Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Over the hill...

In the South Island you hear the term ‘over the hill’ used in a variety of locations and to describe some significantly different ‘hills’. West Coasters talk about going ‘over the hill’ to Christchurch. Here the ‘hill’ refers to the Southern Alps. Residents of Golden Bay travel ‘over the [Takaka] hill’ to Motueka and Nelson. In this case the hill is the ‘marble mountain’, geologically ancient, massively solid.

In June 2003 I moved ‘over the hill’ from suburban Christchurch to live in Governors Bay at the head of Lyttelton Harbour. By comparison with the Southern Alps and the Takaka Hill, the Port Hills, which separate the city of Christchurch from Lyttelton Harbour and Banks Peninsula, are insignificant in size. Fifteen minutes in a car will take you from Governors Bay to the top end of Colombo Street. Yet there is something more than time and relative size involved here. The Port Hills form a barrier between two very different environments and two very different worlds and ways of living. The boundary/barrier is physical but it is also psychological - a reluctance to return to the ‘car-infested swamp’ as Hugh Wilson puts it. One’s focus and allegiance turn away from the city and towards the Peninsula.

Banks Peninsula is a beacon. In the flat city of Christchurch on the flat Canterbury Plains, the Port Hills provide visual relief and a welcome reference point. Drive south, west or north out of Christchurch for the day and the Peninsula beckons on the return journey. Fly south from Wellington or north from Dunedin and a first sighting of the Peninsula signals that one is nearly home. Stand on the beach at Amberley and Banks Peninsula hovers mistily above the sea to the south, visual proof of the ‘island’ of Captain Cook’s observation in 1770.

Cook was mistaken – what he was seeing from 10 miles offshore was a peninsula and not an island. But he was also correct. For most of its geological life - around 15 million or so years - Banks Peninsula was an island, formed in violent volcanic eruptions and subsequent erosion that eventually formed the craters of Lyttelton and Akaroa Harbours. This outlier was only linked to the South Island mainland about 20,000 years ago as debris from the Southern Alps washed and blew across the Canterbury Plains. As Gordon Ogilvie points out, the first Europeans were confronted by swamps, lagoons and streams which bisected the landward flank of the Peninsula, accentuating its isolation. Even today, despite the relative accessibility of Banks Peninsula, something of this ‘island’ feeling remains, in its geography and in the minds and attitudes of its inhabitants.

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