The view from Banks Peninsula's crater rim down to Okains Bay (Photo: Getty Images/ Arthur Machado).

Intrepid summer road trip: Canterbury’s oldest cheese, clearest water and best secondhand shop

In the third part of a four piece series exploring places around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, Beck Eleven finds hidden treasures and clear water, and Simon Day falls in love with Banks Peninsula.

Read part one, on the great Auckland summer road trip, here.

Read part two, on the where to go on a good day in Wellington, here.

North to Ashley Gorge’s clear, clean water, by Beck Eleven

Pack a picnic, your togs and, of vital importance, a pair of shoes you won’t mind getting wet to protect your tootsies from a stoney riverbed. Jump in the car and take the hour’s drive through North Canterbury to Ashley Gorge.

Head north out of town, past the unsightly tilt slab-style strip mall of Belfast (unless you fancy stopping off for some whiteware appliances or a couch) and tootle up the highway for ten minutes. You’ll be taking the first exit on to Tram Road towards Oxford. There is a pick-your-own berry farm to your right about halfway, if that’s your thing.

Settle in for the long straight 35km stretch of Tram Road with nothing much to look at on either side until you reach Oxford, whereupon you turn right at the service station. But hold on, if it’s an ice cream in a cone you’re after, you’ll need to drive one minute further into Oxford. This is the last and only scoop ice cream dairy for many kilometres, so you have been warned.

Here’s where the landscape changes markedly. Say goodbye to straight roads and hello to vastly more interesting winding foothills dotted with native bush.

The Ashley Gorge and campground is off to your left and well signposted. Campers, or anyone visiting campers will have to check in at the office but if you’re here solely for a picnic and a river visit, just veer right towards the valley floor.

The day we visit, the river is filled with families wading in ankle deep water. This end is best for toddlers as it’s so shallow near the rivers’ edge. We see plenty of adults holding hands with unsteady kids navigating the rocky riverbed. Walk further up river and the water gets deeper, the rapids a little swifter.

Make sure you bring a floatation device and bug spray to allow full relaxation (Photo: The Spinoff).

You can swim to a couple of mini waterfalls on the far side and it’s deep enough to ride a pumped up tractor tyre or boogie board along with the current. It’s clear Ashely River has been popular as we find several man made rock formations where people have built little rock pools to hold inflatable dinghies or to ringfence a cockabully or two.

The far side of the river is a bush-covered hill covered so the river is in shade during the mornings but catches a huge belt of sun into the evening.

The stony riverbed is as far as you could get from wheelchair friendly I’m afraid – I’d even worry about anyone that was slightly unsteady on their feet – but you can drive right up to the edge of the car park and set up chairs on the grassy verge for a decent view.

This popular swimming spot is part of the larger Ashley Rakahuri Regional Park run by Environment Canterbury so there are plenty of short walks and other activities including fly fishing, hunting and kayaking.

Instead of driving back the same way, turn left as you exit the park and do a loop back to Christchurch via Loburn. This way you’ll pass back through Rangiora and have done a 130km loop that takes about two hours, not including stone skimming and picnic time.

West to Methven’s retro chic, by Beck Eleven

Nobody thinks too much about Methven during summer. Given it’s only about half an hour from Mount Hutt, it’s generally considered a winter town, somewhere to pitch up with your skis and a hot chocolate.

But it’s a lovely summer drive and, like life, it’s about the journey not the destination.

So head for the hills and set off from Christchurch, west towards the airport with its fancy new bridge and shoot out towards West Melton, perhaps stopping at the Melton Estate winery on your way out of the city (call ahead!). It’s rare to see the Southern Alps with nary a patch of snow icing the tips so it’s disorienting but we continue westward, through the string of townships that punctuate the drive to Methven – Kirwee, Darfield, Glentunnel, Windwhistle.

Even in summer, head for the hills (Photo: The Spinoff).

The photographer, an op shop junkie, swears there is a good secondhand place in Darfield but I’ve got a better surprise in store when we reach Methven. It’s roughly 100km from Christchurch to Methven and takes about an hour and a half if you’re not breaking any speed records.

At Windwhistle, you can veer off towards Lake Coleridge to have a nosy around the old skool baches displaying Kiwi ingenuity at its finest, or peep at people fishing on the lake.

Stay on the road and you will pass over the bridge at Rakaia Gorge. It’s a beautiful Instagram-worthy view up the valley in either direction. If your timing is good, you can pull over and watch a speed boat whizz tourists up the mighty braided river. You’ll also see cars pulling over so their inhabitants can walk across the bridge for the best views. I’m not sure our police force endorse this wandering, but it seems common enough.

The Rakaia Gorge Bridge – engineering heritage (Photo: The Spinoff).

At this point you’re only 15 minutes from Methven, so keep your eyes peeled for the turnoff. It is signposted, but keep the GPS on if you’re a nervous navigator like me.

Now, not dissimilar to the way European Kiwis go for the obvious options when naming things such as the South Island (which is the one to the south) and the North Island (the one to the north), as you enter Methven you’ll find the Brown Pub (it’s painted brown) and the Blue Pub (yes, blue).

The two pubs face off to one another in the manner of a couple of old blokes duelling in a Western flick. The Brown Pub tends to field residents while the Blue Pub is, as a rule, the place tourists hang out. Both serve food and while I’m on that Western theme, the township has a handful of homes and businesses with Western style frontages. No gunslingers were sighted on this day, however.

And so to Primo at 38 McMillan St, an excellent café inside a large secondhand shop. Its proprietor started the eclectic business 13 years ago and it’s still going strong. Whether you like combing through vintage tchotchkes, old records and clothing or not, it still makes for an eccentric spot to sit and take a breather. Primo does a fine cooked breakfast and eggs bene. We were offered three flavours of sausage rolls, so don’t say things are boring in the country.

Methven’s Primo cafe and second-hand shop has many treasures and delicious treats (Photo: The Spinoff).

Stop in to the Four Square supermarket across the road to grab some travel sweets for the drive back. Now, you can choose to go back the way you came, or do the loop back to Christchurch, which takes you up the back of Ashburton. This route takes you home via the patchwork Canterbury Plains and out through Rakaia, where you can stop for a selfie with the roadside giant salmon before being spat out onto State Highway 1 in time for a 40-minute-ish straight road drive back to Christchurch.


The Spinoff’s road trip playlist

East and over the hill to Banks Peninsula, by Simon Day

I’ve been lucky to marry into Banks Peninsula. My wife’s family lives in Akaroa, and after a lifetime’s suspicion of the region I’ve finally been exposed to Canterbury’s beauty.

The road from Christchurch to Akaroa is one of the best drives in the world. If you take the Summit Road and return to Christchurch via Diamond Harbour and Lyttleton it’s even better. With the final corner of State Highway 75’s climb to Banks Peninsula’s hilltop, the Akaroa Harbour suddenly drops away in front of you. Ōnawe Peninsula rests in the sea like a lazy whale, and white sails speckle the emerald surface in the distance.

Perhaps my favourite view in the world (Photo: The Spinoff).

At the top of the hill take a left instead of following the rest of the traffic down the hill and traverse the ridgeline. Banks Peninsula is the creation of a number of volcanic cones, the harbour once a crater lake now flooded by the sea. As everyone else heads to Akaroa continue along the Summit Road and visit the peninsula’s eastern bays. They’re a wild rugged antidote to Akaroa’s shiny village and the swarms of cruise ship passengers.

My favourite spot is Okains Bay, the largest of the eastern bays. Walk through the silvery sand grass to the long beach set between the cliffs. Don’t rush. Spend a whole day at Okains; or even better take a tent and stay as long as you can in the campsite set just off the beach in a grove of pine trees. Swim, play beach cricket, trying your luck surf casting, or take out a kayak which you can hire from the campground.

Kiwi as driving on the beach eh bro (Photo: The Spinoff).

Banks Peninsula is soaked in history and the Māori and Colonial Museum is a hidden treasure tucked away in the old Okains Bay cheese factory. Originally a private collection of Māori artifacts collected by a local resident, in 1977 it was opened as a public museum. It now houses a unique and important collection of Banks Peninsula history including a waka from 1867 and a rare Akaroa hei tiki (pounamu necklace) which was returned from England to Okains Bay. Every Waitangi Day Okains Bay hosts a mini festival featuring hangi, and the museum’s waka is paddled up the river into the sea.

Another piece of history: other than a short period last year, the Okains Bay store is the longest continually open shop in New Zealand. It serves fish and chips, and sells out of ice cream every hot day.

The Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum (photo: The Spinoff).

On your way up or down SH75 stop at Ōnawe Peninsula, a volcanic plug that is a sacred site for Ngāi Tahu. As Te Rauparaha looted and pillaged his way through the South Island in 1831 he destroyed the Ōnawe Pā: “Few Ngāi Tahu survived the day, only the young and strong were taken for slavery, the rest were slain on the flax flats at Barry’s Bay and the Head of the Bay.” Follow the track to the end of the hill and you’ll see why it was such a valuable but vulnerable fortification. As it’s a sacred site stick to the track and don’t take any food with you.

Almost directly opposite Ōnawe is the Barry’s Bay Cheese Factory, the last remaining of the nine small dairy co-ops that popped up around Banks Peninsula in the 1890s to produce and export cheese and butter. A new factory was built in Barry’s Bay in 1950 and you can still visit this location for daily tastings and a look at traditional cheese making.

On the other side of the hill Little River is a destination worthy of a trip in itself. There’s stunning boutique, eco-accomodation set above the town. There’s a pumpkin festival. The gallery’s fusion of modern and rural architecture foreshadows its excellent exhibitions. And the cafe made the best pie I’ve ever had, the perfect way to start or finish any journey over the hill to Banks Peninsula. Or both.


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