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A Walk on the Wildside: New Zealand's Banks Track – near Christchurch, yet remote

Published
February 7, 2021
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IT was my amazing luck to hike the Banks Track at the end of January, 2021. Billed on its website as New Zealand’s “original private walking track,” the Banks Track invites you to spend three nights on the remote south-eastern tip of Te Horomaka or Banks Peninsula, also known in Māori as Te Pataka o Rakaihautū.

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In spite of its proximity to a big city and the smaller, touristy town of Akaroa, the area through which the Banks Track runs is an incredibly wild one, especially once you get over the top of a ridge overlooking Akaroa Harbour and onto the slope that faces out to the Pacific Ocean: the Wildside.

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© 2021 Banks Track

The track, which won a Travelers Choice award from Tripadvisor in 2020, loops between Akaroa and the still smaller village of Ōnuku by way of a section of oceanic cliff-coast in the middle.

Before going on to describe the Banks Track, I’ll share some background about Banks Peninsula and the townships at each end of the track.

Banks Peninsula, Akaroa and Ōnuku

Te Horomaka was originally the name of an island in Koukourārata (Port Levy), one of the peninsula’s many inlets, but is now applied to the whole peninsula.

It means ‘the foiling of Maka’: the captain of a waka taua, a war-canoe bearing a taua (war party) that had set out from the from the pā, or fortified villages, that existed in those days on the site of the modern city of Wellington. The taua was intent on attacking a disgraced exile and his supporters, who had fled to Koukourārata

At the last minute the victim was tipped off and advised to make himself scarce by another officer of the taua, who had relatives on both sides of the coming fight and did not wish to see it go ahead. And so, Maka was foiled.

Te Pataka o Rakaihautū means ‘the storehouse of Rakaihautū’: an early explorer of New Zealand, who discovered many useful things about the country in the years just after the ancestors of the Māori had first arrived from tropical Polynesia, centuries before Captain Cook arrived from England.

As for the name Banks Peninsula, this celebrates Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage of discovery. We don’t know what Maka or Rakaihautū looked like, but we do have portraits of the English gentlemen.

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From the museum I visited on another day, at Okains Bay

Cook’s decision to name the peninsula (which he thought was an island) after Banks was apt. Though now joined to the mainland, the peninsula was indeed a large, mountainous island for millions of years, and developed some unusual communities of plants in its isolation. These were first catalogued in modern terms by a French botanist named Étienne Raoul, who lived at Akaroa in the 1840s.

Some local species on the peninsula are unique or nearly so, including one that was discovered by Raoul in the 1840s and never seen again, until it was recently rediscovered.

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Sign at Akaroa

Today, there is a huge conservation effort going on, and the Banks Track is intimately bound up with this effort. By paying to go on the track, you are helping to underwrite a conservation project called the Wildside Project, which I will have more to say about below.

Akaroa is a South Island dialect version of Whangaroa, meaning ‘long harbour’, an apt description of the character of Akaraoa Harbour. The name is a slight mis-spelling of even the dialect version, and may well be altered in the future to Whakaroa.

The first Europeans to try and colonise Banks Peninsula were not the British but Raoul’s compatriots. French place-names and family names abound in Akaroa and in other parts of the peninsula still.

Akaroa is the local tourism centre, full of quaint old colonial buildings including its Catholic church, established by the French but bearing the name of St Patrick’s, which has lately been restored and repainted in a more authentically Victorian colour scheme picking out all the details.

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St Patrick's, Akaroa

Akaroa is also one of the few places where you can obtain jewelry made from New Zealand blue pearls. These actually come in a range of colours from pale and pastelly to dark and saturated, and from green in some cases through to blue-black, all of them iridescent and stunning. The colour range overlaps the much better-known black pearls of Tahiti. Blue pearl jewelry makes a nice portable souvenir to take back after you’ve done the Banks Track, and certainly isn’t something you’ll too easily get outside New Zealand.

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The Blue Pearl Centre, Main Wharf, Akaroa

At the other end of the Banks Track, actually the point where you begin, the community of Ōnuku bears a name that means ‘at a distance’, and is of more tragic origins.

In the early nineteenth century the peninsula, which at that time supported a large Maori population, was hit hard by the Viking-like North Island raider Te Rauparaha.

Most notoriously, a large Ngāi Tahu pā on the Onāwe Peninsula at the head of Akaroa Harbour was massacred in 1832, with comparatively few survivors. This incident, which was the worst of his raids in the region but not the first, is still keenly remembered by the Ngāi Tahu: whose own ancestors came down from the Tairawhiti/Gisborne area of the North Island in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but more peaceably.

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An Onāwe Survivor, documented in the museum at Okains Bay

The survivors abandoned Onāwe, which now contained too many of the bones of their compatriots, and relocated down Akaroa Harbour to the site that they called Ōnuku, to found a new village at a distance from the old one.

The Banks Track

The track itself follows a symmetrical route. Each end of the track begins at Ōnuku and Akaroa respectively, and then soon heads up onto a 700-metre-high ridge, along the ridge for a bit, and then down to a bay on the open coast. Between the two bays there is a walk along the clifftops above the coast.

The Banks Track is 31 km long. The classic walk, which I did, involves spending a night at Ōnuku and then taking the following route:

Day 1: Ōnuku to Pōhatu/Flea Bay, 11 km, 5–7 hours.

Day 2: Pōhatu/Flea Bay to Stony Bay, 8 km, 3–5 hours

Day 3: Ōpātuti/Stony Bay to Akaroa, 12 km, 5–7 hours.

There is also the option of a two-day hike that includes the Pōhatu/Flea Bay to Stony Bay section in the first day. This is more demanding than the classic walk!

Numbers are strictly limited to what the accommodation can hold, twelve walkers per day on the three-day option and four hikers on the two-day option, so the track is never crowded.

There’s a road that leads all the way down to each of the two bays, the Helps family homestead at Pōhatu/Flea Bay and the Armstrong family homestead at Ōpātuti/Stony Bay. Your packs are transported for you, down these roads. All you have to do is start walking and as if by magic your backpack will be at your destination when you arrive.

The presence of the Helps and Armstrong homesteads and the roads leading to them also means that you’re never too far from assistance in spite of the fact that you’re hiking through some pretty wild country. It’s a well worked out set up, all around.

The Wildside Project

What’s really significant about the Banks Track is that from the ridge down to the two bays, it lies within the boundaries of the Wildside Project, which won the New Zealand Government’s 2017 Green Ribbon Award for community leadership.

Coordinated by the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust, the Wildside Project is a collaboration between private landowners and government environmental agencies, aimed at protecting and restoring native landscapes and ecosystems across 13,500 hectares of south east Banks Peninsula: the ‘Wild Side’.

Much of the conservation land on Banks Peninsula is covenanted with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, and the work is done in association with Pest Free Banks Peninsula, a community initiative focused on controlling introduced predators and other pests, as well as other benefactors and government agencies.

The peninsula is an eroded volcanic structure, actually the remnant of three volcanoes, with the large Lyttelton and Akaroa Harbours the remnants of ancient craters, and the smaller bays the drowned valleys of streams that have radiated outward. The peninsula used to be an island millions of years ago, but the Canterbury plains have slowly grown out toward it.

When humans first arrived, Banks Peninsula was covered in patchy forest of various sorts, from beech forest to Nikau palms and other subtropical types. Māori cleared about a third of the forest. Almost all of the forest that remained was then cleared by British and European settlers.

Many species of birds became locally extinct as the forests vanished. Whalers and sealers also plundered some of the local marine mammals, the New Zealand fur seals or kekeno in particular, to near extinction.

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© 2021 Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust

For a time, the local farming economy flourished, as the volcanic hillsides, fertilized for a time by the ashes of the forests (fertility that would soon wash into the sea) proved idea for cultivating grass seed. In the early 1900 most of the grass seed used in New Zealand was grown on Banks Peninsula.

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‘A good harvest: 302 bags of cleaned seed from 80 acres. The weight, including the bags, was 18, 271 lb. [8,295 kg]’ Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 2, IMG0035

However, the industry then died out as a grass disease spread on the peninsula, as the one-off boost to fertility creating by burning down the forests waned, and as mechanical harvesting on the Canterbury plains also proved cheaper than the old method of harvesting grass seed by hand on the peninsula’s hillsides.

All in all, few places have been so comprehensively destroyed for so little permanent gain as Banks Peninsula.

But the Wildside Project is determined to re-wild one corner, at least.

Both the project and the track have their origin in the late 1980s, when the 1250-hectare Hinewai Reserve was first established near Akaroa. Things have gone from strength to strength since then.

Our First Night and First Day

On walking tours of this sort, it’s standard to get together the night before so that you don’t have to worry about anyone turning up late on the actual morning. And so were to meet at 5:30 pm at the old post office in Akaroa on Wednesday night and be guided to the Mount Vernon Lodge, a pleasant retreat in the woods above Akaroa, where we would leave our cars.

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The old post office at Akaroa, where we met up on the first evening

From Mount Vernon, a bus with a friendly driver took us to the Ōnuku Trampers’ Huts, our purpose-built accommodation for the first night.

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The author and the bus

Our bus ride took us past the Ōnuku Marae, or Māori community centre, which doubles as a function venue for all of Akaroa.

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Ōnuku Marae

And past the Ōnuku Farm Hostel, which would be an amazing place to stay on another visit, as well. The Farm Hostel is run by the Hamilton family, part of the group that runs the Banks Track, and you can do dolphin tours from the Farm Hostel. But that’s a separate initiative from the Banks Track, even though the same people are involved.

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Ōnuku Trampers Huts: One of the main huts, one of the stargazer cottages with one of two clear roof panels just visible in the background (sleeper’s feet to the door!), the spacious grounds, and a view of the sunset over Akaroa Harbour.

The Trampers Huts, marked on some maps as the Track Hut even though there are several huts, are located 200 metres above the harbour on a spot selected by the Hamilton family for its outlook. The views were indeed incredible.

Along with two main chalets, a larger one for the three-day walkers and a smaller one for the two-day trampers, there were three small ‘stargazer’ sleepout huts with transparent panels through which a sleeper could gaze at the stars before nodding off. The stargazers are on a first come first served basis: if one of them is unoccupied, you are welcome to grab it.

The two chalets at the Track Hut each have kitchens and all the facilities, especially the larger one.

To do the classic three-day walk with bunkroom-type accommodation each night costs NZ $330 all up, which is in the ballpark of the government-run Great Walks elsewhere.

Kayaking in the Pōhatu/Flea Bay marine reserve on the morning of your second day on the track costs an extra $50. For a further $225, three-day walkers can get their own individual accommodation with a double bed on all three nights.

The two-day hike is cheaper, but you have to be pretty energetic!

That first night was spent meeting the other walkers There were five women from Christchurch who loved playing bridge, a couple from Auckland, and three local women of Māori descent from the outlying community of Little Akaloa, who told me a bit about the Māori history of the peninsula.

Wednesday had been fine. But from that point on we were to have one day of awful weather, one day of mild weather, and on the last day, a bit of full sun again.

That Wednesday night, everybody was hoping the government Meteorological Service weather forecast was wrong. It had been officially announced that Thursday was to be torrential from late morning, with a chance of hail in the afternoon. So, I got myself ready for bad weather and left at 8 am. Some other members of the group left much later, and arrived later at Pōhatu/Flea Bay, after copping more of the bad weather.

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‘Day 1. Ōnuku to Flea Bay. 11 km, from 200 m to 699 m and back down to sea level. 5–7 hours.’
© 2021 Banks Track.

Like a lot of New Zealand place names, Pōhatu/Flea Bay is officially or unofficially bilingual, though people tend to use one or the other in practice. Many localities are commonly known to everyone by their Māori names, the colonial name (if there was one) now forgotten. On the other hand, the two bays we were headed to are usually referred to by their English names at present.

Incidentally, Pōhatu means ‘rocky’ even though Flea Bay has a sandy beach these days, and Ōpātuti, the Maori name for Stony Bay, could mean ‘the place of Tuti’s stockade’, though the identity of Tuti is, apparently, obscure.

We had to climb to the GG Trig, a trigonometrical survey point 699 metres above sea level. It was great viewpoint where on a fine day you could see Akaroa Harbour, points out to sea and Aoraki/Mount Cook, 230 kilometres away in the inland direction. However, it was already too cloudy to see anything distant.

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The GG Trig, its view and its shelter. Not much chance of seeing Aoraki/Mt Cook (230 km) that day!

I managed to get to the Trig, and the rickety mountain shelter nearby, before the predicted torrents came. Up till then the trail had been dry, but brooding and misty. Which is probably better than being in full sun if you are in open country. At least I always think so.

Like the government’s Great Walks, the Banks Track only operates in the warmer months of the year, October the first to April 30th at present. Much of the more-or-less south-facing area it runs through would surely get no sun in winter. And on top of that, wild snowstorms on the upper meadows and ridges are a common occurrence in a Banks Peninsula winter.

Sticking out from the Canterbury plains as it does, and up high as well, with nothing but the sea between itself and Antarctica, the peninsula seems to cop the full brunt of everything the South Pole can throw at it. Though it might be close to a big city and joined to the mainland, Banks Peninsula really has a lot in common with one of those remote islands halfway to Antarctica: the sort that used to be visited by a ship once a year just to see if anyone had been cast up lately.

I kept clocking the numbered points of interest in the map-booklets we had been given when we paid for the tour.

The numbered sights included Paradise, a ruined colonial homestead — I wonder why they didn’t stay if it was paradise? — and the amazing New Zealand beech forest above Flea Bay. It had survived in a deep narrow gully when all the rest had been chopped down or burned off.

The beech forest was donated to the nation by the Helps Family, one of the families of landowners currently most involved in organizing the Banks Track and the Wildside Project. The forest is now a reserve known as Tutakakahikura, after a hero of the Ngāi Tahu. I was to meet Mr Helps later on that day, as he came up to see if we had got through the rain alright.

In spite of the downpour everything was just beautiful, including three or four waterfalls above Flea Bay that were now putting on their best show. The lowest and largest of the falls is easily seen from the main track. The stream starts as rain-fed springs in the vicinity of the ridge, and flows down to Flea Bay, pretty much following the same path as we did.

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Forest stream and waterfall, near Pōhatu/Flea Bay

And then there is Forks Gully where I saw some unusually small tree ferns, the sort of curious botany that’s a feature of the peninsula.

Flea Bay, and the Second Day

Down at Flea Bay, the Helps family run Pōhatu Penguin Tours, which involves kayaking on the bay, itself a marine reserve with perhaps the cleanest offshore water in Canterbury. The area used to support three families with dairying but now there are just the Helps. There was a Flea Bay School once, but the buildings have burnt down There’s also the ruins of an ancient pā at the bay, Pae Karoro. Incidentally, Pae Karoro had rocky fortifications and not just the usual wooden palisades. This may account for the name Pōhatu (‘rocky’), as that was a nickname for the pā.

Banks Peninsula has a long and rich history of Māori occupation: “Practically every bay and inlet” shows evidence of past Māori populations, wrote one historian. All of this adds up to the impression of a peninsula that has not only been denuded of its trees and former wildlife in many places but also even of much of its past human population as well. A bit like the highlands of Scotland perhaps, with its ruined cottages. The place even looks like the Scottish highlands.

It’s quite a difficult track coming down to Flea Bay, descending the full 699 metres, and subject to strong winds as well.

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All the same, I got to Flea Bay Cottage, where we were to spend our second night, close to the Helps family homestead, before one o’clock.

My trousers were completely wet by the time I got to Flea Bay. I ate my lunch, which was waiting for me in my pack, and then lit a fire in the grate. The latter group came through at about 3:30 p.m. and were absolutely frozen and wet to the bone, and glad of the fire which was now blazing cheerily. A cliché, I know, but cheery was how it felt! That night, indeed, the temperature would fall to 8 degrees Celsius.

So much for summer, and yet only a couple of days before it had been 36 degrees in Christchurch. You can’t bet on the New Zealand climate, which is oceanic rather than continental. In other words, what direction the wind is blowing from, be it the tropics or Antarctica, is just as important as the time of year in determining what your day will be like.

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Pōhatu/Flea Bay

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Flea Bay Cottage

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The welcome summertime fire

Such fickle weather is another parallel to the Scottish highlands! They don’t distil any peaty whisky on the peninsula, though — only gin.

We played more bridge and chatted further. As you might have grasped, South Island Māori were hard done by in the past, in ways that included losing more of their land to the colonisers than they had bargained for, even after surviving Te Rauparaha. There had, however, been some compensation paid out lately. Two of the Māori women from Little Akaloa, who were in their sixties or seventies but still up for a hike, told me that their children had got scholarships to go to university out of the recent settlements, and that they were happy about that.

In Pōhatu or Flea Bay, and elsewhere, we also saw small huts that had been built for the penguins to nest in.

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By coincidence, a fascinating short documentary featuring the Helps family and their efforts to save endangered penguins has just screened on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme as of the time of writing, on Friday 5 February 2021. There’s a link at the end of this post, though it’s paywalled. Perhaps they will make it free some time.

According to Seven Sharp, New Zealand is practically the epicentre of the penguin world, with half the world’s 18 species of penguins breeding somewhere or other in New Zealand territory. That claim is padded out a bit with the New Zealand Antarctic Territory, where three species breed amid the ice and snow as you would expect. But that still leaves six species breeding in New Zealand proper, twice as many as in the Antarctic Territory, and that’s a surprise.

But you don’t normally see penguins every day in coastal New Zealand. Or not any more. For, since penguins nest on the ground and in burrows and waddle about rather clumsily on land, they are highly vulnerable to introduced mammalian predators such as stoats and weasels, dogs and cats and even rats and mice, which can go after eggs and chicks as well.

The documentary talks about how the numbers of penguins on the Helps property and other bays on the peninsula were going down, down, down over the decades, till the Helps and other residents started trapping the predators.

Pōhatu Penguin Tours also introduces you to seals, seabirds, dolphins and other marine life in the Flea Bay reserve, as well.

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‘Day 2. Flea Bay to Stony Bay. 8 km, up and down along coast. 3–5 hours.’ © 2021 Banks Track.

On the second day, I was to go on the Pōhatu Penguin Tour, but the wind was now something terrible and I didn’t feel like kayaking in these conditions. So, I decided to forego the kayaking bit and begin walking to Stony Bay, where my pack would once again be waiting for me.

The wind was so violent along the clifftops that you had to sit down at times. But it was really lovely all the same, with picturesque coastal crannies bearing names like Seal Cove and Island Nook.

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Island Nook. The image on the right is a still from a video that I’ve linked to further below.

After a while I came to Redcliffe Point, which has red cliffs and perhaps got its name in the same way as the Brisbane suburb of Redcliffe, originally called Red Cliff.

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Somewhere around here, you also come to the midway point of the walk between the two bays.

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There are two toilets along this stretch of coast too. Which is convenient, no pun intended.

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Seal Cove

At Seal Cove, which is also near the halfway point, we came to an amazing structure called the Seal Cove Shelter. The Seal Cove Shelter has a giant rock for one of its walls and seemed quite snug. What my Scottish father would call a ‘bothy’, I think.

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The Seal Cove Shelter

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Inside the Seal Cove Shelter / Redcliffe Point

I was really enjoying myself on Day 2!

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Further along the coast, we came to a tītī (sooty shearwater) rookery marked off with a pest-proof fence.

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This is the only rookery of tītī, also known as muttonbirds, on the mainland. Normally they live on wild ocean islands, but Banks Peninsula is a quasi-island anyway and we were on its wild side.

Sooty shearwaters are a hugely far-ranging, migratory species found everywhere from New Zealand to Britain, but always on fairly wild coasts. Their plump chicks and those of a few related species have long been harvested by dwellers on rugged peninsulas and islands, from Britain where the word muttonbird originates — the cold cooked meat of sooty shearwaters is like anchovy-flavoured mutton— to New Zealand where tītī are a Māori delicacy. So there’s another interesting parallel with the auld sod.

Stony Bay, and the hike out to Akaroa

Finally, we stumbled into Stony Bay and thought we were in Fairyland! There was a sort of village for campers with cabins and individual fireplaces, but no electricity or cellphone reception; two outdoor baths with water heated by fire, an honesty-box shop that sells a wide range of food and wine, and all sorts of other eccentricities, including a family museum with exhibits that dated back to the 1890s.

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Stony Bay accommodation

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One of the outside baths

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The walk to a cave up the Stony Bay Valley, and a wood-fired shower with old belt pulleys for ventilation at the Stony Bay village

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More firewood!

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Miss Akaroa was quite a famous vessel in its day

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“It was 8 years before her piano was able to follow her.” Some of the difficulties faced by local settlers as late as 1940 (never mind 1840) make the 1994 film The Piano seem like a documentary.

I got more of a surprise than I bargained for when I looked into a box that contained a gas bottle and saw a sheepish little moulting penguin that had hidden itself away there. When the penguins moult they have to hide for a while as their feathers are, temporarily, no longer waterproof. Here’s a video of my coastal experiences on the Banks Track, with the penguin at the end!

Most of the penguins you see in this area are the kind called little blue penguins, or kororā. The rarer, yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho is also around, but we did not see any.

We also saw colonies of the New Zealand fur seal or kekeno, recognizable not only by fur (of course) but also a distinctive pointy nose. This species was nearly wiped out itself in the pillaging days of the past but is now making a strong comeback.

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New Zealand fur seal or kekeno at Stony Bay

You can see how Stony Bay got its name. But in case you are worried that the Flea Bay has a similarly literal origin, in fact, the first British settlers to occupy the bay, the Rhodes Brothers, later said that they’d given it that name as a place to flee to, to get away from the hustle and bustle of Christchurch, and that somebody’d spelt it wrong. Except that by now the misspelling had wound up on all the maps and road signs in the same way that the mis-spelt Maori name of Akaroa had done, and nobody at the remote locality of Flea Bay felt it worth the trouble to try and have it changed.

On a more serious note, one thing I noticed on the Wildside is that there are no dogs. This seems to be quite strictly enforced and is vital to ecological comebacks. In farmers’ language, a lot of the wildlife would be ‘worried’ by the dogs otherwise.

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‘Day 3. Stony Bay to Akaroa. 12 km, from sea level to crest of hills at 690 m, then descent to sea level. 5–7 hours.’ © 2021 Banks Track.

Finally, on the third day of the hike, we trekked back up to the ridge and on to Akaroa. On this leg we encountered fabulous forests of tree fuchsia, with wookie-like red-brown bark that hangs down in threads and strips. It was more impressive, even, than the fuchsia forests I’d seen on the Routeburn Track, one of the South Island’s Great Walks, and that was saying something.

The great outcrop of Purple Peak was also an impressive sight.

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Purple Peak

Finally, I should add that the ridge area is also accessible by ordinary free walking tracks from the roads that go down to Flea Bay and Stony Bay respectively. It’s just that you can’t avail yourself of everything the Banks Track has to offer, that’s all.

Links

Banks Track: bankstrack.co.nz

Hinewai Reserve hinewai.org.nz

Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust bpct.org.nz

Queen Elizabeth II National Trust: qeiinationaltrust.org.nz

Pest Free Banks Peninsula: pestfreebankspeninsula.org.nz

TVNZ Seven Sharp Friday 5 February 2021: tvnz.co.nz/shows/seven-sharp/episodes/s2021-e5

Declaration of interest

I got to do the three-day classic walk for free, along with a free kayak option to a total value of $360, in return for writing a blog post about the Banks Track.

A version of this post on my website, a-maverick.com, is referenced in my new book, The Sensational South Island: New Zealand’s Mountain Land.

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