A three-day tramp over the spectacular ridge tops of Banks Peninsula veers between purgatory and delight
There is something other-worldly about eating lunch high up on Banks Peninsula’s Purau-Port Levy Saddle amid the scattered skeletal ruins of an ancient totara forest.
Everything is silent but for the trilling of skylarks and an occasional muttering sheep. Looking down on steep green hills plummeting to dramatic turquoise seascapes, it’s easy to forget – for a moment – the hard slog it has taken to get to this point on day two of Tuatara Tours’ three-day Akaroa Walk.
The blisters and aching muscles seem irrelevant when pitted against the theatre of the peninsula’s stunning landscape. New Zealand may be a nation of trampers but I’m not generally one of them. Steep hills rarely figure in my daily exercise programme and the idea of lugging a backpack over rugged terrain is my idea of purgatory. However, in the days leading up to Christmas, a strenuous forty-two-kilometre walk across the Banks Peninsula ridge tops seemed to offer the perfect escape from festive excess. The fact that our backpacks were to be carried for us and comfortable beds, hot showers and a tasty meal would be laid on each evening cemented my decision.
The Akaroa Walk has been operating for many years and has guided hundreds of people over the spectacular landscapes between Christchurch and Akaroa. It’s a landscape dominated by Lyttelton and Akaroa harbours, two of the world’s greatest examples of erosion craters.Starting at the Christchurch Gondola on Mt Cavendish in the Port Hills, day one is an easy nine-kilometre amble along the summit tracks to Godley Head. There are remarkable views in every direction – across Christchurch city, down into the snug port village of Lyttelton and across the harbour to the hills yet to be tackled. We were a compact group of four – an Australian nurse, a Christchurch doctor’s wife, me and our guide Bryan Connell, whose full-time career as a psychiatric nurse seemed singularly appropriate. As I slipped over for the fifth time (in the first five hours) I sensed his pacifying talents would prove invaluable. Add to this his astounding recall of facts and figures, his knowledge of local history and things botanical and I knew we were in safe hands. That first day saw us wandering among Port Hills’ World War II gun emplacements and marvelling at bright orange lichen spread on giant rocks.
We ate lunch and watched ships cruising into Lyttelton Harbour; we marvelled at the North Canterbury coast stretching all the way towards Kaikoura; we fell upon afternoon tea at Godley Head Domain like starved gannets just in from the sea. After a visit to Lyttelton’s Timeball Station, built in 1876 to signal Greenwich Mean Time to seagoing vessels, we climbed aboard the ferry with city commuters and crossed to Diamond Harbour and our beds at historic Godley House.The dawn of day two came with cramped muscles, a packed lunch (complete with Christmas cake) and a drive up the Purau Valley to our starting point just under the volcanic dome of Monument Rock. Following a wide farm track we wound ever upward to the highest point of our trip. There, at 913 metres, buffeted by a freezing easterly wind, we took in the unrivalled northerly views across Purau Bay, Lyttelton Harbour and the Port Hills to Christchurch. To the south, the long, white, sandy finger of Kaitorete Spit stretched away from Lake Forsyth.
Day two of the Akaroa Walk is a significant undertaking – especially if, like me, you’ve gone out of your way to avoid hill walking. Those twenty-two kilometres require fitness, endurance and a sense of humour. But, when you’re 914.4 metres up in the company of skylarks and copper butterflies, with views to die for, the physical niggles fade. As you go up and around Mt Fitzgerald (826m), across the saddle to Mt Sinclair (841m) and down through the Whatarangi Totara Reserve to catch the first glimpses of Akaroa Harbour, you get a sense of the determination and commitment it took to be a pioneer in this rugged country.
Pentrip Lodge on the “hilltop” was nonetheless a welcome relief. Its comfortable beds, hot spa pool and barbecued Akaroa salmon were the perfect antidote for weariness. It was all that kept me going on day three – eleven kilometres and seven hours of limping effort with a strapped foot and knee. “It’s not far now”, “We’re nearly there” and “This is the last little hill” are phrases I will never trust again. But every grizzling step was worth it. We ambled down through the lush valleys of French Farm to Wainui and then across the harbour to Akaroa, traversing the same gorgeous landscapes that had won over the Maori, the French and the English more than 150 years ago. Like the pioneers, I had cracked it.Leaving the Australian nurse to go straight on to the three-day Banks Peninsula Walk, the doctor’s wife and I sloped back to Christchurch, secure in the knowledge there would be no hills between us and the nearest espresso.
It was all mood and mist the day we walked along Bullock Creek Road in the Paparoa National Park, on the West Coast Trail.
It was an eerie sort of landscape that spoke of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures that might leap out from behind the foliage. Towering limestone bluffs rose out of the mist on either side of the road and river, and creatures – probably just a weka or two – rustled about in the dense bush.
It was wet, silent and beautiful – a lost world almost, filled with damp moss, earthy aromas and lanky tree ferns. It was a place of caves and deep, hidden potholes, and we were walking to the pretty track that led to the deeply incised gorge where the headwaters of Cave Creek emerge from an underground cave system. For those familiar with the 1995 Cave Creek disaster, when 14 people lost their lives after a viewing platform above the 40-metre chasm collapsed, it was both sobering and haunting.
Swirling mists and light drizzle only added to the atmosphere.
There were five of us – an Aucklander, an Australian, two from Christchurch and our guide – and we were midway on the West Coast Trail.
Devised by Christchurch’s Tuatara Tours, this four day walking adventure - the West Coast Trail covers some of the most beautiful, the most dramatic and the most popular walking trails from Castle Hill to Punakaiki.
Despite never having been a dedicated tramper – hardly a tramper at all, in fact – it was difficult not to be won over by the rugged, diverse landscapes we picked our way through. We covered everything from tussock land, alpine bush and rocky river valleys to native rainforest and sub-tropical bush. My new hiking boots,fresh out of the tissue paper, performed perfectly; not a blister in sight.
It was my lack of tramping experience that had convinced me this would be the perfect four-day outing. The fact our luggage would be carried and that we would have comfortable accommodation with all meals provided were important considerations. The fact we only had to carry a small day-pack and that we had a knowledgeable and experienced guide in Bryan O’Connell, who works as a psychiatric nurse in winter, clinched the deal. I felt I would be in safe hands, whatever the outcome, and given that my fear of heights would inevitably kick in at some point, I felt Guide Bryan was better equipped than most to handle my hysteria.
Day one of the West Coast Trail dawned fine and blue-skied, and our first steps took us towards the massive limestone outcrops of Castle Hill in the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area. Wedged between the mountains of the Torlesse Range to the east and the Craigieburn Range to the west, the massive Castle Hill tors have attracted rock climbers from around the world. Any rock climber worth his or her salt is familiar with this climbing mecca, which features 250 different climbs and more than 1000 bouldering opportunities. We were neither rock climbers nor boulderers, but, keen to start as we meant to carry on, we found a shady spot among the rocks, unfurled our picnic sandwiches and were happy to watch those who were.
Last-minute changes to our walking schedule – brought about by early lambing on nearby Flock Hill Station – meant our walk to the setting for the major battle between Asian forces and the powerful army of the White Witch in the blockbuster movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was cancelled. Instead, we set off for the nearby Lyndon Saddle and Helicopter Hill in the Craigieburn Forest Park. It seemed a challenge far more worthy of my expensive new boots than a location for a film I was unlikely to see.
We started at the sheltered picnic area just off the main highway. Little orange tents and clotheslines slung between the beech trees on the grassy terraces above Cave Stream hinted at the popularity of the saddle and the trails branching from it. As we wound our way up the forest track with afternoon sun filtering through the lichen-covered beech trees, I thought of goblins and elves to distract myself from “the little steep bit” Bryan had warned me about. I don’t remember much about that steep bit. Terror set in when I turned a corner in the track and came face-to-face with a stretch of subsiding track. We had come too far for me to consider turning back, so, gritting my teeth and digging my fingernails into our guide’s hand, I shuffled across a track so thin it should have been called a wire. I’m pleased I did, for it transported me into a feathery world of candy-floss lichen and carpeted moss – moss I was pleased to collapse into when the others made the final ascent along a steep ridge and open scree to Helicopter Hill. They thought I would be sorry to miss the staggering view across the Castle Hill Basin. I wasn’t; I was more than happy to let them tell me about it.
Day two of the West Coast Trail took us up the Bealey Track to the foot of Mt Rolleston at Arthurs Pass. Rain had set in, but, despite that, we followed a zigzag of boardwalks through dripping beech forest until we reached the river. From there, it was a scramble across slippery boulders and tree roots to the end of the track. Try as I might, I never quite mustered the enthusiasm I needed to go the last nine (steep) yards. I sat myself on a rock and, ignoring the rain, I took photos of the miniature alpine flowers that sprouted up between the rocks.
It wasn’t until later that afternoon when we hit the West Coast that I decided I’m more of a coastal forest person. Give me lush ferns, flourishing coastal broadleaf plants, towering nikau palms and flat tracks over tiny tight little flowers, slippery rocks and ridiculously high places any day. It’s here that the West Coast Trail truly delivers.
From the Punakaiki rocks loop track at Dolomite Point, with its mist enshrouded flax ‘forests’, gushing blowholes and wild, breathtaking coastline, to the moodiness of Bullock and Cave Creeks, the lushness of the Truman Track and, my favourite, the quiet unspoiled beauty of the Pororari River Track, it’s green in as many shades as you could ever wish to see. It’s the wild West Coast at its best.
Factor in cheeky birdlife – kea, weka and tame bush robins – an ongoing commentary on local history, good meals, hot showers and comfortable beds along the way, and these were four days well worth repeating – except for “the little steep bits”, of course. Those I can do without.