The Banks Peninsula Track – Sheep, Fur Seals and Penguins.

The advantage of telling fellow hikers that you are spending 4 months hiking through New Zealand is that everyone has advice on the tracks that you should tackle next. Amongst hikers closest to our age the track most recommended by New Zealanders is the Banks Peninsula Track. A private track formed by 7 landowners in the mid 1980s at a time when their farms were economically marginal, the Banks Peninsula Track stretches for 35km, climbing the slopes of an old volcanic crater across farmland, through native forest and around stunning sea cliffs. The mix of terrain (farm land, old growth forest and sea cliffs) coupled with the short distances that need to be walked each day meant the track was a very different experience to any of the other tracks we have walked in New Zealand. Add to that the numerous opportunities to see wildlife with the area frequented by little penguins, yellow eyed penguins and fur seals and you can well understand why the track is on many New Zealander’s bucket list.

Time of year: The track is open from 1 October to 27 April.

Number of days: The track can be walked over 2 or 4 days. The track is so stunning that you will want to take your time, so opt for the four days.

Number of hikers: The number of hikers on the track on any day is limited to 12 four day hikers and 4 two day hikers.

Accommodation: One of the highlights of the walks is the unique accommodation. All accommodation and facilities are shared and fairly basic.

Food: You will need to take food with you for the first two nights. There are small shops on the third and fourth nights where provisions can be bought. Each night’s accommodation has cooking facilities, so there is no need to carry any kitchen gear with you.

Pack cartage: Pack cartage is available on the first ($15) and last day ($10) of the track (minimum 2 packs).

Closest town: Akaroa, 85km south of Christchurch. The little town is unbelievably cute (an unfortunate descriptor but accurate in this case and, lets face it, its the look the town is going for). First settled by the French in 1840, many of the streets still bear French names. The town further plays on its French connection by employing French backpackers in the cafes and restaurants.

Getting there: Bus shuttle services between Christchurch and Akaroa are provided by Akaroa Shuttle and French Connection.

Who shouldn’t do this walk: Anyone with a strong fear of heights, aversion to sheep dung or anyone who suffers from sphenisciphobia (the fear of penguins) should probably avoid this walk. Everyone else will have a blast.

Cost (excluding food and pack cartage): $255 to $295 for the four day walk and $165 to $185 for the two day walk.

Night before walk: On the first night you are picked up from the old Akaroa post office, provided with a short briefing and walk booklet and then transported to the first nights accommodation at Onuku Farm. The walk commences from here the next day.

View from cottage - night 1
View from cottage – night 1

Day 1: Onuku to Flea Bay (11km, 4-6 hours). The first day of summer in New Zealand, so of course we had rain, followed by hail and finally it snowed. The track began by following old farm vehicle tracks through pasture and up the hill. The first part of the track is marked as steep in the handbook but it all seemed equally steep to me until the trig point at 699m was reached. In the last paddock before the trig point a sign warns hikers to quietly and slowly walk around any cattle that may be present. At this point the track markers switched from white to orange (to assist with visibility in case of snow) and we had to pick our way over rocks until we arrived at the trig point (marked with a cairn and elevation sign). Just below this point is a shelter for days like ours when it is too cold to spend much time at the top. From the shelter the track sidled around the hill and across the field until we come out onto the Flea Bay Road. We followed the road down hill for about 1 km before we turned onto a single track through the forest at Mortlocks Mistake. The track down followed a stream and was fairly slippery in places which meant that we had to proceed slowly. Another Australian couple we passed on the way down were surprised that they could only go at a pace of about 2-3km/hour instead of the 5-6km/hour that they managed on tracks in Australia. After a couple of hours the track once again opens up into sheep paddocks and from there it was not long before the old Flea Bay farmhouse was reached. Built in the 1800s it comprises three bedrooms, a kitchen, lounge and bathroom. The Flea Bay property is owned by the Helps who have worked for years in the area of penguin conservation. They offer a free nightly penguin tour for track walkers, which was well worth doing.

Watching the penguins come in from the bay. Too cold for full camo
Watching the penguins come in from the bay. Too cold for full camo
Happy wild life
Happy wild life

Day 2: Flea Bay to Stony Bay (8km, 2-4 hours). The day once again began with a steep climb up hill to reach an elevation of about 200m. The track was crossed with various tracks made by little penguins to reach their nesting areas – no mean feat given that they have to climb the hill with flippers. The track followed the sea cliffs providing spectacular views across the ocean. Just past the halfway point for the day the track descended down to a small shelter with a table between to hills which was protected from the winds more apparent on the cliffs above. The visitor book in the shelter indicated that some groups which had preceded us had experienced much worse weather on the cliffs and were quite relieved to reach the relative safety of the shelter. After a brief diversion to view the seal colony in the sea cave below the shelter we climbed the hill that led away from the shelter and crossed more sheep paddocks arriving at the predator proof fence maintained by the owners of Stony Bay, the Armstrongs, to assist with protecting nesting sea birds. From there it was a short walk across more paddocks before the path descended through forest to Stony Bay below. The accommodation built by the Armstrongs for the track hikers is unique – most closely resembling Hobbiton. Instead of hobbits, however, we had nesting penguins living under our hut (which sounds cool, but was actually pretty noisy and smells a wee bit fishy).

Cute Huts
Cute Huts

Day 3: Stony Bay to Otanerito (6km, 2-3 hours). The shortest day on the Banks Peninsula Walk, the track again went up and down hills, through paddocks following the coastal cliffs. The ascent and descent was less than the previous day and, as it used some old farm vehicle tracks, felt no where near as precipitous. Even walking slowly we reached the Otanerito Beach House before lunch. Whilst the beach house had body boards on offer we were not convinced that the water temperature in New Zealand is ever sufficiently high to justify going in the water.

Happy wildlife
More happy wildlife
Happy not so wild life
Happy not so wild life

Day 4: Otanerito to Akaroa (10 km, 3-5 hours). After  short walk through the paddocks surrounding the beach house we entered the Hinewai Reserve, a reserve managed by a private trust for the protection and restoration of native flora and fauna. The track slowly ascended through native forest before getting steeper. After a couple of hours the path opened up onto some paddocks and it was a short walk to the highest elevation point at Purple Peak Saddle, providing views over the township of Akaroa below. After a brief break at the shelter, it was a knee jarring and toe jamming tramp down old vehicle tracks before hitting a bitumen road, with more of the same. To save your feet it might be worth carrying a pair of soft shoes or sneakers for this part of the track. From there it was a short 15 minute walk into Akaroa and the end of the track.

For more information: see our Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand post.

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