New Zealand's amazing hiking isn't just limited to 'The Great Walks', there are many private trails which are also spectacular. We had an amazing time on the Banks Peninsula Track and it was the perfect way to get a feel for Akaroa.
If you're spending some time in the Christchurch area you should definitely make a trip across to Akaroa. A beautiful coastal area on the South Island of New Zealand, the town has a distinctly French influence. Make sure you treat yourself to one of the delicious crepes! However, it's the countryside we really fell in love with and we think the best way to see it is on foot.
Length of the track - 2 or 3 days - When we walked the Banks Track earlier this year it was walked in either two or four days, however since then the track has removed the four day option. Instead you can now walk the track in three days. We actually think this would work really well as the four day version was VERY leisurely. Three days is probably perfect. If you don't have three days or it's too slow for you, you can cover the 29km in two days. We found the two days relatively challenging (it was at the end of our trip and we'd already done a lot of walking beforehand), but definitely very doable. The three day option would give you more time to soak up the area but if you're a really keen hiker it will probably still be too slow for you. Choose the three day if you're looking for a leisurely walk with lots of time to relax.
Number of walkers - 12 people start the three-day track each day and four start the two-day track. That means if your fellow walkers on the two-day hike book the private room option then you all actually end up with a private room. Win.
Training - None required for the longer version unless you are not used to walking at all. For the two day version, it's worth having done a few long day hikes in preparation. The start of the Banks Track is very steep as you make your way up to the Trig, but don't worry this is definitely the hardest part of the whole track, especially as you do it immediately after waking up!
Accommodation - One of the things that really attracted us to the Bank Track was the unique accommodation on offer. On day one we stayed in our own little star gazing hut which was an incredibly memorable experience, we could see the Milky Way from our beds. On day two, at Stony Bay, we stayed in a little cottage which was very old fashioned and incredibly atmospheric. There's also two outdoor baths and a hot shower to be shared amongst all walkers.
If you do the two-day option you do not stay at Flea Bay but we ate lunch there and the accommodation also looked really good. They were running tours to see the little blue penguins by night too.
Food - On day one you head to your accommodation at Onuku Farm hostel at 5 pm so we decided to eat in Akaroa beforehand and not bother cooking at the hostel, though there was a kitchen available. At Flea bay (where you sleep on the three-day hike or have lunch on the two-day version) there were eggs available and also chocolate and cold drinks. Stony Bay was amazingly well stocked with an honesty shop - I love that in New Zealand you can actually have an honesty shop! This has all sorts of food including pasta, eggs, vegetables, chocolate and even wine and steak!
Bring your camera - There's plenty of opportunities to get your camera out on this trail, including the chance to see seals and if you're staying at Flea Bay the little blue penguins too.
Cost - The three day version is $260 and the two day option is $195.
Car - The Banks Peninsula Track has a dedicated car park (at Mount Vernon Lodge) which is a short walk from town. The car park can be incredibly busy, so it's good to arrive early to ensure you don't have any last minute panics like we did..... In town a minibus that picks up opposite the BNZ will take you to the start of the trail.
We chose to do the two-day version, staying overnight at Onuku Farm hostel and Stony Bay before returning to Akaroa. Regardless of which version you choose, the track starts with an overnight stay in Onuku. From the town centre, you'll be picked up on a minibus and dropped at the accommodation, where you have a choice of staying in the lodge or in one of four-star gazing huts. Stargazing huts are first come, first served so if you're really keen then make a beeline. There are three in the garden and one just outside the garden gate.
The huts are amazing and have unparalleled night sky views with large windows on the roof. The downside is that the only thing between you and the freezing cold temperatures outside (even in the summer) is a small piece of wood, so you'll need to bring a thick sleeping bag and thermals. There are two mattresses on the floor and it really is quite cosy, or would have been if we hadn't underestimated the night time temperature!
Day 1, Section 1 - Onuku - Flea Bay
9.95km, 3.5 hours
After breakfast and a cuppa, we set out pretty early to take on the morning hike. Once we got out the gate we immediately saw the climb up to the Trig! You're not given much trail to warm up on, the steep climb starts immediately. We've heard that this is no longer the starting point and that it's a little easier now.
Our climb from Onuku was approximately 550m of elevation gained over 4 km and was pretty slow going. It took us approximately 1 hr 25 to get to the top, but it was well worth it. The view just got better and better as we were surrounded by the lush countryside on one side, and a panoramic view of Akaroa harbour on the other. As we climbed, more of the inlet reveals itself and it was a truly memorable view.
The Trig is the highest point on the trail and gives unparalleled 360 degree views of the harbour and out to the Pacific Ocean. It's worth giving yourself a bit of time to take in the view as it doesn't get any better than this!
After the Trig it's very easy to lose the track (we did!). Our advice is to keep left and go down what looks like quite a narrow trail. There are signs so if you haven't seen one for a while you've probably gone wrong.
From the Trig the trail is all downhill, cutting through farmland, onto a small road and then into a beautiful forest section. Here you'll see the quintessential New Zealand flora, with ferns and moss intertwined with the trees in the beautiful forest. You'll pass small streams and for a while you'll feel miles away from the outside world.
This section has the opportunity to take a few side trails to see a couple of waterfalls and regularly comes out to clearings offering great views out to Flea Bay and beyond.
After 10km (including distance where we got lost) and about 3.5 hours you'll be in Flea Bay and the accommodation for those opting for the three day hike. We arrived at midday, just the right time for a small rest and some lunch. We'd packed sandwiches and there were eggs and chocolate to supplement them with. It's an honesty system, bring small change.
It's hard to think of a better place to build a house: your own bay, huge amounts of space, turquoise blue water and the opportunity to see seals and (maybe) penguins. The accommodation is simple and charming with lots of character. Clean and comfortable beds, lots of space, a kitchen for guest use and a view to die for.
Sadly, we could only stay for lunch before heading on.
Day 1, Section 2: Flea Bay - Stony Bay
7.63km, 2.5 hours
Apple Watch Says
After lunch and a chat with our fellow walkers at Flea Bay we set out to find the track once more (it can be fiddly, but it's to the left of the beach and up a narrow path by the cliff. Before starting on the track we saw several seals laying on the beach nearby in the midday sun and more on the rocks above the water.
The trail starts going up hill again. Although not as steep as the climb to the Trig, it was a reminder that lunch was over and we were back on the track. This was the section of the day where we were reunited with our overnight packs, adding weight to the uphill section (we chose to have our packs transferred to Flea Bay rather than climb 500m with 15kg on our backs!).
The trail becomes even more picturesque (if that's possible) as you are now walking along the clifftops, round several coves, with sheer drops. You're surrounded by lush grass and crystal clear water and you are reminded that New Zealand is definitely a South Pacific Island. It's hard to overstate how beautiful this area is.
Although never completely flat, the incline on the section from Flea Bay to Stony Bay is a lot shallower than section one, allowing you to look up more and enjoy the view. Along the trail you weave through lush tropical foliage, past playful seals, and old sheep shearer outhouses that are no longer in use. Apart form one that is, the toilet, which has to be the most scenic view from a toilet possible (there's no door but then there's no people around so that was ok!). There's always something that gets your attention as the track varies and the views go on for miles.
This section is completely exposed, so it's best to be prepared to bear the brunt of the weather. We were fortunate to have beautiful sunshine and then a little cloud (meaning we just had to slap on some sun cream), however I can imagine it being less pleasant in windy or wet conditions. As with most of New Zealand, it's always good to be prepared for four seasons in a day.
The final section starts by rounding a corner to an incredibly picturesque bay. In the middle you see another lodging with a million dollar view over the water. Soon you descend down from the cliffs and through a small amount of forest to Stony Bay, where you'll stay for the night.
This was our favourite accommodation. To say the Stony Bay set up is unique would be a major understatement. The rooms are made up of a few separate buildings, they looked like old farmers cottages, all the fixtures and fittings were full of old world charm. In the middle of the property there are two outdoor baths with a fire underneath to heat the water as well as a shower with hot water! There's a small store which was incredibly well stocked with delicious produce. We were lucky to have a choice of fresh veg, wine, beer and even meat such as steak, chicken and sausages. It really was a sight for sore eyes and was administered by an honesty box system (another quirk of NZ walks that we love).
We were fortunate that the other two day walkers had booked a separate private room, so we ended up being the only people sleeping there. We settled in for the night just before it started to pour with rain. The rustic cottage had it's own kitchen and was very clean and cosy. There isn't a kitchen in the private room so our fellow two day walkers came and cooked with us which was really lovely and inspired an even longer list of NZ walks we just have to try out. A perfect night.
Day 2, Stony Bay - Akaroa
6.73km, 2 hours + 9.01km, 2.5 hours
Apple Watch Says:
When we walked the Banks Track, the final day was split with a stop at Otanerito Bay (this was an overnight stop for what used to be a four day hike). So the track notes and Apple watch shots were taken with this stop included. Sadly, since we did this hike the route has changed.
We woke up from a good night's sleep to an overcast and cool day (not unusual for a NZ summer's day!). We had a quick breakfast before stepping out to take on the final leg of the hike.
Once more, the trail headed uphill, going back up to the headlands and along the cliff top. Just like the end of the day before, we walked through a small but beautiful section of New Zealand woodland. We saw loads of seals just relaxing on the beach before heading out to sea again. They blended incredibly well into the pebbles but once our eyes adjusted we saw several.
The trail seemed to go a bit freestyle after heading up the headland, with a track marked in obscure places away from the coast and continued to wind uphill. Every turn brought a new and beautiful view, either out to the turquoise sea or to the rolling farmland. we often shared the track with the local sheep, experts at walking close to the cliff edge and an animal with no fear of heights! We'd also saw a lamb on a precarious edge, millimetres away from a sheer drop.
After hiking round a few bays (and a few inclines), we got a glimpse of Otanerito Bay in the distance and begin to hike downhill. Eventually the trees cleared as we reached the bay and the farmlands that lead to the final part of the track.
Otanerito Bay - Akaroa
The trail to Akaroa began to head uphill. Unlike the trail up to the Trig, this section wasnt particularly steep, but meandered upwards until the top.
By now our legs were feeling the 25 km walked and 1,000m climbed. From the bay we could see the peak and headed alongside the river into the forest once more. Step by step the forest changed, from the very dry, to a stunning area full of streams, ferns and moss. At one point there was a metal cup placed near a stream where we drank the stunning clean water.
Soon the forests cleared and we began to see just how high we climbed with a clearing and some viewpoints. Finally, we saw the peak before our descent (a sight for sore eyes!).
The views from here were beautiful looking out to the harbour. It may have only been 24 hours since we'd seen it, but it still took us back just how beautiful the Banks Peninsula is.
The final section descends quite steeply all the way back to town. After two days on the trail, we could feel the descent in our knees, but the end was near. We walked through the hills, winding our way down until we reached the road and were reunited with our car.
The Banks Peninsula Track is unforgettable. It certainly challenges you if you do this over two days, with some decent climbs throughout the hike. However, you're continually rewarded with stunning views and a variety of landscapes.
The accommodation has character and is the best equipped for any hike we've done. We'd highly recommend the trail as it's the best way to see one of the most picturesque parts of New Zealand.
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What is your favourite hike? If you've done the Banks Peninsula Track (or any other in NZ) let us know in the comments below!