The man behind the desk at the rental company swivelled his computer screen to show me a photograph of a car with its roof crumpled like tissue paper.
“That’s one of ours,” he said. “They didn’t have insurance.” He didn’t need to say any more. I had been about to say that my driving history was accident-free but I held my tongue because I had never driven to Akaroa, the small town at the end of a very wiggly road in the Banks Peninsula. I handed over my credit card.
As he processed the paperwork, he added, “No one was hurt but everyone in Akaroa knows this car. They remember every accident, especially ones like this.”
Akaroa is a small town with a spectacular location and, because of its short history as a French settlement, an abundance of French flair and a fair number of red, white and blue flags. The town’s population swells tenfold in summer when visitors arrive by road (the wiggly one) and on cruise ships that slide through deep blue-green waters to anchor in the harbour.
I remembered the rental car man’s warning after a couple of hours of driving. The combination of breathtaking views and NZ roads definitely raises the bar for drivers.
For visitors, distances may seem short on paper but NZ roads are narrower, bendier and steeper that they expect. Then there are unfamiliar hazards like one lane bridges and unsealed road surfaces and, of course, driving on the left-hand side of the road, a tricky habit to get used to for drivers used to being on the right.
On the road to Akaroa, the real fun begins at Hilltop, home to a fabulous little tavern with floor to ceiling windows, and a view all the way down the peninsula to Akaroa Harbour. Drivers have a choice: the ‘tourist route’ or the coastal route.
I overheard a group of visitors discussing their options.
“It says it’s a tourist route so it must be easy,” said one while he fiddled with the knobs on his camera. The driver looked doubtfully at the map spread out on the table. I wanted to lean in and tell them that tourist equalled scenic, not easy, but before I had the chance the map was folded away, chairs were scrapped over the bare floor and they were gone. I followed them to their rented 4 wheel drive, and then all the way along the tourist route.
The tourist road is also called the Summit route, aptly because it feels like the world is spread out below like a lumpy green (sometimes brown) carpet. There are vistas to take your breath away at every turn. The problem for drivers isn’t just that the road twists and turns but that the only areas to pull over are gravelled spaces that arrive with no advance warning to allow drivers to slow down and pull-over. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles throw up clouds of dust as they cross from tarmac to gravel after a quick decision to stop for a photograph or leg stretch.
It’s not worth considering the Summit route if the weather is poor because the point is to enjoy the stunning panoramas from the ridges that the road faithfully follows but if the weather is fine, this is a drive to take slowly and to swap the driving duty if possible. There are side turns to Le Bons Bay, Okains Bay, Pigeons Bay and Little Akaroa all of which are worthy detours that will reward you with a beach, a campsite and, if you’re lucky a cold drink or ice-cream. Okains Bay has a Māori museum that comes highly recommended but check its opening times first.
I caught up with the 4 wheel drive crew from the Hilltop Tavern at one pull-over spot. The passengers were busy with their cameras but the driver sat alone still holding tightly to the steering wheel. He looked pale but smiled bravely when I caught his eye.
Later in the day, safely in Akaroa, I saw him again , this time taking selfies in front of a French flag beside the harbour. We smiled the smile of strangers happy to know that there is no more driving to be done that day.
Categories: New Zealand: South Island