the waters, makes soothing harmony under the low-spreading branches. There are the tracks of sledge runners on the narrowing road; that lonely farmhouse around the next bend, a dairy farm twelve hundred feet or more above the harbour level, sends its milk-cans down to the bay by the old-style bush koneke that is the only means of conveyance on some of these lofty roads.

Presently we are on the top of the range, and now we begin to understand something of the plan of this amazingly broken nest of ancient lava volcanoes. Wild crags and tors, castle-like bastions of drab grey rock, tomahawk-like faces of precipice, and tussock-clad slopes are on right and left.

Good Place-names.

We stand here on the lofty places of the olden Maori fairy tales, I remember, for all this great crescent ridge, with its rugged watch-towers of rhyolite rock, was the chosen home and haunt of the Patupaiarehe, the furtive folk, the tribe of the twilight woods and the cloudy skyline. The olden names are not now borne on any map, but from the central peak of Tarawera (now Mt. Sinclair), yonder in the north-west, the centre of the Peninsula, and from its craggy neighbour Te U-Kura—“The Red Cloud's Rest”— round to Mt. Berard and Brazenose, every peak and every valley had its name. Te Umu-raki, or “The Oven of Heaven”— “Heaven's Furnace,” fit name for a volcano !—is that tall pointed peak at the head of the Otakamatua Valley Puke-Ariki, “The Chief's Hill,” is north of us; nearer is the Piki-o-te-Ake, or “Te Ake's Climb.” which embraces Purple Peak. Bold Brazenose, on the other side, was called Otoki, or “The Place of Axes.” These ancient names and many another came from the old man Tikao, of Rapaki, the last of the learned word-of-mouth folk-lorists of these parts.

Picnic Hilltop.

Here, if anywhere, is the place for camping and picnicking. We found a place that seemed to have been planned by some kind mountain providence as a halting place for tired and hungry trampers. It was just under the eastern lee of the range-top, with Berard's great black thumb of a peak lifting in its rear. A great knotty kotukutuku tree bent over from its rocks, and the little timbers around were all clacking and hissing with the stridulated song of the sun-loving cicada. The blue smoke went curling up from page 39 the billy-fire, the only smoke of man on all this ridge-top, and the picnickers wasted no scrap, and thanked their climbing stars that they were not cooped up in a hot and crowded city this midsummer day.

That is one side of the great saucer of mingled farmland and woodland that slants to Akaroa harbour. On the other side, the west, there is the perfection of pastoral scenery, with many a bushy valley and many a cascading stream and rich fields for the farmer. The mountain-tops are a succession of volcanic crags and peaks, dark in relief against the fadeless green of the climbing pastures.

Happy Valleys.

There is a farm locally called “Paradise,” on the road which goes out from the town to the lighthouse on the North Head. The homestead lies like a nest in a nook of the hills, many hundreds of feet above the harbour. Above, again, are the cloud-wreathed crags of Otehore, a very tapu place in Maori legend. Far below is the little bay of Onuku, where there is a native hamlet of two or three houses., and the tiniest of steepled churches.

An air of utter stillness pervaded this slumbrous valley the day I saw it. On the beach, where the tide swept in very softly and quietly, was a ruinous old boat.

“Heavened in the hush of purple hills.”—Gerald Massey. (Rly. Publicity photo.) Picturesque Akaroa, South Island, New Zealand.

“Heavened in the hush of purple hills.”—Gerald Massey.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Picturesque Akaroa, South Island, New Zealand.

We found the only inhabitants of the kaika in a garden-framed house whose verandah was covered with clusters of twining roses. The remnants of the decayed hapu were subdued even with the burden of life by Lethe's stream, and their talk was quiet and low as befitted those who lived in an enchanted place.