Banks Peninsula: Reviving walking, especially on the tops

Suky Thompson walks past two gnarly totara trees on the Summit Walkway, Banks Peninsula.
Will Harvie

Suky Thompson walks past two gnarly totara trees on the Summit Walkway, Banks Peninsula.

Green Party politician Rod Donald died 10 years ago. Now, the trust named in his honour has opened an overnight hut, an early step in a bold goal to revive tramping and recreation on Banks Peninsula. WILL HARVIE reports.

As tramping huts go, the newly opened Rod Donald Hut on the Summit Walkway above Little River has the basics: nine bunks, a potbelly stove, drying racks, potable water and a flash VIP toilet.

VIP means Ventilation Improved Pit toilet, in case you wondered. It's a windy long-drop with composting functionality.

Anyway, the Rod Donald Hut is mostly an effort to get families overnight tramping. They can start at Gebbies Pass and walk for two hours on the Summit Walkway to the Department of Conservation's Packhorse Hut. It's just been earthquake repaired and strengthened, has the same amenities — nine bunks and like — and both have to be booked through DOC.

The next day walking families would summit Mt Herbert-Te Ahu Patiki (920m) then proceed to the Rod Donald Hut. It's about a five-hour day and suitable for children aged seven or eight and up, says Rod Donald Trust manager Suky Thompson.The third day is another five hours to Hilltop Tavern above Akaroa harbour.

"It's an introductory tramping experience close to Christchurch," Thompson says. There are hills to climb, but it passes through pasture and some bush and forestry plantation. Mostly it traverses the wind-swept, tussock-clad bare hilltops of Banks Peninsula, Christchurch's recreational treasure.

There are long views down into sea-blue bays and sinuous views across the tops. There are living totara trees carved by wind and frost into eccentric shapes. There are totara graveyards, the stumps and gnarled remnants of the great forests that once cloaked 98 per cent of the peninsula and were felled by loggers more than a century ago. "You can start to appreciate the incredible change that has been wrought on Banks Peninsula in recent times," says Thompson.

It's a magical route and also an ancient one. When pre-contact Maori moved across the peninsula, they used the tops. And when early pakeha moved stock across the peninsula, they too used the tops. Once you get to altitude, it's the best way across. 

Harry Ell knew this when he established the Summit Rd, the incomplete project to build lodges and a high road on the peninsula. Today there are two sections of the road — from Godley Head to Gebbies Pass and from Hilltop Tavern to above Akaroa — and between them is the Summit Walkway. The problem for walkers, says Thompson, was a lack of public lodging past Packhorse Hut. The Rod Donald Hut solves that. It's in the "perfect" place, she says.

The hut, previously a private bach and bought and fitted out for $283,000, signals a raft of developments that are intended to revive recreation and tourism on the peninsula. In recent years a handful of trusts have been buying ecologically interesting land and restoring native habitats. Hinewai Reserve has been going since 1987, but a new reserve called Purple Peak Curry is coming into being next door, created with funds from the Rod Donald Trust, the Josef Langer Trust, the Native Forest Restoration Trust and city council. Curry refers to the family that formerly farmed the area. It includes a large portion of Akaroa's water catchment and organisers hope to clean that up. 

Rod Donald Hut: Sleeps nine and must be booked through DOC. The Packhorse Hut also has to be booked. This is new.
Will Harvie

Rod Donald Hut: Sleeps nine and must be booked through DOC. The Packhorse Hut also has to be booked. This is new.

To the south-east, the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust is knitting together the Wildside Conservation Project, which focuses on predator control across 7500 hectares of trust and private land, DOC and council reserves. There are numerous other efforts underway, including proposed "geoparks" to bring attention to volcanic features on the peninsula. 

DOC has been acquiring land over the years and the city council has done what it can with limited funds since the earthquakes. But it's got the Rod Donald Trust to fill gaps, and events like next month's Banks Peninsula Walking Festival to encourage the public. 

The trust came about when Banks Peninsula District Council and Christchurch City Council were negotiating a merger in the early 2000s. One sticking point was the millions sitting in a Banks Peninsula endowment fund. Back in 1800s, central government gifted councils farmland, expecting they would lease out the land and use the profits to keep taxes low.

Totara graveyard on the Summit Walkway, Banks Peninsula.
Will Harvie

Totara graveyard on the Summit Walkway, Banks Peninsula.

Bank Peninsula District Council sold the farms before amalgamation and peninsula mayor Bob Parker and Christchurch mayor Garry Mooreeventually agreed it would go towards conservation and recreation on the peninsula. Then Green Party politician and Banks Peninsula activist Rod Donald died suddenly, aged 48, on November 6, 2005. 

"Garry was very fond of Rod," Thompson says, and is was decided to name the endowment trust in his honour. Things took a while to get underway and the trust deed wasn't signed until 2010, and then the earthquakes disrupted progress. But the hut opening signals things are back on track — and the greater ambitions of the trustees.

Read more

A windswept totara forest on the Summit Walkway.
Will Harvie

A windswept totara forest on the Summit Walkway.

Rod Donald obit
Hinewai Reserve recovers after fire
* Private Banks Peninsula walk offers rugged beauty

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It's long-reach goal is to re-establish Banks Peninsula as Te Pataka o Rakaihautu – the storehouse that nourishes. The board understands it can't displace farmers, but can encourage things like conservation trusts and covenants to protect parts of farms.

Meanwhile its Walking Strategy identifies a significant problem with peninsula tracks, including the Summit Walkway: They don't loop back to the starting place. Walkers exit the walkway at Hilltop (or at Gebbies Pass, if walking the other way) and then have to get home. The trust recommends booking the regular shuttle, but it's not ideal. Thompson hopes to entice some locals into running a shuttle service.

Rod Donald Hut: Equipped with mattresses, firewood and clean water. Bring everything else.
Will Harvie

Rod Donald Hut: Equipped with mattresses, firewood and clean water. Bring everything else.

But crafting a long, looping trail on the peninsula is not easy, Thompson says, given the geography. One long-term idea is to extend the Summit Walkway to the little-used Southern Bays and terminate at Birdlings Flat.  That's still not a full loop, she agrees.

That's why ideas like geoparks appeal. They aren't formal parks, where activities are controlled. Rather they can be as simple as a walking track to something geologically interesting and some signs explaining the rocks, says Sam Hampton, a University of Canterbury volcanologist and driving force behind Paihere Geopark Banks Peninsula.

At Panorama Rock Reserve in Le Bons Bay, for example, Hampton wants to draw attention to the volcanic dome and a lava dyke beneath. "Geologically you don't see that network system that often," he says.

Panama Rock at Le Bons Bay, Banks Peninsula. Sam Hampton, University of Canterbury volcanologist, wants to create a ...
Sam Hampton

Panama Rock at Le Bons Bay, Banks Peninsula. Sam Hampton, University of Canterbury volcanologist, wants to create a "geopark" here. It would includes signs and tracks explaining this lava dome and associated features.

He's also more ambitious, wanting to layer atop the geology lessons aspects of ecology, history, community and conservation. Some species adapted to life on exposed Banks Peninsula cliffs, for example, while there's evidence that 17th century Maori moved their pas from low-lying areas to higher cliff tops after a tsunami. Those are stories worth telling, he says.

Geoparks have been established globally, especially in China and Europe, for years. Here, the earthquakes spurred interest in geological matters and it's nice to talk about volcanos rather than seismicity for a change. "It's chance to put something back into the peninsula," Hampton says.

In the meantime, Rod Donald Hut is open for business. "The trust wants to pick up opportunities that present," says Thompson. "We can't do everything, but we can improve public access, improve the environment and work with partners." And from the hut, you can almost see Rod Donald's grave, just outside Little River.

Spine of the Lizard

The Rod Donald Trust wanted a new name for the walking tracks across the tops of Banks Peninsula and somebody suggested "Spine of the Lizard". To pakeha ears, it's a fairly awesome name. The trust even drew up a map with a gecko-like creature superimposed. Its tail curls around the Crater Rim Walkway on the Port Hills. Its torso includes the main Summit Walkway, its legs are various feeder tracks and its tongue flicks out to lick Akaroa village.

Unfortunately lizards are "harbingers of evil to some whanau". And to people like Garry Moore and various green-leaning trustees, consulting Maori isn't ticking boxes, it's taking action on their their views. So Spine of the Lizard is out. It lingers in the trust archive, but trust manager Suky Thompson is scrubbing it from current documents. Peninsula Maori have been asked for something better. 

Banks Peninsula Walking Festival

Nov 7-27, 2015

Selected events and walks

All must be booked and paid for in advance at

More info here  

Rod Donald Hut opening
Saturday Nov 7, 9am – 1.30pm

Lyttelton's Rebuild
Saturday Nov 7, 1:30pm
Saturday Nov 14, 1:30pm

Lunch at Rod Donald Hut
Sunday Nov 8, 10am
Saturday Nov 14, 10am

Discover Urumau Reserve
Sunday Nov 8, 2pm

Onawe Pa
Saturday Nov 14, 10am
Saturday Nov 28, 10am

Otamahua/Quail Island
Sunday Nov 15, 8:55am

Foraging at Orton Bradley Park
Saturday Nov 21, 1pm

Pa Bay and Greater Okains Bay: Foundations for a Geopark?
Saturday Nov 21, 9am

Nikau Palm Gully/Marine Reserve
Saturday Nov 21, 10am

Crater Rim Walkway, over Mt Cavendish
Sunday Nov 22, 10am

Grunts and Dykes
(Walk new tracks in Panama Rock Reserve at Le Bons Bay)
Saturday Nov 28, 10:30am

Purple Peak Curry Reserve Sneak Preview
Sunday Nov 29, 11am

Little River Heritage
Sunday Nov 29, 1pm

See also this site.

 - Stuff


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