Banks Track: Is this New Zealand’s best-kept walking secret?

What is that smell? That’d be the penguins. There’s one nesting under the toilet block, another under the hut, and several dozen have their private homes – complete with their names painted above the door – up the valley above the farmhouse.

At Flea Bay/Pōhatu, on the Banks Peninsula, you’ll find the largest little penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. And you’re most welcome to visit – if you fancy the 11km walk to get here.

I’m here on night two of the three-night Banks Track, a stunning walk across the Banks Peninsula which begins and ends in the harbour town of Akaroa.

At 30 years old, this is New Zealand’s oldest private track. In the 1980s, nine local families banded together to cut tracks, built huts and opened to 296 walkers in the season of 1989. These days, five families are involved, all committed conservationists as well as farmers, artists and gardeners, from across New Zealand and the world.

Across three days and three nights, everywhere you look there are thoughtful little details, the kind of details that turn a three-day tramp into something truly magical.

There are fresh-cut lupins arranged outside the huts and long drops with views overlooking the ocean. There is a shower built into the side of a tree, and a trampers’ shelter built into the side of a huge slab of rock. There’s a tiny backcountry store stocked with boutique local cheese and salami and fresh vegetables, all for sale on a cash honesty system. And although the beaches look tempting, I wouldn’t walk them – those wet-looking rocks are almost certainly fur seals, visiting from the colony around the bay.

Getting started

The Banks Track begins just outside of Akaroa. Walkers are collected in the early evening from the old Akaroa Post Office and driven to the first hut, Ōnuku, 200m above Akaroa. The hut is surrounded by cabbage trees and well-kept lawns, with views down to the harbour. It’s a perfect spot for your first dinner, and to meet your fellow trampers.

Arriving close to dusk, birdsong fills the air. Outside our room, a bellbird/korimako stuck his head deep inside the harakeke flowers, with just an occasional glance at us to be sure we were keeping our distance.

Ōnuku sets the scene for how well looked after Banks Track trampers are. The walk is self-catering, and kitchens offer a range of gas hobs, electric ovens and barbecues, as well as tea, coffee and milk. At Ōnuku, there are bunk rooms and loft spaces, private rooms with soft linens, feather pillows and clean towels, and even “star-gazers” to sleep in – small wooden tent-shaped cabins, with no room to stand, but perspex roofs that allow you to see the stars from bed. There is a piano in the corner, and picnic tables in the garden.

In the morning, trampers cook eggs and bacon, and drink tea as the sun rises. Enjoy it while it lasts – things are about to get tougher.

Day one: Ōnuku to Flea Bay

Leaving Ōnuku, the climb begins – happily, one that is rewarded each time you stop to catch your breath and look back at Akaroa. Today we climb up and out of the extinct volcano that formed when Banks Peninsula was erupting around 8 million years ago. From the top, at 699m, Aoraki/Mt Cook can be seen in the distance, some 230km away. Climb over the volcanic rim, and leave civilisation – and mobile phone coverage – behind. For the next 48 hours, it’s just you and the views.

From this point, the day gets easier, sloping down over the ancient volcanoes outer slope and into beech forests and past waterfalls, alongside streams with the cool air that refreshes us just enough to get us to the second night’s accommodation – Flea Bay.

Flea Bay is home to one of the oldest farms in New Zealand. In the 1880s, this isolated spot – which had no roads or electricity until the 1950s – supported a school, a dairy and three families. Today the Helps family produce wool and meat here, and also oversee Pōhatu Penguins, offering evening tours of this important little penguin colony. Banks Track walkers are all invited to take part for free.

And so after an early dinner and shared fruit cake, our band of trampers – three separate groups of friends, totalling 11 people – dons camo jackets and follows farmer Francis Helps on his walk to monitor the penguins’ nesting sites. He gently lifts the lids of their nesting boxes to reveal the penguin chicks inside – almost fully fattened and ready for the sea. He shows us one who hasn’t quite got the message yet – his parents, having fed him for months, have now left him to fend for himself. But he’s still waiting for them each day, not quite ready to try swimming and fishing. He’ll work it out as soon as he gets hungry enough.

As night falls, we huddle into hides with binoculars and low voices and observe the penguins socialising out at sea, banding into rafts before returning home. This is a natural viewing experience – no lights, no disturbing the penguins in any way – so before they do, we sneak off back to our huts to let the penguin parents come to shore for the night.

Day two: Flea Bay to Stony Bay

In the morning, we put the tea on immediately to beat the chill and scoff overnight oats in time to make the 8.30am kayaking excursion. This optional side trip takes you on to the water, out of the bay to 20 to 30m, to see the seals playing (and fighting), learn about the Pōhatu marine reserve and the geological history of the Banks Peninsula.

After kayaking, we discover that the day’s track is gentle and winding, following the edge of cliff-top farmland, in and around the bays and points of the east side of the peninsula. The views are incredible – sweeping blue skies, hay-coloured Canterbury hills, and nothing between you and Chile, 10,000km away. The cliffs are startlingly high, and signs along the way warn, “Take extra care in windy weather”. Despite the perfectly still day, we stick strictly to the path.

This day takes us past more wildlife encounters – from Seal Cave, where we find seals twisting and curling in the swells of the ocean, to the only tītī/muttonbird colony on Canterbury’s mainland, kept safe behind a predator-proof fence. From here it is all gently downhill, away from the cliffs and into a cool kānuka grove, that opens out into the most charming accommodation of all – Stony Bay.

Stony Bay is a collection of huts, scattered around an orchard garden. It’s like a little forest village – complete with a tiny museum, private outdoor baths, and a hand-made pool table made from upcycled wood, with paint tins for pockets. There is also a tiny but well-stocked store with all the treats and staples you need, from tins of baked beans to rib-eye steak.

Here, there is not only no mobile phone reception; there is also no electricity. Each room has candles and matches, and there is a barbecue and gas cookers. In my room, I found fresh-cut wild flowers, mismatched antique crockery, and old-fashioned candle holders to light my way after dark. We spend the evening reading by candlelight, then gather around the fire pit to drink herbal tea, whisky and watch the stars.

Day three: From Stony Bay, through Hinewai, to Akaroa

Breaking the webs in the morning trails, day three begins in the cool glades of farmland and low-lying forest. It is a gentle rise that lasts just long enough to think, ‘Was that it?’. No, that was not it.

Today is steep. It’s all up to the ridgeline, and then all down to Akaroa, so get your walking sticks and kneecaps ready. But the rewards are great, with views from the top of both the east and west sides of the peninsula, and along the way, Hinewai.

Hinewai Reserve is an eco-restoration project, a 1250-hectare section of land that is being returned to its natural state. Slowly, native trees are coming back, and although large swathes are still gorse-covered, the gorse serves to protect young natives, before eventually becoming smothered by them.

But still the climb continues. Stop and catch your breath in the shade. Drink. When you hit the elegant red beech forest, you’ve broken the back of it. Just about.

In the shade of this forest, we sit and devour our sandwiches and apples, and nothing ever tasted so delicious. And then it’s up again. One foot in front of the other, along one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and rewarding walks.

Cost

The Banks Track 3-night walk is $330 per person, including pack cartage. Chilly bins can be carted for $50, and private rooms are available for $225.

Getting there

The Banks Track begins in the evening of your first day. We flew from Auckland to Christchurch, drove to Akaroa, and had plenty of time to do our food shopping in time for the 5pm pick up.

Fitness

There are good uphill sections on days 1 and 3. All tracks are clearly marked and none are technical.

What to pack

Buy your supplies right next to the pick-up spot. The Four Square offers local Barry’s Bay cheeses and basic groceries. Across the road, the butcher sells charcuterie and locally hot-smoked salmon. For an extra $50, you can have a chilly bin carted for you – well worth it for cold beers and wine at the end of the day.

Pick up a book at the Coronation Library, built in 1875, which was Akaroa’s first library and is now a second-hand book store. Some of the library’s original books are on display.

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com




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