Flying into Christchurch you’ll be struck by the dramatic contrast between the flat plains of Canterbury and the rugged, fissured topography of Banks Peninsula, a volcanic thumb sticking out into the Canterbury Bight. When James Cook sailed by in 1769 he mistakenly charted it as an island and named it after his botanist, Joseph Banks. His error was only one of time, as this basalt lump initially formed an island, only joined to the land as silt sluiced down the rivers from the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps.
The fertile volcanic soil of the peninsula’s valleys sprouted totara, matai and kahikatea trees that, along with the abundant shellfish in the bays, attracted early Maori around a thousand years ago. The trees progressively succumbed to the Maori fire stick and European timber-milling interests, and the peninsula is now largely bald, with patches of tussock grass and small pockets of regenerating native bush.
Today, the two massive drowned craters that form Banks Peninsula are key to the commerce of the region. Lyttelton Harbour protects the port town of Lyttelton, disembarkation point for countless European migrants. Lyttelton is the only town on the Banks Peninsula to have been severely affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and numerous buildings had been demolished or were undergoing major repairs at the time of writing.
There’s a refined tone to the picturesque and visitor-oriented town of Akaroa, lent a gentle French influence by its founders. Elsewhere on the peninsula, a network of narrow, twisting roads winds along the crater rims and dives down to gorgeous, quiet bays once alive with whalers, sealers and shipbuilders, but now seldom visited except during the peak of summer. Despite the denuded grassland of much of the landscape, Banks Peninsula is very popular for relatively easy scenic walks, with panoramic views, ancient lava flows and relics from the earliest Maori and European settlers.