The Banks Track

They say that women forget the pain of labour and so that is why they go back and have more children. I think the same applies about Labour weekend. For the last however many years I can remember, we have been subjecting ourselves to all kinds of adventures and in the process getting blisters, gammy knees and even the odd helicopter ride out when the going got really tough, and yet we still end up booking another trip again the following year…

However as I keep reminding the children, by doing this we have seen so many amazing places that most people will just never be bothered to experience.

The Banks Track is absolutely one of those amazing places.

I remember overhearing someone in a backpackers on Stewart Island saying “The thing about tramping is that it is heaps of fun planning the trip, and awesome looking back on it, but at the time its just bloody hard work”. (by the way for those non-kiwi’s reading “tramping” means “hiking” NOT hanging out with homeless people…)

These wise words were going through my head as I trudged my way up the hill, Pack on my back, with a ukulele strapped to it, and a bag of groceries in each hand. I was pretty pleased that the first leg of our journey was just 10 minutes long!

A fabulous hut appeared on the hill above Onuku marae and when we entered we found an amazing view out across Akaroa harbour with the sun slowly setting behind the hills in the distance.

We cooked up a huge dinner and drank far too much wine. The kids disappeared in to the bush and found a ‘stargazer’ to sleep in, which is like a wooden tent with a glass roof to watch the stars.

Facebook had kindly advised me that there was a good chance of a meteor shower overnight, and with clear skies I got up about 4am and sat on the deck in the black stillness and admired a sky full of a million stars, I saw two meteors and a satellite, and made some wishes before retreating back to my snuggly sleeping bag. My head barely touched the pillow while I dozed listening to the incredible dawn chorus of native birdsong.

IMG_2588The happy hikers

I was regretting drinking at least the last two glasses of wine the night before, but it was a stunning day as I slogged my hangover up the steep hill. Day one is just 11km, with a 500m climb, and 700m descent. We were greeted by bleating white goats and their kids and a stroppy looking billy goat with some very large horns as we all trotted up the hill. The horizon appeared to be abnormally high and the ship sailing past beyond the hills almost appeared to be flying through the sky.

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It’s worth doing the side trip to Look Out Rock. Leave your packs by the main track and then walk out to the headland for beautiful views back towards Akaroa and all the way out to the heads.

I had fooled myself in to thinking this was going to be easy compared to the Humpridge Track we had done the year before which was about a 1000m climb over 22km on the first day. But it was still hard work. After a couple of hours we reached Trig GG – the highest point on the track.  The views were absolutely spectacular and there was not a breath of wind.

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From there we dropped down the other side of the Peninsula, along a shingle road for a time before dipping back in to the forest. The track followed a babbling stream which grew larger and swifter as we descended down the valley. I heard the sounds of children laughing in the distance and when I arrived I found Seth sliding down a waterfall into a pool below. The water was absolutely freezing, but at least it was a sunny day and he was wearing quick drying clothes.

We continued down the path, stopping to view more beautiful waterfalls, nikau palms and then rolling emerald green farm pasture with fluffy fat white lambs skipping through the grass. I was beginning to feel a little weary when an oasis appeared in the form of the Flea Bay farm cottage, with a little picket fence. The sun was out and Andrew was waiting with a cold beer held out for me. I rubbed my eyes fearing that I was dreaming – but oh joy – it was all real!

One of the great things about this track is all little treats you get along the way. On this occasion it was a little honesty shop selling chocolate bars, freshly laid eggs and cold drinks. Ahh bliss – especially when it means you don’t have to carry your drinks in with you. We relaxed in the sun playing our ukuleles and drinking lots of delicious cold beverages while the kids built a dam in the stream.

The cottage was built in 1860, and replaced the original even older sod cottage on the same site overlooking beautiful Flea Bay. The bay is a marine reserve and designed to protect the lovely little blue penguins that love to come here and breed. We headed along the track to the homestead to meet Francis the farmer who has owned this little patch of paradise for over 50 years. He has done a huge amount to preserve and enhance the area over the years including fencing off the valleys and unproductive land from the stock so that the native bush can regenerate, and campaigning to get the bay recognised as a marine reserve. Dotted all over the farm are little penguin houses that they use as nesting boxes, and you can find their tracks all over the farm heading up in to the bush hundreds of metres away from the sea. Francis donned us in camo gear and took us to see some penguins in their little boxes and then watch their mates as the sun set and they came ashore.

I was determined to have a slightly earlier night and a slightly less sore head the following day, and thankfully succeeded. We had a big cook-up of delicious fresh eggs before stuffing all our gear in to our packs and heading back to the homestead.

We were lucky to have another stunning day and we went on a sea kayaking tour to get the opportunity to explore the bay on the water. We set off paddling along the shoreline watching the smelly seals sunbathing on the rocks, and spotting the little penguins sheltering in the cracks. Occasionally a seal would slide in to the water and impress us with some synchronised swimming skills. We paddled out to a huge cave and then back across and down the other side of the bay full of baby seals with huge eyes and whiskers peering back at us. Fantastic.

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Then we were off walking to the next stop. This leg was just 8km long, but with plenty of small ups and downs to keep the heart rate pumping and wishing I’d done more training. We climbed up and then sidled around the clifftops overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dramatic red iron oxide coloured cliffs plunged down in to the teal blue surging ocean far below. The native bush turned in to rolling pasture farmland and also a very secure predator proof fence to protect a nesting colony of native sooty shearwater birds. Another fantastic example of farmers going out of their way to protect and enhance the natural environments around their land.

Dropping down in to Seal Cove and retreating from the breeze in a cool shelter built in to the rock. A perfect place to eat our lunch. A little side trip took you down to the cove where fat shiny smelly seals were resting on the rocks. We rejoined the track and commenced a steep climb zig zagging back up the hill and across the paddocks – admiring Pompeys Pillar far in the distance, and then dropping down through the bush and in to Stoney Bay.

I wandered up the last 100m of the track alongside the creek, and then across a little bridge in to the most incredible place. It reminded me of Hobbiton, a collection of little cottages surrounding a lawn with a fire pit. There were two outdoor baths – heated by lighting a fire underneath. The shower was built in to a tree trunk, and there was a pool table with paint tins for pockets. A little museum housed a collection of all sorts of interesting information about the farm, shipwrecks and a taste of what life must have been like when using a petrol powered iron!

The kids wasted no time getting the bath filled and the fire alight, playing badminton while the water heated up. Andrew raided the very well stocked shop which was like a foray in to the masterchef pantry, selecting a lovely bottle of champagne, some steaks and asparagus, while I relaxed under the hot tree – shower.

As the sun went down we lit the candles and the fire pit and sat around playing our ukuleles and toasting the huge bag of marshmallows I’d been lugging around for the last couple of days and enjoying our gorgeous surroundings.

The third day arrived slightly overcast and after a quick breakfast we headed for home. This track used to be over four days, but the final farmer decided they didn’t want to do it any more, so a new track has been cut from Stoney Bay and up the valley through Hinewai Reserve. The track climbed gradually up the valley, through regenerating natural bush and eventually in to a beech forest where the track got really steep. Picking our way through the tree roots, up, up, up we climbed, eventually coming out in to the tussocks and views through the clouds back down the valley to Stoney Bay showing us how far we had come.

A little further on we crossed the ridge and Akaroa harbour emerged with the village looking like a lego town far below. The now rocky track wove its way back down the hill, requiring attention on each step – a difficult thing to do when the views are so spectacular.

Just as our knees were really starting to ache another oasis appeared on the horizon in the form of my Dad’s house. He had bought cold beers and had sausages on the BBQ ready for the weary trampers. We rested our tired bodies and sore feet and reflected on a wonderful weekend.

Definitely one of the best walks I have ever done. With just a maximum of 12 people on the three day walk, meant we pretty much had the entire track to ourselves the whole time. No crowds, great scenery, fabulous accommodation, and all sorts of interesting activities along the way. Covering 29km over three days it was perfect for the kids (aged 12, 13 & 14) and allowed us all time to relax along the way.

You can book your trip on the Banks Track here.

Top tips

  • Bring cash for the little honesty shops and sea kayaking ($25 per person).
  • You can get snacks & drinks (including beer and wine) on night 2 & night 3.
  • Night 3 also sells heaps of other great fresh food including cheese, milk, cereals, veggies, meat and other bits & bobs.
  • You can do a two day or a three day option. We did the three day – which also allowed you plenty of time to stop and relax each afternoon and do the penguin tour and sea kayaking too.
  • There is no phone coverage for most of the track.
  • No power in Stoney Bay cottages – so charge your cameras up before you leave Flea Bay.
  • Pack cartage is available.

Our other Labour Weekend adventures include:

Here is Seth’s video of day 1 of the track – including him sliding down a waterfall!

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