Huw Kingston enjoys coastal views, local wildlife and plenty of creature comforts on NZ’s Banks Track.
"The whole experience starts with an early evening pickup in Akaroa (90km southeast of Christchurch).
Mafi, admin person and bus driver, gave a brief briefing, handed out the Banks Track guide and instructed us to load bags and bodies onto the bus for the short drive to our first accommodation at Onuku Track Hut.
Your booking includes three nights’ accommodation and transport of your luggage. You provide your own sustenance.
Stop off at Barrys Bay, en route to Akaroa, to pick up some locally made cheeses. Akaroa itself has a deli and small supermarket, a local fudge shop provides on trail sweetness and a new craft gin distillery is just the tonic for veranda aperitifs.
The hut wows us all, with panoramic views over Akaroa Harbour from well-tended gardens. Bunks are quickly claimed and soon glasses are chinking, cheeses cut.
Wendy and I are the only foreigners in our group which consists of four retired Kiwis of Dutch descent, a couple from Nelson, another from Taupo. Jeff, also from the North Island, was planning his first solo walk until Emma, his daughter, flew in from Hong Kong to surprise him.
The 11km of Day 1 begins with a post brekkie heart starter as a farm track climbs steadily away from Onuku. We settle into a pattern of passing and being passed by our fellow walkers. The trail narrows to a well-marked but thin foot track to eventually top out at 699m, the highest point of the walk.
Greenery is everywhere, from the hills all around to the waters of Akaroa Harbour and we’re both already smitten with the peninsula. In the distance, white detailing indicates snow on the Southern Alps and a sign tells us that Aoraki/Mount Cook is 230km away.
The route now sidles across some steep slopes to reach a dirt road. I expected the Banks Tracks to be wide and well graded but was pleasantly surprised to find it was mostly narrow, sometimes deliciously exposed.
If the first part of the day was about hills and distant views, the second contrasted nicely.
We dropped into a shaded gully of beech trees and ferns sheltering a streamway dropping over numerous cascades. Our boots brushed through beech leaves, like scattered cornflakes, damp but not yet soggy.
Each waterfall was higher than the last, each dropping into a pool worthy of a dip. The final one was tall enough and wide enough to be in full sun, a perfect spot for our late lunch and a sneak behind the curtain of water for a dry shower.
Soon we were coming into Flea Bay, the last few hundred metres of trail showing signs of landslips, recent and repaired. I wondered about the cause. Earthquake? Deluge?
Back from the beach, a grassy area held a couple of little cottages. Although expecting to share, Wendy and I had a room to ourselves each night.
One cottage had a couple of private rooms, with double beds, that could be booked for an additional fee. Belinda, one of the Taupo couple, invited us to smell their private room. There was a lovely aroma of regurgitated fish and eau de stomach, and a scribbled sign on the wall “Sorry for the funky smell. Penguins nesting under the floor.”
Flea Bay is a working farm, run by the Helps family, originally part of the first sheep run on the South Island.
It was in the hands of the Rhodes family for five generations until Francis Helps bought it half a century ago. Flea Bay is also home to one of the largest remaining colonies of Little Penguins or Kororas, which come ashore here to breed from late winter to early summer.
The Helps family have made huge efforts to protect and preserve this smallest and most northerly ranging of penguins and, despite his tiredness from a full day of shearing, we all met Francis that evening for a talk and tour.
By trapping feral cats, stoats, weasels and the like, penguin numbers have recovered over the decades, although Francis fears warming waters and changing food sources are now impacting their survival. At dusk, a few Korora waddled onto the beach stones as we returned to our cottage for the final brew of a satisfying day."
Words and photos_Huw Kingston