Banks Peninsula and the Port Hills

January 29, 2021
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Cropped from near top but not quite at top.


ANKS Peninsula is an eroded volcano,originally an offshore island, which possesses several natural harbours today. Inits topography it resembles one of the Hawai‘ian islands, though naturallysomewhat colder and bleaker. The biggest harbours on the peninsula LytteltonHarbour just south of Christchurch and Akaroa Harbour further east, on thesouth side.

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

Legends also have it, variously, that the peninsula wasscraped up from a reef, or that the demigod Māui heaped stones over an evilgiant or octopus that now slumbers sleeps beneath and occasionally cracks theland open when it stirs, a story that’s a little too close for comfort in viewof the recent Christchurch earthquakes.

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

The Port Hills are full of parks and reserves, scenic drivesin the form of the Summit Road and Mount Pleasant Road, and rock-climbingcliffs. They yield stunning views of the city and its port of Lyttelton, andthere is even a scenic gondola. There are also various windswept hikes that youcan 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, whichguards the estuary of the Avon and Healthcote Rivers and is ‘away from it all’even though it’s in a city. On the near side of the unbridged estuary isanother seaside resort called Sumner. We stayed at the South Brighton HolidayPark, on the spit.

The hills run down to the sea to form the beaches that lie betweenthe entrance to the Avon/Heathcote estuary and the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour.These beaches include Sumner Beach with its promenade and a smaller one knownin 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 butwasn’t!

Awaroa/Godley Head.The subject of a DOCwebpage.

Packhorse Hut. Anotherattractive short walk Packhorse Hut, also the subject of a DOCwebpage.

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

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

In 1831 the pa was notoriously wiped out and its inhabitantsmostly massacred by two groups of raiding North Island Māori under the commandof the notorious North Island warlord Te Rauparaha.

New Zealand was generally known as Nu Tirene in Māori at thetime, a term borrowed from the British, and not by the more genuinelyindigenous name of Aotearoa until the 1860s.

Halfway down the South Island the signing was done in one ofthe smaller harbours of Banks Peninsula, at a locality known today as OkainsBay. All of the South Island tribes signed over the Mana of their Lands to theGovernment. As I mentioned in Chapter Two, some ten per cent, or so, was meantto be surveyed after the handover and then allocated back to the South IslandMāori for fishing, planting and sustaining their traditional way of life, butthis never really happened. And so Ngāi Tahu and the other South Island iwieffectively lost nearly all their land and became all but homeless on their ownisland.

The other great pre-Christchurch foundation event on BanksPeninsula was its colonisation by the French, a small-scale event that resultedin the founding of the town of Akaroa and a few other localities with Frenchnames such as Duvauchelle and Le Bons Bay, but not much else.

The name Akaroa reflects the often non-standard form ofSouth Island Māori dialects (the more numerous North Island Māori got to setthe standard). It’s a local form of Whangaroa, meaning long bay, with k for ngas is common in the south, and the ‘wh’ missing altogether.

The ‘wh’ spelling that’s so often seen in Māori words,especially at the beginning, stands for a sound which is like the ‘wh’ in thetraditional pronunciation of when and where (‘hw’, not w), but said throughpursed lips as well, so it’s also a bit like an ‘f’. The strength of this soundvaries from place to place, however.

So, the early colonial surveyors who wrote down local placenames often wrote it as w, as in the city long known as Wanganui and the lakestill known as Wakatipu. Or as h in the case of river that flows throughAshburton, its Māori name officially recorded as Hakatere.

Or, even, left it off altogether in places where it was fairlysilent, such as Akaroa.

Lately, the Ngāi Tahu iwi has expressed the desire thatAkaroa should be renamed Whakaroa; though the tribal spokesperson Sir TipeneO’Regan concedes that such a change might not be acceptable to many peoplewho’ve grown accustomed to the quite different spelling of the last 150 years,and that it’s a bit of a back burner issue.

Even less standard is the Akaloa of nearby Little Akaloa, whichstill means the same as Whangaroa but now looks somewhat Hawai‘ian, since loais the Hawai‘ian equivalent of the Maori word roa, meaning long.

(Despite vast distances apart, Hawai‘ian and Maori arefairly closely related, with only tell-tale shifts in consonants to distinguishsome common words. For instance, aroha has much the same meaning in Māori asaloha has in Hawai‘ian: the main English equivalent of both words is ‘love’. Onthe other hand, while letters to friends are often signed aroha nui orarohanui, meaning ‘much love’, aroha is not used as an everyday greeting in Māori.)

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

Peninsula and Port Hills Walks

Including the ones I’ve mentioned above, there are many walkson Banks Peninsula today. The Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust classifies thewalks 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’tall listed on the Trust website, however. These are listed on a ChristchurchCity Council website:

These include trails and roadhouses created by the eccentricvisionary Harry Ell, whose most imposing legacy is the Sign of the Takahē, arestaurant and conference centre constructed in a style probably best describedas Persian gothic.

FurtherResources and Blog Post

Signof the Kiwi Café and Bar:

Signof the Takahē:

DOC Banks Peninsula page:



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