Banks Peninsula and the Port Hills

January 29, 2021
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Banks Peninsula: Cropped from North near top but not quite at top.

BANKS Peninsula is an eroded volcano, originally an offshore island,which possesses several natural harbours today. In its topography it resembles one of the Hawai‘ian islands, though naturally somewhat colder and bleaker. The biggest harbours on the peninsula are Lyttelton Harbour just south of Christchurch and Akaroa Harbour further east, on the south side.

The peninsula has two Māori names, Horomaka (‘foiling of Maka’), a name that refers to events during an ancient punitive raid, and Te Pātaka o Rakaihautū, meaning the storehouse of a famous Māori explorer of the newly occupied land of New Zealand, Rakaihautū.

Legends also have it, variously, that the peninsula was scraped up from a reef, or that the demigod Māui heaped stones over an evil giant or octopus that now sleeps beneath and occasionally cracks the land open when it stirs, a story that’s a little too close for comfort in view of the recent Christchurch earthquakes.

Over a long period of time the plains of Canterbury have grown outward toward the peninsula so that it is now no longer an island, just as debris from the mountains has also done at Kaikōura, another former island.

The Port Hills are full of parks and reserves, scenic drives in the form of the Summit Road and Mount Pleasant Road, and rock-climbing cliffs. They yield stunning views of the city and its port of Lyttelton, and there is even a scenic gondola. There are also various windswept hikes that you can do on the tussocky tops. Altogether, like many New Zealand cities, Christchurch is really blessed with nearby nature.

A view from the Christchurch Port Hills, showing Te Karoro Karoro or the Brighton Spit, which guards the estuary of the Avon and Heathcote Rivers and is ‘away from it all’ even though it’s in a city. On the near side of the unbridged estuary is another seaside resort called Sumner. We stayed at the South Brighton Holiday Park, on the spit.

The hills run down to the sea to form the beaches that lie between the entrance to the Avon/Heathcote estuary and the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour. These beaches include Sumner Beach with its promenade and a smaller one known in Māori as Te Onepoto or ‘the short beach’ and in English as Taylors Mistake, after the captain of a little ship who thought he was entering the estuary but wasn’t!

Some other places to see in this area are:

Awaroa/Godley Head. The subject of a DOC webpage.

Packhorse Hut. Another attractive short walk is to Packhorse Hut, also the subject of a DOC webpage.

South of the hills, the port town of Lyttelton, with its steep streets and taverns on the corners, reminiscent of some British fishing village, is worth spending time in, itself.


The other big harbour on the peninsula, Akaroa Harbour, is much quieter. Its main claims to fame predate the foundation of Christchurch. At the head of the harbour is the site of the Ngāi Tahu pā of Ōnawe on a whale-shaped peninsula that is an island at high tide.

In the summerof 1831-1832 the pā was destroyed, and its inhabitants mostly massacred, by two groups of raiding North Island Māori under the command of the notorious warlord Te Rauparaha.

The 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was done in one of the smaller harbours of Banks Peninsula, at a locality known as Kawatea or, subsequently, Okains Bay.

The other great pre-Christchurch foundation event on Banks Peninsula was its colonisation by the French, a small-scale event that resulted in the founding of the town of Akaroa and a few other localities with French names such as Duvauchelle and Le Bons Bay.

Akaroa Street Sign showing French street names. Photo by Egghead06, 17 March 2010, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The name Akaroa reflects the often non-standard form of South Island Māori dialects (the standard is based on the speech of the more numerous North Island Māori). It’s a local form of Whangaroa, meaning long bay, with k for ng as is common in the south. And also, the locally rather soft version of the Māori ‘wh’ sound, which is common at thebeginning of Maori placenames and usually pronounced like a cross between ‘wh’ in English and an English f, accidentally omitted by the colonists who first recorded the area’s name on paper.

Other such mis-hearings, in other areas, have given rise to placenames that begin with W- or H- alone, in ways that also obscure the original meaning.

There is pressure to restore the ‘wh’ to all of these non-standard names, which in most cases would require only one more letter and wouldn’t alter the name by much. Though, in the case of Akaroa, the Ngāi Tahu spokesperson and tribal leader Tipene O’Regan concedes that any reform that adds two letters to its name may take time to get used to and shouldn’t be rushed.

By the time the French got to Akaroa, or Whakaroa as it may yet be known, they found that their rivals had run up the Union Jack at nearby Okains Bay and everywhere else in New Zealand, only a few weeks before. Perhaps if, instead of a village in a remote spot the French had founded a city on the plains where the English would later establish Christchurch, or if they had otherwise just been a big quicker off the mark, France might have had more luck in establishing a South Pacific equivalent of Québec – c’est la vie.

To the south of the peninsula lies Waihora, or Lake Ellesmere, a vastly larger estuary than the Avon/Heathcote estuary, and held in by an even larger sandspit. I'm going to come back and add a bit more about it, and also add some more photos to this post in general, shortly!

‘A Walk on the Wildside’: The Banks Track

In January 2021, I went for an amazing three day hike in the hills and down to the coast southeast of Akaroa, at the very extremity of Banks Peninsula. This was the Banks Track, billed as New Zealand’s “original private walking track,” established by local landowners to bolster their conservation efforts such as the saving of penguins, which it under-writes. I would say that the Banks Track was on a par with one of the Great Walks, and it seems to get nothing but raves on the review sites. I did a separate blog post all about this track, linked at the end of the present post. In the meantime, here is the Banks Track website:

All the Peninsula and Port Hills Walks

Including the ones I’ve mentioned above, there are many walks on Banks Peninsula today. The Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust classifies the walks into five groups by area:

·       Akaroa Walks

·       Diamond Harbour Walks

·       Governors Bay Walks

·       Lyttelton Walks, and

·       Greater Banks Peninsula Walks

The website of the Trust is

Tracks on the Port Hills right next to Christchurch aren’t all listed on the Trust website, however. These are listed on a Christchurch City Council website:

These include trails and road houses created by the eccentric visionary Harry Ell, whose most imposing legacy is the Sign of the Takahē, a restaurant and conference centre constructed in a style probably best described as Persian gothic.

The Sign of the Takahē. Photo by Greg O’Beirne, 30 September 2006, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My separate post on the Banks Track:

Further Resources

Sign of the Kiwi Café and Bar:

Sign of the Takahē: Banks Peninsula page:

Akaroa iSite:

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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