MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Port Hills”

Destructive Beauty

I don’t remember how or when I found out, but somewhere between getting to Melbourne‘s Tullamarine Airport and getting in the taxi to go home in Christchurch, I absorbed some brief information about a couple of fires on the Port Hills, the hills behind my home city. One of the people I shared the taxi shuttle with had been on the opposite side of the plane and she had seen the fires illuminating the dark night sky as the plane approached the runway. It was after 1am when I got to bed, and I gave it no thought, falling asleep ahead of work later that morning. As I head towards the Port Hills from home to work, I was aware of some smoke in the distance on the opposite side of the hills to the city and helicopters flying nearby, but there otherwise wasn’t much to see. Aside from the occasional murmur from people coming into work, and some road closures announced on the hills to keep gawkers at bay, little concern was suggested.

That evening after work, I could see there was going to be a beautiful evening and dusk so I decided to head through Lyttelton tunnel and drive round to Governor’s Bay in order to park up and watch the colours that I suspected might be made through the smoke as the sun lowered. From this side of the hills it was possible to see separate fires in the bush on the hillside, although there was little in the way of flames, just smoke billowing up from the tree line, and helicopters moved around with water buckets suspended below. I was far from the only one parked up watching the evening light fall over Lyttelton Harbour. Despite being a Tuesday, every pull-up on the road was full of cars. And whilst I knew that below that smoke, the bushland of the hills was being destroyed, I found the scene quite beautiful. I know how regenerating a bush fire can be, and whilst destructive, I thought nothing more of it, snapping photos as the light changed, then driving home as it grew dark.

 

But the next morning things were different. I hadn’t seen any news on the Tuesday, and now on the Wednesday, I discovered that one of the helicopters fighting the fires had crashed the previous afternoon, killing the pilot. Even to this day they are yet to announce the trigger of the fires, but with one of them starting at a car park on the hills, I am convinced it was caused by an idiot throwing a cigarette or dumping glass that has reflected the sunlight. And now somebody had died. Not only that, but the fires were anything but under control, and they continued to move nearer and nearer to the hill suburbs of Christchurch. The smoke was by now very obvious on my commute to work and from my home the smoke hung over the house.

 

By the Thursday, things were getting more serious. The two fires were now one large out of control fire, and people we knew were being evacuated. The recently opened Adventure Park, a fantastic addition to the post-earthquake city, was now at risk of being damaged, and homes were now being destroyed. That evening I could see flames from my driveway as the fire had moved to Victoria Park, a popular recreational spot. It burned for many days, with some people out of their houses for 1-2 weeks. The Adventure Park remains closed still with no known time of reopening. The buildings at the base remained untouched, but large sections of the trees in the park as well as the chairlift were in the fire zone.

I have been up at the summit several times since the fires were extinguished and the roads reopened. Over 2000 hectares of land burned, and the hills now look very different. The spot on the summit where one of my best friends got married a few years ago is now black. But whilst there’s a lot of ground to be cleared, areas at risk of slip to be fortified, and houses to be rebuilt, there was already a lot of fresh green grass budding through the blackened soil within a couple of weeks of the fire. Having gone back up the hill again a couple of weeks ago, the rate of grass regrowth was amazing. Out of the ashes comes growth. And if there’s anything Christchurch is good at, it is regenerating after a disaster.

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Bridle Path

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.

Information board on the bridle path

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 remains of Castle Rock

Closed track in a rockfall zone

Rockfall zone below Mount Cavendish

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.View from summit road looking over Pegasus Bay

Hiking the crater rim to the top of the gondola

Panorama over Lyttelton harbour from the gondola viewing platform

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.

Lyttelton Port

Flowers on the walk

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.

HMS Protector

HMS Protector

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.

Rapaki Track

It had been a while since I’d headed up this highly popular track within easy reach of Christchurch’s city centre. The view from Rapaki RoadStarting from the end of Rapaki Road, off Centaurus Road, the first challenge is finding a place to park. With no car park at the bottom, it is street parking only, and at busy times, the entire length of Rapaki Road can be crammed with cars. Part of the reason I hadn’t been in a while, despite living less than a 10 minute drive away, is that it is a very exposed track that winds its way up the Port Hills to Summit Road, and on hot summer days where temperatures can get above 30oC, it would be foolish to go up at any other time than early morning or into the evening. Even setting off before 10am on this autumn day which eventually reached 31oC was pushing it quite a bit.

The Rapaki Track is a track of thirds: the initial steady climb up the side of one hill, the flattish section along the false ridge line, and the final push up the steepest section of the track towards Summit Road. Taking roughly 1.5hrs return, it is a nice short walk to do whilst still requiring a bit of effort. Don’t let the shortness of the walk fool you though. The footpath is well marked but quite stony so a proper pair of shoes are recommended, not jandals (flip-flops/thongs depending on which part of the world you hail from).

Rapaki TrackAfter a brief walk through the shade of some trees, a bike grid denotes the entry onto grazing land. Leaving the houses behind on a greener dayThe path snakes steadily up on the side of the hill, which depending on the time of year, can range in colour from a brilliant green to a starchy yellow. On this most recent of walks, it was dry and yellow as Canterbury is currently in a drought. The early part of the hike on a greener dayWhilst cattle are across a fence if they are there, sheep can wander more freely and have been known to be on the path side of the fence. The track is shared with bikers too, so it is best to stick to the left at bends to prevent being caught off guard by a bike whizzing down the hillside. Dogs are allowed on this track, but due to the proximity to grazing animals, are allowed only on a lead (although it is exceedingly common to see this flaunted!).

 

 

On the flat sectionThe steepest section is the final section, and depending on recent weather, can occasionally be slippery in places, The steep section on a greener daybut the reward at the top, after crossing another bike grid, is the view over the far side of the Port Hills into Lyttleton Harbour with Quail Island directly below and the Banks Peninsula’s highest point, Mt Herbert, directly behind. Quail Island within Lyttleton HarbourThe view can look quite different dependent on the tide as the innermost aspect of the harbour forms a tidal mud flat at low tide. Mt Herbert & Mt Bradley behind Quail IslandI will never get sick of the sight of Lyttleton Harbour no matter which part of the Port Hills I go up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summit Road - the walk downReturning the same way, Pegasus Baythe view on the steep section is of the blue expanse of Pegasus Bay and the glistening of the Pacific Ocean. Nearing the bottom of the steep sectionThis view persists till the flat section where it disappears behind the hill, Heading down the hillsideand from then onwards, Christchurch’s city centre pokes upwards, as the houses get nearer and nearer. Christchurch skylineIt may not be the most distinctive of skylines, but it is still a nice vista to look at on the way back. This is certainly a recommended inclusion to any visit to the Garden City.Returning through the woods

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. Looking across Lyttleton Harbour from the driveway at Orton Bradley ParkAbout 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 door in the woodsThe 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. Orton Bradley ParkOn 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.

Skirting past Mt BradleyAt the tip 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 upstream before winding round rock faces and the natural contour of the land. Looking down over Charteris BayAs 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. Mt BradleyTo 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. Mt Herbert ShelterWhen 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 Mt Herbert ShelterThe view from the shelter looks north towards Lyttleton and the Port Hills beyond; and south towards the other peaks of the Banks Peninsula as well as Lake Ellesmere. Drop ToiletOut the back of the shelter, a lonely drop-toilet, long since missing its door, provides one impressive view from the throne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mt Herbert summitAfter 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. Diamond HarbourFrom the summit I could see multiple groups of people making their way up and down the Diamond Harbour route; it seemed much more popular. Lyttleton HarbourThere was a 360 degree view over the landscape, with a large portion of Lyttleton 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. Mt Bradley as viewed from Mt Herbert summitFrom 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.

 

 

 

 

Walking back to Mt Herbert shelterAfter returning to the shelter to enjoy some much needed lunch, The bluffs of Mt BradleyI 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. Passing back through the door in the woods5 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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