Saturday, 1 October 2011

Banks Peninsula Revisited

After getting stranded on Banks Peninsula because of snow, sleet and ice the last time we visited, we've been wanting to go back to see it in better weather.  We got the opportunity last weekend when Paul's university colleague Brent invited us to their house in Robinson's Bay (where we'd stayed one night last time.)  Brent, his wife Suky, and son Hugh were fine hosts for an enjoyable Saturday night dinner on the peninsula, and we talked until midnight.  On Sunday morning we accompanied Brent and their dog Ellie for a walk around their hillside property.  Brent showed us a native stinging nettle that has especially large and irritating spines on the stems, the leaf edges and the leaf veins.  At noon Brent gave us a lift into Akaroa town.

We were met by a van from Pohatu Penguins, a combination tour business and penguin conservation effort run by Shireen and Francis Helps.  We opted for the Pohatu Package tour, which involved a 4WD van tour around the south end of the peninsula, hiking, exploring the penguin colony, and staying overnight in one of their farm cottages.  It turned out we were the only ones out there that day, so we ended up with a private tour.  The van driver was Shireen's niece, and she showed us several sights on the peninsula, including a high point on the former volcanic rim, a lighthouse and sea arch, and a hidden log with several weta (brownish native crickets that are being studied because of declining numbers).  She then dropped us off on a section of the Banks Peninsula track, and we hiked down along a stream on a two-hour hike to the Helps farm on narrow Flea Bay.  The hike actually took two hours and 45 minutes for us, as it had rained recently and the track was quite slippery in places, but it was a beautiful walk, with lots of foliage, waterfalls, and nice views of the coast.  We made it down to a little cabin on the farm that was our overnight residence, and at 6:00 PM we knocked on their farmhouse door.  We were first greeted by four bottle lambs, and then joined Shireen for an evening tour of their work with the penguins.

The Flea Bay area has been declared a marine reserve, which helps protect the penguins by restricting fishing and activities (such as netting and jet skis), that could harm the penguins.  There are two kinds of penguins here - blue (technically, white-flippered, a NZ subspecies of blue) penguins, which are quite small (about 9 inches tall, and 2 pounds in weight), and yellow-eyed penguins, which are larger and more rare.  The Helps have built many nest boxes for the blue penguins to encourage breeding, and now have counted over a thousand nesting pairs.  They have also built blinds so that visitors can see groups of penguins "rafting" into the bay before they emerge from the water, and can see the penguins coming up on land.  We saw several blue penguins up close as Shireen inspected the nests, saw a large group of about thirty blue penguins rafting in the water, and saw a group of six blue penguins come up the shore.  We also saw two different yellow-eyed penguins walking up the rocks.  It's amazing how these awkward looking birds can climb up over steep shoreline terrain to get up to their nests. 

The next morning we were hoping to kayak, but the wind was strong and there were large waves on the beach, so Shireen didn't want us to go out.  We explored the beach (spotting a few more blue penguins sheltering in a rock cave) before heading to Akaroa at noon, and wandered around town for a few hours before catching the bus back to Christchurch.

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