Friday 14 September 2018

The Banks Peninsula Track 2: On the Edge

["You have been warned!": a self-explanatory sign on the Banks Track] 
It may be a luxury to finish a day’s walking at lunchtime, but it’s not an unwelcome one. It gives us a chance to rest, to check out our little cabin, and to socialise over lunch. The Flea Bay farmstead is supplied with a basket of freshly-laid eggs and a few other supplies alongside an honesty box. Lunch is quite an eggy affair for most of us.

After lunch we farewell Joh and Mark, whose 2 day walk requires them to walk on to the next hut at Stony Bay. We feel for them having another 2-4 hours more walking ahead of them. Lynne and I are very glad we don’t have to do the same. Instead we wander 100m or so over to Flea Bay itself. It has a cobble beach, and with the wind blowing hard, there are waves biting into the steep shore. We’re surprised to see a group of kids out swimming with a huge inflatable inner tube. The tube, possibly from a tractor tyre, is anchored by some adults via a stout rope. Every now and then there are squeals of laughter as a wave knocks the kids off the tube.

[Even the sheep at Flea Bay are laid back!] 
We chat with the adults, who are spending a weekend on a nearby farm owned by family. They’ve been coming to the bay for years, and love that the third or fourth generation of family members is getting acquainted with this remote and beautiful place.

Later the owners of the Flea Bay farm come to offer walkers the chance for a guided sea kayak trip tomorrow morning. Seals and dolphins are regulars in the bay, and its spectacularly steep surroundings make the kayaking idea very tempting. But in the morning the wind is still very strong, and large swells are breaking in the bay, so we decide to walk on.

[Sea kayaks near Flea Bay] 
Of course those same steep surroundings make for a steep ascent, firstly towards the head of the bay, and then up and over the hills and cliffs that will eventually lead to Stony Bay. Near the seaward end of the bay we look down and see a pair of kayaks. They’re hugging the less windy western side of the bay, but I still count them brave being out in these conditions.

Whether you’re on the water or up here in the hills, there’s no doubting the incredible spectacle all around you. If the bay is steep-sided, the hills further east simply tip into the sea over vast, dark cliffs. Offshore rocks and inaccessible islands make home for thousands of sea birds, and further off the coast we watch a stout fishing trawler rocking and rolling its way towards the port of Lyttleton.

[Spot the walkers: click on image to enlarge] 
The track meanders up and down, often close to the edge, but sometimes darting diagonally inland to avoid steep gulches. The inner edge of one of these gulches has an eccentric shelter hut tucked in against large boulders. Presumably it was once used by farm workers, or possibly fishermen. It features a couple of leadlight windows and an outside long-drop toilet. We go in for a look, and are surprised to see some plants growing against a window in one corner. We’re less surprised by its rough and rustic state.

[The half-way hut: note the "indoor plants"] 
Just beyond the hut our path passes a rocky shore which features a sea-cut cave. Mixed in with the swash of the waves, we hear some plaintive barking noises. Our suspicions are confirmed by a roughly-made sign: seals live in the cave. We cautiously peek over a rocky edge, but given how well they blend with the rocks, it takes a few moments before we see perhaps a dozen seals dozing in the shade. New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) were once hunted so “successfully” – both here and in Australian waters – that they were close to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Their Maori name, kekeno, translates “look-arounds”. It’s a behaviour that may have helped them survive: that and the (now welcome) collapse of the whaling and sealing trade.

[Spot the fur seals! click the image to enlarge] 
We leave the seals to their wary slumber and climb back up to high cliff level. Part of the cliff-line is fenced off, not so much for our safety as for the protection of sea bird colonies, especially the sooty shearwater/titi (Ardenna grisea). This is yet another species that was hunted close to extinction, and is still rare. Near another highpoint we climb a stile and our destination, the aptly named Stony Bay, is in sight.

[Lynne at the stile above Stony Bay] 
After yesterday’s downhill difficulties, we’re a little anxious about how the descent into the bay will affect Lynne’s knees. Although it’s long and reasonably steep, we take our time, stopping to admire the scenery, and to marvel at the exotic plantings put in by the Amstrong family. In their informal arboretum we even recognise a few home plant species, including some honeysuckle banksia (Banksia marginata), which are Tasmanian endemics.

Lynne is hobbling and in pain by the time we traipse around the shoreline and find the complex of buildings near the Armstrong family's homestead. But there’s comfort to be had here for sure, including a delightful tiny cabin for the two of us, hot showers, an outdoor wood-heated bath, and a communal hut with a fireplace and a fine old dining table. The quaint buildings are all set higgledy piggledy within delightfully shady grounds, all overtopped by a mix of exotic and native trees. Best of all there’s a tiny little “shop”, with fresh and tinned produce, a selection of meats, and a surprisingly good assortment of New Zealand and Australian wine.

[Our tiny cabin at Stony Bay] 
My inner Aussie-male comes to the fore that night. Armed with tongs and a fork, I offer to cook for everyone on the little barbecue that's housed in one of the out-buildings. Of course as soon as I get cooking, a cold rain starts. And then the wind gets up as well, making me feel right at home! It’s a delightful evening. Each of us feels proud that we've made it this far, and that - thanks to the little shop - we can enjoy together what now feel like exotic luxuries. We top it all off with a final dram in front of the little fire. The wind and rain continue to do their worst: but somehow, for now at least, all manner of things are well.

[The dining table at Stony Bay Hut] 

Saturday 1 September 2018

The Banks Peninsula Track 1: Dancing on the Volcano

It’s the kind of coincidence you expect to happen in Tasmania. We’re sitting patiently next to our bags, waiting for a bus, when suddenly we’re hailed – by name – by a passing driver. But we’re not in Tassie, we’re in the village of Akaroa in New Zealand’s South Island. And while we’re frequent visitors to NZ, we’re a long way from gaining “local” status.

That’s what makes it head-shakingly odd that we do actually recognise the person calling out to us. It’s Joh, who two weeks ago was our guide on the Alps2Ocean cycle trip! Amazingly she’s here in Akaroa for the same reason we are: to walk the Banks Track. She and her Kiwi boyfriend Mark are doing the 2 night version of the walk we’ll be doing over 3 nights.

Meeting up with Joh is just the first surprise of many on this walk. The next is that we only have to walk a couple of hundred metres on our first day. It’s just as well, because the sun will soon drop below the western rim of the old volcanic cone that surrounds Akaroa, and dark will follow. A minibus picks up the 9 walkers who make up our group, and delivers us a few kilometres further around the Banks Peninsula, near the Onuku Farm Hostel which is our home for the first night.

[Joh and Mark dine with us in Onuku Hut]
Onuku has a communal hut for walkers, plus a few options for sleeping arrangements. These include bunk rooms in the main hut; “stargazer” mini-huts outside; and small private cabins. The communal kitchen/dining area gives us a good chance to meet our fellow walkers, and over dinner we relax and chat and start to get acquainted.

Another surprise about the Banks Track is that it’s almost entirely on private farmland. The whole Banks Peninsula, which covers an area of roughly 100,000 hectares, was once forested. Maori people had cleared about a third of this by the time Europeans arrived, and the pakeha greatly accelerated clearing to make way for farms.

Five of those farms, having banded together to create and maintain the walking track as well as accommodation, now host around 2,000 walkers per year. Walkers pay just under $100 per night for the walk, including accomodation. Prices are higher for private huts, and for extras like sleeping bag hire and pack cartage. The farming families – and other locals - are also actively involved in restoring forest on the peninsula, undoing some of the over-zealous work of their ancestors.

[Looking over Onuku Farm to Akaroa Harbour] 
After breakfast it’s literally onward and upward. Our first real day’s walking takes us quickly from near sea level to almost 700m. That’s steep in anyone’s language, but understandable when you're climbing the rim of an old volcano. Lynne and I had planned to adopt a head-down-plod-on approach, but the scenery is so beautiful we soon ditch that idea! At least, given how photo-worthy it all is, we have plenty of stops. The track is a mix of farm tracks and grassy switchbacks. The steep green hills are dotted with white sheep that chew casually while keeping a wary eye on us.

[On the grassy track above Akaroa Harbour] 
Soon Onuku’s farm buildings recede beneath us, and we’re gaining spectacular view back over Akaroa Harbour. We’ve opted not to have our packs carted, instead staying in private rooms that have bedding supplied. The communal kitchens have gas as well as cooking pots, pans and utensils. So our packs are reasonably lightweight, have only clothing and food for our 3 days. We’re glad of that, as we’re puffing furiously by the time we near the high point, taking in great lungs-full of air that has just a faint farmy whiff.

After a short breather we walk on, and are surprised when we almost immediately reach a small shelter with a sign declaring it the half way point. We’re happy to take the good news, even if our instinct says it can’t be right. We’ve only taken a little over 90 minutes, and the whole day is said to take 4-6 hours. We walk on, step over a stile and head into the adjacent property. From there it’s all downhill.

[Lynne at the 699m high point] 
If that feels like more good news, we soon learn otherwise. The downhill is steep and relentless, first on a road, and then on bush tracks. I’m not among those who prefer going uphill to downhill, but before long I’m reconsidering my opinion. Lynne’s knees start hurting before we’ve left the steep, winding gravel road, and mine are not much better. We try a drunken-sailor, slalom style of walk; we even try walking backwards: anything to ease the knee strain. Nothing helps except stopping, and we choose to do that frequently, taking in water and snacks even if we’re not thirsty or hungry.

As the morning heads towards afternoon, we learn how truly inaccurate the “half-way” marker is. For a great deal longer than our uphill walk we continue winding down through the 700m descent that will take us to Flea Bay/Pohatu. 

[The track passes a beautiful old red beech: Nothofagus fusca] 
There’s some comfort in the beauty of the red beech forest we’re starting to travel through, and especially when a piwakawaka (fantail) starts to escort us through the greenery. For more than a kilometre it flits ahead of us, alighting on a branch, chittering busily for a moment before tracing a dizzying flight path through the branches as we walk alongside. It repeats the whole process numerous times. We never tire of its blessed distraction.

[Our friendly piwakawaka/fantail] 
Not too far from Flea Bay we’re also distracted by a few waterfalls, some visible from the track; others audible through the dense bush. We eventually level out onto pasture land, and plod wearily into the clutch of farm buildings that will be our home for the night. 

[Arriving at Flea Bay farmstead] 
We’ve taken well under 5 hours to get here, and it’s only just lunch time. We probably should be proud of ourselves: we’re the first walkers here, and our time has been relatively quick. But we’re too sore and tired to celebrate. We have just enough energy to do a warm-down stretch, and to boil some eggs for lunch, before exploring the lounge chairs at some length.