Peninsula and Penguins

October 2020

You know you don’t always have to travel far from home to experience something new and feel like you have had a break.  I guess this is something many people are learning in the last 12 months or so (can you COVID has been with us for over a year!).

It seemed like ages (well at least a few weeks) since I had been away, so I booked a short overnight trip just over the hills in Banks Peninsula. It is just a 1.5 hour drive to Akaroa, the main town on the Peninsula, famed for its early French settlers, it is popular for day trips or long weekends from Christchurch. I arrived in time to wander around the town a little and visit the cute and very European feeling little Saturday morning market. The highlight of my short wander (besides a good coffee) was catching a beautiful bellbird in full song. It was singing its little heart out, puffing out its chest and bobbing up and down. I was so excited to see it and it was such a special moment as although they are not threatened you don’t see them in town very often.

I had booked an overnight trip with a local company called Pohatu Penguins, is a family-run business with a long standing history of protecting the penguins that nest in the area.  They offer evening trips to see the penguins as well as 24 and 48 hour trips. 

I had opted for a 24 hour trip that started with a short, guided tour as we drove out of Akaroa and further along the peninsula.  Now I have been to Akaroa many times but never further around the peninsula, so it was great to go a little further and learn a little more about the area. So off I set with my guide Sue who was oddly from Tasmania but had clearly done a lot of study about the region.

Banks Peninsula was formed by the activity of 3 volcanos, between 11 and 6 million years ago which led to the formation of overlapping volcanic cones.  When the volcanic activity stopped, the area was eroded, lower the height of the cones, and forming deep valleys that were flooded when the sea level rose about 6,000 years ago.  From this we get Akaroa (which means long harbour in Maori) and Lyttleton on the other side of the peninsula and the main harbour for the city of Christchurch.

When Captain Cook was mapping New Zealand during one of his voyages, he originally thought the Peninsula was an island, naming it Banks Island (after the naturalist and botanist on his voyage, Joseph Banks).  He is also responsible for calling the native manuka ‘tea tree’ because they would use the green leaves to make ‘tea’ – apparently it was also a remedy for sea sickness.

Having been cleared from the peninsular by early settlers who saw it as an invasive shrub, its regrowth is being encouraged for many reasons.  It assists with the regeneration of the eroded slopes, it creates shade and shelter which acts as a nursery for other native species and it grows taller than the introduced gorse (a true invasive shrub) depriving it of sunlight, so it eventually dies out.   It is also an important source of pollen and nectar for native bees (and other insects) and geckos.  Manuka honey is famous around the world.

As well as natural beauty, the peninsula has played some part in New Zealand’s history. Akaora is Canterbury’s oldest town, having been founded by French settlers in 1840, just after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with the British. They had been hoping to colonize the country, but the Treaty put an end to that. Coincidently, Ōnuku Bay, just around the corner from Akaroa, was the site of the first South Island signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

We had a quick stop at the top of one of the hills for a view of Akaora harbour and down to Ōnuku Bay.  It as incredibly windy and it felt like the gust could have blown me off the ridge, so I took a couple of quick photos before getting back to the shelter of the manuka.

Our next stop was at the headland of the peninsula and lighthouse (well not really a light ‘house’ anymore).  The first lighthouse was built in in 1880 and it was manned for almost 100 years before it was replaced by an automated light.  As an aside, the original lighthouse was given to the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society who moved it to a location in Akaroa – on a spot now known as Lighthouse Point.  The headlands are now form part of the Lighthouse Reserve and the foundations of the lighthouse keeper’s family homes still remain.  And don’t forget the views out onto the ocean.  If you look closely down on the rocks below you might me lucky enough to spot some of the local seals sunning themselves.

Sue then dropped me at a corner of the road called Mortlock’s Mistake – I hoped that would not become Elaine’s Mistake (lol) as it was here, I would start my walk down through Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve. It is one of the few remaining original tracks of native bush on Banks Peninsula as most was destroyed firstly by the Maori as they flushed out Moa, and then by Europeans who wanted to clear the remaining land for pasture. This small track of bush survived due to its position in a valley and the stream and waterfalls, keeping the bush damp.

The walk was so peaceful with just the sound of bird song and the stream running alongside of the track. Fantails, Tomtits and Bellbirds sang as I walked through the bush, some of which was over 400 years old!! The highlight of the walk was the waterfalls just off the side of the path. Some had swimming holes and although it was warm, I was not up for a swim. I did sit for some time by the last and in my opinion of the best of the waterfalls in as the watching the sun dance on the spray (and it helped that the spray cooled the air too).

The last part of track opened out into farmland where the cutest Teddy Bear faced lambs were grazing with their mothers.  They were truly just the cutest wee things.

The track took me down in to Flea Bay (also known as Pōhatu), one of the many small bays on the Peninsula.  Many of the bays you can only reach by boat, though this one had a 4WD accessible track (which I would use later).  Within the bay were a couple of buildings for overnight walkers (like me) and a family farm (some of which I had walked through early).

I had time to have a stroll around the house where I was staying and get to know the lovely local ram (male sheep) – I found out later he is a Valais Black Nose (I Swiss breed) called Bobby.    There was also time for a nap (which is always a plus) and cook my dinner (2 minutes noodles count as cooking right lol).

Sue, my guide, had told me to walk around to the next bay for 6pm (just a short walk) where I would meet her and the other people booked on the evening penguin tour, so I did just that. Unfortunately, there was no sign (except one saying private property) but lots of nesting boxes around so assumed I was in the right place!

There was no phone reception so no way to check -so I just sat by the road knowing I would see the vehicle coming … luckily it was a beautiful evening and view out to sea was not too shabby either.  Finally, at 6.20 they rock up as it appears the meeting time was not till 6.30!

Now, I lured you in with Penguins and bored you with geology and history – Penguin time is finally here!! The penguins that nest here are White Flippered Penguins, Canterbury’s own variant of Little Blue Penguins. The Helps family who own the land here have spent over 30 years protecting the colony that nest on their land and ensure only guided groups go near the nest boxes, so they are not disturbed. (If you are in New Zealand and caught Seven Sharp on February 5th, you would have seen an article about the family and the work they do.)

Some actually consider the White Flippered Penguin its own species rather than a subspecies of the Little Blue Penguin.  On top of the physical differences (not surprisingly these little guys have a white edge to their flippers as well as being a lighter steely blue) there is also some differences in their physiology e.g. the White Flippers tend to lay 2 eggs once per year, whilst the Little Blue lay twice a year. 

After getting dressed up in our camouflage coats (I kid you not) we set off on a short walk around the colony whilst the guide checked a couple of the boxes.  The box checking is part of the ongoing monitoring that they do to check on eggs and chicks.  Interestingly, despite this being a wild population, they do step in and take out under nourished chicks and take them to a rehab facility where they are hand raised to adulthood, ensuring the survival of the population.  (I have recently read that other colonies are losing a large number of chicks due to starvation this season, so this is an important part of the conversation programme.)

The guide had a list of specific boxes she needed to check (just a few boxes are checked each day) and the ones we checked each had a bird sitting on either an egg or a chick (we caught brief glimpses of them) and the parents themselves did not seem disturbed by our brief presence as most return year after year to the same burrow and are therefore used to being checked on.

We then walked further around the bay to viewpoint over the ocean from where we studied the sea looking for the penguins coming in for the night.  They normal come in in groups, called rafts, so are definitely easier to spot than individual penguins.  We saw a couple of small rafts but sadly we didn’t see any coming on to the beach.

The downside of doing it this way is that the guide could not stay late as she had to drive the others back to town but of course as I was staying onsite, I sat overlooking the beach until it got too dark to see anything even if they did come up 🥴!

Unfortunately, the guide could not tell me what time the penguins went out in the morning and I don’t think my 6.20 alarm was early enough as it was almost light (I have still it got set to daylight saving timing and with no internet could not check sunrise time). Regardless, I headed down to the beach and enjoyed the calm (ignoring the squawking of the Canadian geese and the screeching of the oyster catchers, annoyed by being woken by the Canadian geese squawking lol) and Plovers stretching their wings with a circuit around the bay.

There was no real sunrise from here either as we are in a bay and the headlands block the view oh, and it was cloudy – boy it really sounds like I am complaining 😂 sorry about that – it was definitely still beautiful and lovely to be out of the city.

I patted my handsome sheep friend before heading back for another short nap 😂 well I am kind of on holiday right 🤔 and as the wind had picked up (as forecast), my morning sea kayak had been cancelled.  And so, I just relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet before by pick up to take me back to Akaroa and my car for my drive home.

This trip may not be for everyone – thankfully I enjoy my own company and spending time in nature so I really enjoyed it, but I would highly recommend the Penguin tour and contributing to their conservation efforts.

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