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. 

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