More than just a walk in the Port Hills
There is that old adage, ‘don’t leave home til you’ve seen the country’ and preparing for travelling also involves being fit for ‘the trip’. Here in Christchurch, (Canterbury) New Zealand, we enjoy the wide sweep of Pegasus Bay on the east, the ‘The Southern Alps’ mountains to the west and the amazing Banks Peninsula on the South-East which extends out into the Pacific Ocean. All can be seen from the city and it is great to stand near the beach and see the snow on the long line of mountains only 70km (43miles) away. Exploring the Peninsula is a favourite past time of Cantabrians and offers a great range of outdoor pursuits from biking, hiking, boating, swimming with the dolphins, camping and much more. View map here!
It takes your breath away: The views and the steepness!
Between the city and the peninsula lies the Port Hills with a myriad of steep walking tracks – criss–crossing the crater rim, up and down and along the valleys – and views, both of which literally and figuratively take the breath away! The peninsula and port area were created by violent forceful volcanic action over 10 million years ago when New Zealand was being created, forced up out of the sea and became Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud. Maori legends have Maui fishing it out of the sea and make for good stories as depicted in the recent animated movie ‘Moana’ which encompasses the story of the legend.
Damage to tracks: What’s open now
For those who might not know, the city of Christchurch was heavily damaged by strong earthquakes from 2010 to 2014. Post earthquake, many of the Port Hills tracks were permanently closed due to the risk of rock falls and damage. Some former tracks with cliff edges sadly fell into the sea. However, there are still many open with well-maintained paths varying from single file dirt tracks in the open and along the sides of the volcanic sheer cliffs high above the harbour to wide gravel pathways that are steep but easy to walk. One of the tracks to remain open is the Bridle Path. Although not the first track from the Port of Lyttleton it was the most direct route created in those very early days to bring the pilgrims to the Canterbury plains and create the city of Christchurch.
The experience of the short but steep climb
So, on this sunny winter Sunday afternoon we set off, as we have many times before, to walk the Bridle Path as a fitness jaunt in preparation for some upcoming travel – you can read about these destinations once we are back and the stories are written. The sun shone with a warmth that we have not felt for some time and we began the walk with an enjoyment of the fresh air and the climb ahead. Many fellow runners, walkers with children and dogs met us on the path – either coming or going in the early afternoon. We chatted as we stopped to catch our breath and ponder the view in the watery late winter light. The path curves around several times, passing stands of macrocarpa and Australian gum trees. Much of this part of the path is on the open steep sided curve, the city side of the crater rim. At one point an oil pipeline rises directly up the slope and many people take on the challenge of ‘doing the pipeline’ to the top. Resting on a commemorative seat we noticed a small Jonquil flower at our feet indicating an early spring and we smiled and commented on this pretty, but small botanical beauty. Onwards we slowly walked and soon reached a sign that tells a pictorial story of the pilgrims who first walked this path and in whose names the resting seats are made.
A brief history: How the bridle path came to be
The Bridle Path is known by almost all Christchurch residents; even if they have only lived here a short time such as having come as part of the ‘rebuild’ post earthquake. Historically, the Bridle Path has a reputation for bringing the brides, wives of farmers, school teachers and clergy to the colonies from the British Isles. While that was true, in reality, it was named for the riding or leading of horses across the top of the ridge. Along with the horses and their pack loads of supplies, it was the passageway for the first ‘residents’ who arrived amid the ships from England and required a route from the Port to the Plains whereby Christchurch city was to become settled. This was in 1850 and the first ‘pilgrims’ took to walk the unfinished ‘track’ after being at sea for 3 months. Many were in no fit condition to climb the steep ascent from the port to the summit and down into the Heathcote Valley. The path only ascends to 350m (1,150 ft) but it is the steepness of this ascent for which it is used as a training route today. It was said that the travellers of old considered it the last of the mental force fields that the journey from England had enforced upon them on ships like the Charlotte Jane and the Randolph. With their few treasured possessions they came to settle this new country so far from home having bade farewell to family and friends, for most – never to return or see folks from home again. Once the track was finished and widened a horse and cart was made available and a thirst quenching ginger beer stand was set up at the summit. The Bridle Path traverses the northern rim of the long extinct Lyttleton Volcano and today there are seats and a shelter made from the local stones for the weary travellers to stop and ponder the might of these pioneering folk from the ‘old country’ as the UK was known. Read more history here
The view from the Summit Road
At the top, the views are as spectacular as ever with deep blue sky and brown semi-alpine tussock grass, and we photographed this day’s views. Along the summit road where we crossed to look down into Lyttleton harbour and rest our weary legs on the low stone wall that marks the edge of the carpark, people were having a picnic in the grass and cyclists rapidly whizzed by as we followed them with our gaze. They disappear under the gondola ropes which takes the less adventurous day trippers up to the gondola station strategically positioned on a rocky outcrop for 360-degree views of the plains, the harbour and the amazing hills that make up the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula.
Lyttleton and across the Harbour
Diamond Harbour township sparkles in the sunshine across the water and the working port is busy with ships being loaded and unloaded with containers and logs of wood as the pretty little town of Lyttelton rests in the lea of the rocky crater hills. We pondered long, and soon the summit breeze became too cool for us and we abandoned our plan to walk along the road to the now crumbled ‘Castle Rock’ which once a bastion for rock climbing, having fallen to pieces in the earthquake, is now just a former landmark of the beautiful port hills. With a plan to enjoy a nice coffee we head back down the hill to the car, passing more walkers, families, dogs and runners on their Sunday outing. We stopped and chatted about the day, the weather and the walk. Once home we are satisfied that our training for this day, at least, has been enjoyable and fun, and we look forward to our next trip with great enthusiasm.