Banks Peninsula Track offers rugged beauty

IN THE DISTANCE: The view back to Akaroa from the highest point on the Banks Peninsula Track.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

IN THE DISTANCE: The view back to Akaroa from the highest point on the Banks Peninsula Track.

I lay in the wood-fired bath under a starlit sky at Stony Bay cottages, the halfway point on the Banks Peninsula Track, and listened to the silence as my leg muscles slowly untied. It was the first quiet moment on a track whose rugged beauty and rich wildlife is captured by its sounds.

The night before, locals could hear the peninsula's famous southerly long before it arrived, rumbling through the Akaroa head and down the harbour. All night the wind roared as it pounded the petite Onuku Farm lodge, the track's first-night accommodation, 10 minutes from Akaroa with stunning views across the harbour.

I lay in bed sheltering with aBa as the southerly shook debris loose from the roof.

The next morning, after sharing coffee and breakfast with 12 other walkers, the only people I would be sharing the track with, I took off up the steep hill. My lungs were soon burning as I ascended past long-tailed lambs and the wind howled over the hills and shouted in my face.

I continued upwards over the rugged exposed farmland, where native bush was first burnt back by Maori looking for moa and then destroyed by Pakeha for farming, to the track's highest point of 699m, where on clear days you can see all the way to the Southern Alps.

PERFECT SCENERY: A loo with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

PERFECT SCENERY: A loo with a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Jutting east into the Pacific Ocean from the Canterbury Plains, the Banks Peninsula was formed from three volcanic craters, its harbour a crater now invaded by the sea.

The track initially traverses the rocky crater edge before dropping over the rim and descending through regenerating bush, following a stream past four waterfalls, down to the Pacific Ocean.

Opened in 1989, the Banks Peninsula Track is New Zealand's first privately owned tramp.

While well-resourced and easily accessed from Christchurch, it feels remote - a trip back in time. It also provides a raw perspective on the harsh beauty of our land.

The 35km track is walked in two or four days.

Taking it on in two, I was kept company by livestock which have been raised on the peninsula since the 1800s. The track was established as an alternative income for nine landowners whose relatively small farms were becoming increasingly economically unviable after a severe drought in 1988, and the elimination of government farming subsidies. Now seven groups of landholders make up the company that maintains the track and provides walkers with accommodation on their land.

For the four-day trampers the second night's accommodation is spent at the 160-year-old farmhouse at Flea Bay that looks out over the sea. The beautiful old building is an insight into the isolation and austerity of the lives of the colonial farmers who attempted to tame New Zealand.

DOWN TIME: The pool table at Stony Bay.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

DOWN TIME: The pool table at Stony Bay.

Set in the Pohatu Marine Reserve, 1400 breeding pairs of white flippered penguins, the endangered Canterbury subspecies of the little blue penguin, live in Flea Bay. Owners Francis and Shireen Helps are committed conservationists. Francis takes walkers on evening tours of the penguin nesting boxes he has established on the farm. Shireen guides kayak tours of the marine reserve, where the endangered Hectors dolphins are known to join paddlers.

From Flea Bay I clamber up and along the southeastern edge of the peninsula. The southerly's howling is overpowered by the sound of the sea crashing into the exposed cliffs. From the track I have long views down the steep stained walls of volcanic rock eroded by the waves.

The track climbs and plunges its way along the coast's crevices, before descending to the sea and crossing a small stream where baby seals play, to the boutique colonial cottages of Stony Bay. Here owner Mark Armstrong has built a unique homestead, his architectural touch obvious all over the property. Stained glass windows accent the cluster of cottages, an outdoor pool table catches its balls in paint tins, and the hot shower is built around a giant tree stump. The piece de resistance is the outdoor bathtub, where guests are encouraged to take a glass of wine and a friend.

BUCOLIC: Flea Bay farmhouse, the second overnight stop on the track.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

BUCOLIC: Flea Bay farmhouse, the second overnight stop on the track.

Armstrong also turned his hand to the protection of the only known breeding muttonbird colony on the mainland. After his fence was breached by stoats a predator-proof version was built in 2010. On the steep cliffs the fence is an engineering feat and testimony to the track owners' commitment to the area's conservation.

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For dinner in my tiny cottage, I was served a perfectly cooked steak with chargrilled asparagus, matched with a local pinot noir, and an eskimo pie for dessert.

All prepared by me on my hut's barbecue and purchased from the well-stocked store, where honesty payments are stuck under mousetraps.

RUSTIC: The farm-chic Stony Bay cottages.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

RUSTIC: The farm-chic Stony Bay cottages.

The next morning, the third leg of the track reveals the dramatic natural devastation of the Canterbury earthquakes. A giant spike of cliff stands alone in the ocean, the last remnants of a sea arch that stood at the point of Sleepy Bay for thousands of years before it was shaken into the sea by the September 2010 quake. The earthquakes halved the number of walkers.

Misperceptions of post-quake risk kept numbers down for three years despite minimal damage to the track and infrastructure.

Past the pa site where Ngai Tahu won a decisive victory in their invasion of the South Island, I arrive at Otanerito Beach House, the fourth night's stay where the valley is filled with the sound of dogs bringing the sheep down the hills. The farmhouse is surrounded by a beautiful organic vegetable and flower garden; boogie boards and a beach cricket set wait on the front porch. A copy of A Broken Book, a collection of poems on post-earthquake Christchurch by award-winning author and Otanerito resident Fiona Farrell sits on the bookshelf.

PLAYFUL PUPS: Seals play in the stream that leads to the Stony Bay cottages.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ

PLAYFUL PUPS: Seals play in the stream that leads to the Stony Bay cottages.

The destinations are as rewarding as the journeys, each homestay reflecting the personality of its owners.

I recommend taking the time to enjoy their offerings over four days. Despite the walk itself not challenging experienced trampers, the activities at each location are unique and worthy. Each has a store that features beer and wine, so you can even allow time for a sleep in.

There are a number of side tracks for hardcore hikers.

An island for most of its history, the peninsula was joined to the mainland in the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, and is now home to some unique native species. But by 1900 the arrival of Maori and then Pakeha had left just 1 per cent of the original forest. Recent conservation by the track owners has removed the wild goats and depleted possum numbers, allowing native bush to fight back against the gorse and ecosystems to rejuvenate.

I was serenaded by the song of native birds as the track heads from the beach house upwards again through the kahikatea, totara, and red beech bush of the Hinewai conservation reserve. The forest has recovered significantly over the last 25 years of management and is home to bellbird, tomtit, kereru, fantail, kingfisher, tui and the New Zealand falcon.

On a hot day I was grateful for the shade of the bush and the company of black piwakawaka who danced across the trees.

For two hours the track climbs from sea level to the 590m saddle of Purple Peak.

Behind me spread the peninsula's bays, in front the view looks down to Akaroa township and harbour. It's difficult to know which way to look.

The writer travelled courtesy of Canterbury Tourism.

GETTING THERE Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch regularly and bus services depart regularly from there to Akaroa from $45 return.

Akaroa Shuttle: 0800 500 929.

French Connection: 0800 800 575.

BEING THERE The Banks Peninsula two-day walk starts at $160, four day walks at $255. Portage and food at additional cost.  

 - Sunday Star Times

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