Following a gloriously dry and warm spring, during which a near-drought situation arose in Christchurch, the summer has rather failed to start. What should be one of the best months of the year has fizzled out amongst rain, wind, and extreme jumps in temperature, meaning that my hope for a summer full of hiking is rather failing to fulfill itself. With the nearby Alps either clouded over or too windy on a regular basis, I decided to look closer to home to give me my fix. Within the boundaries of Christchurch, in the suburb of Heathcote is the gondola that takes people from the city side of the Port Hills up to a viewing platform on the summit of Mount Cavendish. From here there is a stunning view both back over the city nestled against Pegasus Bay, and also down into Lyttelton Harbour within Banks Peninsula.
In Heathcote, right next to the gondola, is the bridle path, a historical route where European settlers used to trudge over the hill from Lyttelton to Christchurch. It is a popular path, mainly with walkers, but it is also a shared mountain bike track too. I’m yet to see a single biker stay on their bike the whole way up. The path is steep and covered in loose stones, and no matter the weather, it is impossible to walk this route without breaking a sweat. It is definitely not a walk to be considered without a water supply.
Following the major earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, there has been a lot of rockfall in the area, and the once distinctive Castle Rock to the right of the path has lost a large part of its structure. Previously another walk branched off the bridle path near the bottom, but nearly 5 years on, this walk remains closed, deemed as too unsafe. Even the bridle path itself has a section in the lower portion with a no-stopping sign due to rockfall risks. Frankly, I think any path around mountains, cliffs or rocks carries some inherent risk, and therefore I don’t see why these paths need any more warning or concern than any other walk, but that is just my opinion.
The steep climb starts reasonably early on and maintains itself up a winding path that snakes high above the entrance to the Lyttelton tunnel, until eventually it reaches summit road, off to the side and below the top of the gondola. Looking north, the expanse of Pegasus Bay becomes visible and the city of Christchurch sits by its side. If the sky is clear enough, the Southern Alps span the horizon. Cross the road, and below lies Lyttelton harbour, the mountainous terrain of Banks Peninsula behind it. From here, there are plenty of walks to choose from. The most popular is to follow the Mount Cavendish bluffs track, part of the crater rim track, which rock-hops its way up to the gondola building. Behind here, other paths continue onwards, or there is a cafe, shop, and viewing platforms within the gondola building to take a break and soak up the view. Back at summit road, the crater rim also heads off away from the gondola as part of a very long day walk round what was originally a volcanic crater, and there are two paths down the hill to Lyttelton, one of which is the continuation of the bridle path.
On this particular occasion, I was on a mission. I headed over the brow and followed the bridle path down a similarly steep path to the port town. This side is littered with patches of old rockfall, a testament to the power of nature. Whereas on the way up, the view is mainly behind or to the side, on the way down, it is right in front of you the whole way. On a sunny day, the water is a beautiful blue colour, and dependent on the tides, there is a large mud flat beyond Quail Island that is exposed in the depth of the harbour at low tide. The whole way down, I could see my objective: the port.
When the path meets suburban back street, you are still quite high up, and it is a steep walk down the pavement until eventually a flight of steps takes you down to the main road right by the roundabout where the Lyttelton tunnel exits. I headed straight to the port and joined the queue. On this particular day, there was a once-in-a-lifetime experience of an open day on the HMS Protector, an Antarctic ice-breaking patrol vessel that was in port for repairs. It proved very popular with long queues, but I had made it in plenty of time and thankfully didn’t have to wait long. Going to Antarctica constantly feels just out of my reach. I don’t have a relevant profession to work there, and now with chronic back problems for the past 2 years, I would fail the stringent medical even if I did. Going as a tourist remains financially unreachable at this stage of my life, so I have resolved myself to be an utter groupie. Without knowing it at the time, I moved to New Zealand and happened to settle in the city which is New Zealand’s gateway to the continent, and as such, I have had the pleasure of attending enough Antarctica-themed events to keep me satiated… almost.
After chatting with some of the crew and wandering round the ship, I headed back to town in search of brunch. Lyttelton varies between bustling little port town and sleepy suburbia depending on what is going on at the time. It suffered a lot of damage in the earthquakes, and the port itself is currently undergoing a major upgrade. This used to be where the visiting cruise ships would dock, but now they skip by and pull in at Akaroa round the coast. But it is still a busy port, especially for the export of logs to China. For people, it is also where boats cross the harbour to Diamond Harbour (from where Mount Herbert can be reached), Quail Island and out to the mouth of the harbour on a nature cruise.
Full of delicious food and coffee, I retraced my steps to the bridle path and worked my way back up the hill and over the other side. The signs at each end list 45mins to summit road, or 1hr 30mins from end to end, but even taking my time and stopping for photos, I was just over an hour each way. With the weather continuing to be grey day after day, it was nice to reacquaint myself with a local gem.