Banks Peninsula, part 1

Dec 2, 2015

We didn’t sleep very well last night because about 11 pm a noisy motor came on and rumbled for most of the night. So we were pretty tired when we got up at 7 am, to get ready for our trip to Akaroa.

We caught the Akaroa shuttle at the appointed place on Montreal Street, just around the corner from the hostel. As we drove through Christchurch the driver pointed out various sites and told us about the devastation of the earthquake. We went around and over the hills to Akaroa, in the heart of the Banks Peninsula, after about an hour and a half. Today it was sunny and everything was sparkling and bright in Akaroa, and after claiming our bags from the shuttle we walked down to Chez le Mer, the hostel where we would be storing our unwanted gear.

Akaroa harbour view

Akaroa harbour view

After leaving all of our bags there we walked along the sea front to the lighthouse and then back again, checking out the shops and restaurants and people swimming and so on. We stopped at the French crepe restaurant for lunch; the crepes were very good but their credit card machine wouldn’t accept any of our credit cards. That was very annoying because it cut into our cash reserves.

Akaroa pier

Akaroa pier

After five weeks in New Zealand we’d hardly had any temperatures above 20°C, but here it was something like 34°C! We were already tired and this was too much, so we went back to Chez le Mer and dozed in their garden for the rest of the afternoon.

Akaroa lighthouse

Akaroa lighthouse

Finally at 5 pm we headed over to the old post office (closed due to earthquake damage), where our transportation to the start of the Banks Peninsula Track was to pick us up. The bus arrived at 5:45 pm and the driver gave us a brief talk before heading off. The Onuku hut was about a 15-minute drive away from Akaroa and was situated high on the hill overlooking the harbour, with spectacular views. The house we were to stay in had four beds in a loft plus two rooms on the main floor with two sets of bunks in each. There weren’t that many of us, so we had a room all to ourselves.

Cows in Akaroa

Cows in Akaroa

By now it was close to 7 pm so we made our dinner. The kitchen was well supplied with cooking pots, plates, and utensils, things which you wouldn’t find in the DOC huts. Tonight we had chicken and tomato fettucine, which was quite good. After dinner we sat and chatted to our house-mates. There were eight of us: four New Zealanders who are celebrating a 30th wedding anniversary, an American couple from Seattle, and us.

Onuku hut kitchen

Onuku hut kitchen

Dec 3, 2015

Last night it was warm, so warm that we didn’t even sleep in our sleeping bags, only the liners. But this morning it was clouding over and we could see it was quite windy. We left Onuku Hut just after 10 am and started the very steep uphill climb. Luckily the views were good, so stopping every so often wasn’t a problem. Down in the harbour there was a cruise ship, not an overly large one but still we couldn’t imagine 2,000 cruise ship people on the streets of Akaroa.

Onuku hut

Onuku hut

Akaroa harbour

Akaroa harbour

The steep uphill climb considered for a considerable time, but we only had 11 kilometers to walk today. We were also buffeted by the winds all the way up, so standing still was hard work too. Just after noon we finally got to the trig point, the highest point of the track at 699 meters. We found a sheltered spot and sat down to enjoy our lunch and the views over the Pacific Ocean. Soon afterwards the New Zealanders arrived, and then the Americans. We sat around talking for a short while before heading off.

At the trig point

At the trig point

From here it would be downhill all the way to Flea Bay, sometimes very steeply. We angled down the hillside, then steeply down the gravel road until we reached Mortlock’s Mistake. Fortunately the track makers had realized that road-walking is boring, so here they sent us down a trail which followed a creek through native bush. The trail was narrow and rocky but easy to follow, but we still had to lose 700 meters of elevation. This was hard on the knees and it seemed to go on forever, but when you looked around there were a few big trees which had escaped the loggers’ axes.

Warning sign

Warning sign

Flea Bay Cottage

Flea Bay Cottage

Soon after 3 pm we crossed a sheep paddock and arrived at our destination, Flea Bay Cottage. We were the first to arrive so we had our pick of the rooms. We quickly found that it had indoor plumbing, so we both had nice warm showers before enjoying some soup and a cup of cocoa. The others arrived a bit later and we chatted with them for a while. Before making dinner we went for a short walk to the beach, where we saw a Little Penguin and its chick in a nesting box, and also Canada Geese with six goslings.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

California Quail

California Quail

After dinner we all headed over to the Pohutu Bay penguin reserve, where the owners are avid penguin conservationists. They have several hundred Little Penguins nesting on their property and they have built a lot of nesting boxes for the birds to use. We were greeted by several lambs who were expecting a handout, because apparently the cruise ship passengers do that.

Penguins in their nest

Penguins in their nest

Penguins gathering on the shore

Penguins gathering on the shore

Our guide was Francis Helps, one of the owners. He gave us camouflage ponchos to wear and then gave us a brief talk about the penguins. We got to see a nesting penguin with two chicks because Francis lifted the top of the nest box to show us. Out in the bay there were a few hundred penguins hanging around waiting for dusk, and we saw groups of them starting to come ashore to go to their nests. Apparently the birds in the bay were a good sign, since that means they filled up on fish quickly and then had time to hang out. We probably saw about 500 penguins in total, which was really neat.

Dec 4, 2015

Today’s hike would be much shorter than yesterday’s so we were all looking forward to that. It wasn’t until 10:15 am that we headed out under sunny skies towards Stony Bay. We walked down to the beach and then through the penguin nesting area which we had visited last night. Of course it was all quiet now. As we zigzagged up the hillside we could still see that there were penguin nests, even at 80 meters above the sea. Those penguins have to walk a long way uphill to their nests!

Flea Bay Cottage kitchen

Flea Bay Cottage kitchen

As we approached the headland we came across a bench labelled “Dolphin Watch”. Yeah right, we thought, but sure enough down in the bay Paul spotted a dolphin and when Rosemary used the binoculars she could see that not only was there a dolphin, but she had a baby! We watched for about 20 minutes while they swam around, diving and surfacing at quite regular intervals. These were Hector’s dolphins, which are the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin.

Hector’s dolphin mother and baby

Hector’s dolphin mother and baby

We finally dragged ourselves away and continued along the trail. It was very similar to the British coastal trails, going up, along, and down, but none of the ups and downs were extreme. Also like the British trails, there were several stiles to cross and sheep to startle as we walked by. We came to an offshore island which had a colony of Fairy Prions. Unfortunately the prions have the same habit as penguins—they feed out at sea during the day and return to their burrows at dusk. So we didn’t see any prions.

Pacific Ocean coastline

Pacific Ocean coastline

We reached a seat on the cliff top about noon, but we didn’t have lunch there because our map said there was a shelter a bit farther on, at Seal Cove. We had heard it was an interesting shelter, and it was. It was made of corrugated iron but it was built right onto the rock face. Inside the shelter were several plastic chairs, a small table, and also a sink, and there were large windows to look out of. But it was a fine day so we sat at the picnic table outside to eat our lunch.

Sheltered shelter

Sheltered shelter

After lunch we walked over to the nearby cave. At first we couldn’t see anything but after our eyes got accustomed to the dark rocks we were able to see several seals. Then just below us on the rocks we saw two smaller seals, one of them moving very awkwardly over the rocks.

Deciding we had spent enough time with the seals we collected our packs and continued up the trail. We had a bit of a climb to gain to the top of the headland, and then we stayed on top for quite a distance until we came to a very tough and serious-looking fence. It was a predator-proof fence, built by the landowners, and it protects a nesting colony of Sooty Shearwaters. This is the only place in New Zealand where they nest on the mainland. Unfortunately their lifestyle is like that of the penguins and prions and so we didn’t see any shearwaters either.

Stony Bay view

Stony Bay view

From here it was downhill to Stony Bay, where our night’s accommodation was located. The trail led inland through a grassy area and then to the huts. Wow, were we surprised when we got there! There was a small field surrounded by several buildings. There was a large house with a sitting area and eight beds, and there were also three cute little houses each with two bunk beds, a propane burner, and a sink. The shower building was built against an enormous tree trunk and had water buckets on top to get warmed by the sun, and there was an outdoor bath with a supply of wood to heat it up once you’d filled it with water. The whole place was quite magical.

Large house at Stony Bay

Large house at Stony Bay

We had arrived first so we chose one of the little houses. We reluctantly rejected the one with the penguin nesting on the front porch and chose the one next to the stream. On the wall were china plates and mugs, and there were candles to light the place at night—no electricity in the little houses. Eventually the rest of our fellow walkers arrived and chose their accommodations.

Our little house

Our little house

There was a little store at the end of the site which was very well stocked. You could get eggs, sausages, tomatoes, bananas, steaks, drinks, ice cream, wine, beer, chocolate bars, and potato chips, almost everything you would need for a meal. We bought beer and ginger beer for pre-dinner drinks and once everyone was settled in we sat around talking and laughing until it was time to make dinner. We all cooked in the main house rather than in the little houses.

Stony Bay shower facility

Stony Bay shower facility

We stayed up until about 10:30 pm to see if any penguins would show up; several times we heard rustling in the bushes but that was all, so we went to bed.

Next: Banks Peninsula, part 2