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Mount Herbert via Packhorse Hut

Once upon a time, two large volcanoes stood side by side on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As they eroded, the craters formed two large harbours which today are known as Lyttelton harbour and Akaroa harbour. The volcanic remains have become the mountainous playground of Banks Peninsula, a stark contrast to the flatness of the Canterbury Plains which sit immediately to the west. Christchurch, the south island’s largest city, nestles just the other side of the Port Hills, making the peninsula a perfect spot for getaways from the city.

Standing proudly behind Diamond Harbour, Banks Peninsula’s tallest peak, Mount Herbert is a great choice for hiking. With a choice of four main routes up, I am slowly but surely working my way through the route options. I first summited Mt Herbert via Orton Bradley Park, a track that requires private transport to get to the starting point, and since then, I took the most popular route up from Diamond Harbour which can be reached by public transport from Christchurch. I later found out about another route up from Kaituna Valley and this again requires your own transport to reach the starting point. Unlike the other two routes which start from the northern aspect, this third route starts from the south.

From Christchurch city centre it is a 45min drive curving round the side of the Port Hills on the Akaroa road before cutting up the Kaituna Valley road past open farmland, eventually arriving at Parkinson’s Road. It was a hot sunny February day when I pulled up around 11am and there was barely any space left to park. I had planned on setting off earlier to beat the heat, but as often happens on a Sunday, I’d enjoyed a bit of a lie in before eventually getting out of bed. So as I stepped out my car, the dashboard thermometer was already reading 26oC. It was going to be a scorcher.

The track I was kicking off on was to take me to one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) huts called the Packhorse Hut. Even this hut itself has a few options to reach there, and being within easy reach of Christchurch, it is a popular destination for people to go for a night. As such, it requires to be booked. The DOC sign stated a 2hr walk to reach the hut, and the track starts off across private farming land. Stiles are provided to cross the fences meaning gates don’t need to be touched, and at the time I was hiking, stock was everywhere. It is important not to worry stock when passing over private land, but sheep being sheep, they often make it very hard to get past them without them getting spooked.

 

There is quite a long and relatively gentle meander across the farmland before finally the wide track zig-zags across a stream and starts climbing. And once the climb starts, it just keeps on going. The summer just passed did not offer much opportunity to get up into the mountains unlike the summer before, so despite hiking the Queen Charlotte Track just 2.5 months prior, I was out of shape once more. The gradient of this hike should have been well within my capabilities but instead I found myself huffing and puffing in the heat and needing to stop often. Once the trees parted though, the view opened up more and more and looking behind me the Pacific Ocean was glinting in the sunlight through a gap in the hillside, and in front of me lay the distinctive peak of Mt Bradley. Now I started to enjoy the hike.

 

There was plenty of other people on the track heading both up and down, although most people had been sensible enough to head off hours before me, so most of the people I saw were on their way back from the hut. When I reached the Packhorse Hut there were several people milling about inside and out, and others still could be seen on the track up from Gebbies Pass to the north. Directly in front was the Port Hills across the harbour, behind which lies Christchurch, and just peaking into view was the head of Lyttelton Harbour.

 

Built of local volcanic stone in 1914, the Packhorse Hut is one of four stone huts built as a resthouse for a proposed walking route between Christchurch and Akaroa. The brainchild of Harry Ell, a city councillor and member of parliament in the early 1900s, he was well known for his interests in recreation and conservation, and played a role in the creation of many of the reserves that now exist on the Port Hills. Whilst only three of his resthouses came to pass in his lifetime, a fourth followed after his death and all of them still stand to this day. The Sign of the Kiwi at the top of Dyers Pass road is a cafe, having recently reopened following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010/2011. The Sign of the Takahe lower down Dyers Pass road is a restaurant, although it still remains closed for repairs following the earthquakes. The Sign of the Bellbird off Summit road started life as a tearoom but now is really just a shelter. It is a great picnic spot, although unfortunately after someone set fire to the roof in 2015, it is now completely open to the elements. And the Sign of the Packhorse is what is now the DOC run Packhorse Hut.

 

After taking a quick look inside before stopping for a snack, I still had some way to go to reach Mt Herbert. It was by now about 1pm, the sun was high and the DOC sign related a 3hr hike to Mt Herbert summit. This was longer than I’d anticipated but at least there were still many hours of daylight ahead. From the hut, the track follows the Summit Walkway which has recently been renamed with its Maori name to Te Ara Pataka. The track followed the curve of the land towards a small section within the bush which was some welcome respite from the sun, but before long it was back out in the elements and the zig-zags began. About 210m (689ft) altitude gain is achieved through a series of zig-zags up the slope of Mt Bradley. Here I met a group of people coming back from the summit who seemed surprised to see me and enquired about how well equipped I was and how much water I had. It put a hint of doubt in my mind that somehow this hike was more than I thought it would be.

 

Finally though, I was on the relative flat below the bluff of Mt Bradley’s summit. The view from the track up had been impressive enough, but from this higher altitude it was stunning. Although it undulated, it stayed roughly around 720-730m (2362-2395ft) with lots of bush on either side although nothing above to shade from the sun. I was now on the lookout for a nice lunch spot but there was nowhere to stop and sit. Both ahead and behind me the track was empty of people. Most of the people at the hut turned back there, so this section of the walk was devoid of people compared to the lower section. After some time of hugging the mountainside, the track dipped slightly and went into a copse. The shade was welcome so I found a large rock to sit on to have my lunch.

 

I was in a total reverie munching away when a loud and angry yell made me jump. Somebody unseen had yelled an obscenity so loudly that I had a momentary fear about who was approaching. As the unseen man grew nearer I heard more anger, albeit at a lower volume and then round a corner in the path came a man in his 20s. He asked how far the summit was and although I wasn’t sure exactly, I surmised that it was probably 60-90mins away based on the DOC sign and how long I’d been walking for. He swore again, complained about the track dropping altitude when it was supposed to be going up and stomped off, leaving me in peace once more. As he must have also come from the Packhorse Hut, regardless of which route he took to get there, he will have passed at least one sign with a distance marker to the summit, so I couldn’t understand why he was so annoyed, when it is clearly stated the length of the hike at each stage. At least he was wearing proper shoes and had a backpack. I’ve seen many tourists hiking up mountains in jandals (flip-flops) with either no water or just a small bottle in their hand.

Finally moving on myself, it wasn’t much further till the path came out at a fence line on a low ridge past the far side of Mt Bradley. Crossing the stile, I could now see Lyttelton Harbour again, and as the path meandered on, I found myself at the junction with the track down to Orton Bradley Park. Now I was on familiar territory. Some way on I came across Mt Herbert Shelter, a small hut just off the path. It has a nice view from the front deck, but I was keen to get to the summit so I pushed on without stopping. A little up the track I passed the angry man on his return trip who still looked thoroughly grumpy, and finally I was at the familiar turn-off for the summit. It was the last push up to a relatively deserted summit. This is a popular mountain to hike, so normally the summit is busy, but after 3pm as it was, it was quite late on in the day. With a predicted high of 29oC, everybody else had been much more sensible and set off earlier in the day.

 

At 919m (3015ft), there is a beautiful 360o view over Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour as well as out to the Pacific Ocean. As always, Christchurch was under a haze but the Southern Alps mountain range was still visible in the far distance. It is a broad summit, so there is plenty of space to walk around to see different aspects and I noted that the DOC signage had been updated since I’d last been there to include its Maori name of Te Ahu Patiki. From here it is possible to continue hiking along the Summit Walkway towards Port Levy, and this is the 4th route up to Mt Herbert, and the only one I am yet to walk.

After a while it was time to head home. It had taken over 4hrs to summit, but as always the downhill is easier, and although the section below the bluffs of Mt Bradley felt like it went on forever, I was back in my car in just 2.5hrs. As I passed the Packhorse Hut, there was a family setting up a tent outside, and I met some people hiking up when I reached the flat section across the farmland. They were heading to the hut and back but had waited to escape the heat of the day. It had been a scorcher for sure, and I had worried I would run out of water, but in the end all was well. Of the 3 routes I’ve done, this is the longest one to the summit, but it was good to explore somewhere new and I always enjoy discovering New Zealand’s myriad of mountain huts.

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Alternate Mount Herbert

From Lyttelton Harbour, it is just a quick 10 minute ferry ride across the turquoise waters to tranquil Diamond Harbour. On a glorious May day, my partner and I set off on the trail up Mt. Herbert, the highest peak on Banks Peninsula at 919m (3015ft). From the pier, it is a short walk up the road before the path turns off and down onto a rocky beach where there is a glorious view back across the water to Lyttelton Harbour on the far side. Like Quail Island a few weeks before, there was still evidence of a recent storm, and the usual path was closed. Even the path that was still open involved a bit of scrambling up over the remains of fallen trees and we had to get our hands dirty just to get back up to the main road. On another day, the track would be open and easily followed, but on this day, we had to backtrack down the road to reach the path again.

 

The next section followed a stream up through a copse, and again it was really muddy, and in one small section, the path had collapsed slightly, but eventually coming out at a back road, on the other side was the start of the main hike. I’d previously hiked Mt. Herbert via the Orton Bradley Park as I had read that it was the most interesting route up. To be honest, I prefer the route I took this time partly because there is more of a view for more of the hike, and also because it is a more popular route which meant lots of friendly, encouraging faces as we went. We had set off relatively late meaning that the early birds were already on their way down as we began the climb up.

A large part of the route is through private farm land, following a path that varies from little more than a sheep trail to a 4×4 trail higher up. Sections of the lower trail were still muddy from the storm a few weeks prior and it made for boggy diversions to avoid the worst of it. The incline came in fits and starts, seeming to level out at times prior to the next hill, but overall the ascent was quite steady. By the time the 4×4 track was reached, we were in amongst livestock, with some bullocks choosing to test their machismo on the passing hikers. A group of men ahead of us were charged by a particularly challenging one. My days of working on a farm had taught me how to handle them and I wasn’t going to take any bull from him (pun intended). He and the others let us be.

 

The view to the summit from this route was rather deceiving. The higher we climbed, the more convinced I was that we should be near the top, yet every ridge we reached revealed the next hidden ridge behind it. This upper section felt slightly tedious in its monotony, the one downside to which the other route won over. It was lunchtime, and we were both eager to stop and eat, but didn’t want to rest ahead of the summit. Eventually we reached the path that splits to head round to the shelter, and took the fork that headed directly up the final steep section to the summit. Dodging gorse bushes on the way, we finally summitted to be met by lots of other hikers milling all over the place, eating and taking pictures, and we found a flat spot that we could stop for a bite to eat. Being May, it was cold at the top despite the sunshine, and we had to wrap up to keep the wind from slicing us in two. It was the first mountain of this height that my partner had hiked and we took in the view over Lake Ellesmere & Banks Peninsula in one direction, and Lyttelton and Christchurch in the other.

 

As we headed down the way we came up, the clouds had rolled in from Pegasus Bay and Christchurch was suddenly barely visible through the sea fog. Facing out towards the harbour, it was a beautiful view on the descent too. We missed a turn in the path, staying on the 4×4 track too long, meaning we had to cut across an open field to get back to the field that we were supposed to be in. It was easy to negotiate our way though, being very open and easy to spot where we needed to get to. Back through the lower muddy sections and down through the muddy river-side walk we returned to the main road and opted to follow this down to the pier to avoid the tree scramble we had negotiated on the way up. Calling in to the local shop we partook of some ice cream before heading down to the ferry. We had just missed the ferry and thought we were in for a long wait till the next one, however we lucked in because the ferry returned straight away due to too many people waiting for it first time round. It was a beautiful run across the water back to Lyttelton, looking back up towards the summit that we had reached that day. Whatever route up you choose, it is a satisfying hike up with a view that is well worth the effort.

Mount Herbert

In August 2013, I suffered a debilitating back injury. I was in a lot of pain, and left unable to bend or sit which limited my mobility greatly. With a compressed vertebral disc in my lower back, it has taken months of rehabilitation with spinal manipulations and muscle work to get me where I am today: still prone to flare-ups of discomfort, but much more mobile, and starting to get my fitness back. In October 2013, I was supposed to have been hiking a 4-day track through the Southern Alps in Fiordland, but still unable to sit for any length of time, I couldn’t contemplate the 8-hour drive to get there, never mind the hiking and camping at the other end of it. I was gutted, and now, coming out the other side, I can admit to how much my reduced mobility and flexibility was getting me down. Since the turn of 2014, despite some temporary set-backs, I have been trying to reclaim my fitness in preparation for hiking the Kepler Track in March. The Port Hills and Banks Peninsula to the south of Christchurch is riddled with walking tracks which have allowed me to start working on my endurance, and I’m finally starting to feel like myself again.

Mt Herbert, at 919m is the highest peak on the Banks Peninsula and sits almost directly across the water from Lyttelton Harbour, near Diamond Harbour. It can be reached from sea level either from Diamond Harbour itself, or by cutting through Orton Bradley Park at Charteris Bay. I had read that the route from Diamond Harbour was rather uninteresting, so opted to head for Orton Bradley Park, a private farm park that is open to the public, and run by a charitable trust. I had taken part in a Zombie Run through here last year, and recalled seeing the signs for Mt Herbert whilst I was there. About a 40-minute drive away from the city of Christchurch it is reached by taking the winding Dyers Pass Road over the Port Hills and passing first through Governor’s Bay and round the head of the bay to Charteris Bay. A donation is requested from users of the park on entry.

 

From the upper car park, the path winds through Orton Bradley Park, through woodland and skirting farmland. The strangest thing about this section of the hike, is the door in the middle of nowhere. Unattached to any wall or building, it stands solitary, straddling the walking path, painted purple on one side and red on the other. It is a rather random structure to come across whilst out hiking. On from here, the Mt Herbert track splits from some of the other walking tracks in the park and the sign indicates the summit is a 3hr 50minute walk away. Looking at several sites online, there is a bit of disparity as to the hiking time for this walk, but dependent on walking speed, a minimum time of 5 hours needs to be allowed for the return journey, especially if a bit of time is to be spent at the shelter and summit.

 

At the top of Orton Bradley Park, the track crosses over onto private farmland, and from here onwards, there are a lot of stinging nettles to wade through and cowpats littering the sometimes vague track. This is also where the height starts to be attained, and the track meanders uphill before winding round rock faces and the natural contour of the land. As it snakes back and forth across the hillside, there is a stunning view back towards the sea inlet at Charteris Bay. The water here is a beautiful turquoise blue and at its tidal margins it takes on a milky appearance. To the west, the rising bluff of Mt Bradley dominates the view. The final section to the ridge and the Mt Herbert shelter that sits astride there, zig-zagged so much I felt it would never end. When the shelter finally came into view, my pace quickened and I arrived to find it empty. On such a beautiful day, I’d barely passed a soul and was surprised to get there in the early afternoon and not find it containing some fellow trampers enjoying a picnic lunch. The view from the shelter looks north towards Lyttelton and the Port Hills beyond; and south towards the other peaks of the Banks Peninsula as well as Lake Ellesmere. Out the back of the shelter, a lonely drop-toilet, long since missing its door, provides one impressive view from the throne.

 

After a brief respite and no clue how long the walk to the summit would take (it is strangely missing from the directional board at the shelter), I set off on the final slog, only to find that it was a not-very-arduous 15 minute walk away. From the summit I could see multiple groups of people making their way up and down the Diamond Harbour route; it seemed much more popular. There was a 360 degree view over the landscape, with a large portion of Lyttelton Harbour visible and I could see that a sea fog had rolled in from the Pacific and was shrouding the city of Christchurch which was just visible over the Port Hills. From here, there is an ongoing track to Port Levy Saddle, another 1hr 40minute hike, according to the DOC sign, and had I left earlier in the day, I would have walked this extra section too. As it was, I didn’t have time, so I’ll keep it in mind for a return trip. At this time of year, most of the ridges rolling across the Banks Peninsula are brown in colour, having lost their greenness with the ongoing dryness of the summer months.

 

After returning to the shelter to enjoy some much needed lunch, I headed back down the route I had come up, meeting only 1 other person on the way, and stumbling across a dead cow which I had somehow managed to walk past without noticing on the way up. 5 hours after starting (2hrs 40 minutes up, 2 hrs down and a 20minute rest at the shelter), I got back to my car and found an information board detailing the walks around Orton Bradley Park. Mt Herbert is definitely worth the effort on a clear and sunny day.

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