Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Tramping amongst drowned volcanoes

For my first tramp of 2021 I walked The Banks Track. Mainly because it was the only part of the South Island that looked to be missing a weather bomb, but it had always been on my to do list. This is a private track, crossing private farmland and nature reserves, staying in prebooked accommodation each night, and having one's pack transported each day so you only need a small day pack. Luxury! And worth every cent. Being only one person, it wasn't hard to book a spot at short notice either...

Our group of 14, comprising 12 people walking for 3 days and 2 young whippersnappers doing it in 2 days, got picked up at the old Akaroa Post Office at 5:30pm. Prior to this we had to park our vehicles in a carpark at a lodge 20 minutes walk away up a hill. Although we wouldn't be staying at this lodge it was at the end of the track and provided fairly secure parking.

Our names were ticked off and we were given our little booklet with all the track notes and information we would need for our trip. Then we loaded our bags and ourselves into the minibus and headed south of town to Onuku Farm, where we stayed the first night. The Farm also provides accommodation for campers and has a hostel, but we were tucked away in our own area, where we all got to know each other over a few beverages watching the sunset over the harbour.

The next morning the keen and/or slow ones got going early, for the walk up through the farm to gain a ridgeline. It's a pretty rude start to walk through the farm gate and then start climbing steeply up a farm track. There are some detours off the track to viewpoints over the harbour, well worth it on such a spectacular day.

The ridge is then followed, passing onto the neighbour's farmland, up to the highest point on the track at 699m. Apparently you can see Mt Cook/Aoraki from there on a clear day.....

From the trig the track descends to the Flea Bay Road, which is followed for a kilometre or so before veering off into Tutakakahikura Reserve, remnant red beech forest with a lovely stream and waterfalls along it.

This is followed all the way to Flea Bay, the final section across farmland to our old farmhouse accommodation for the night. Our packs were there waiting for us, and the fridge was stocked with beer and wine for us to purchase, so it wasn't long before shoes and socks were shed and a cold beverage was in hand. I could get used to this type of tramping!

After a beverage or two and a hot shower, yes a hot shower!, I wandered down to the nearby beach. The tide was out and a couple of NZ fur seals were snoozing in a small cave at the far end.

That evening three of us wandered around to the farmhouse proper, and joined a fairy penguin tour led by the land owner, who has taken on the task of protecting the largest mainland colony of fairy penguins in NZ. His passion for these wee birds, and for conservation in general, is inspirational. We saw an adult penguin who was moulting, and two chicks in their nesting box, but we didn't see any penguins coming in from the sea.

The next morning a few of our crew went sea kayaking for the morning, whilst the rest of us headed off along the track. It's an easier day than the first day, mostly sidling high above the cliffs, with awesome views.

There is a cleverly constructed lunch shelter at Seal Cave, where I stopped for lunch and peaked over into the cave to see some seals. 

There are also a wonderful collection of bush toilets along this route. Lots of character with a good eye for a view, and a sense of humour!

Above Stony Bay the landowner has built a predator proof fence to protect the breeding site of Mutton Birds/Titi. This is now the only breeding site on the NZ mainland, as predators have wiped out all the others leaving the only options to be on offshore islands. The extent to which NZ's native fauna has been decimated by introduced mammals is only recently being addressed by increased government trapping and baiting programs, but the efforts of local landowners is massive as well. The original fence was a crude affair funded by a coalition of local farmers, the current one was funded by a national grant.

Stony Bay is picturesque, a tranquil little bay a long way from anywhere. Our accommodation is in a quirky little "village" of small huts, with an outdoor shower and wood fired baths. The shop is really well stocked and we had yet another wonderful evening, complete with outdoor campfire and a soak in the bath before bed.

I was last to leave the next morning, because I just didn't want to leave such an idyllic spot. It was drizzling, but not cold, perfect weather for a climb up the valley and through Hinewai Reserve to the tops of yet another extinct volcanic crater. The entire Banks Peninsula, including Lyttleton Harbour and the Port Hills southeast of Christchurch were once volcanoes, now extinct and inundated by the sea.

I met up with the rest of the group at the shelter on Tara Track. A respite from the cold wind outside and a welcome snack before tackling the steep descent to Akaroa. There's a side trip to Purple Peak, but with cloud obscuring any views I forwent that detour and continued along the main track back to the car.

As we descended below the clouds the views and weather improved. Back in Akaroa it was sunny and warm.

I had delicious fish and chips for lunch, picked up my pack from the storage room, and then drove back out to Onuku Farm to camp there a day or two, do some laundry, and plan my next adventure.

That's next..

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