Banks Peninsula Quail Island

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Story Kathy Catton Photos Kathy Catton or as credited

A hidden treasure
What better way to explore Banks Peninsula without hopping too far from Christchurch? Take the ferry from Lyttelton to Quail Island, add an overnight stay, and you have the perfect back-country hut experience, all within the stomping grounds of Christchurch. The outdoors made easy!

Nestled in Lyttelton Harbour and surrounded by the Port Hills, Quail Island is certainly a one of a kind location. Canterbury’s largest island, it occupies 81 hectares within the harbour and is a haven for a variety of flora and fauna. Treasured by conservationists and gentle trampers alike, its beauty is of a peaceful, solid, and quietly confident kind.


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This relatively forgotten island is now promoting itself as very much ‘on the map’, as it now hosts the closest Department of Conservation/Te Papa Atawhai (DOC) hut to Christchurch.

The hut, Ōtamahua, comprises two bunk rooms (each sleeping six people), a communal room (with wood burner), and warden accommodation. What’s fascinating about this completely reconditioned building is that it has stood on the island for over 100 years. What better way to encourage Christchurch’s families to turn their eyes to the hills on their doorstep and have a weekend adventure in the outdoors, all within stomping distance of their home?

Mahaanui District operations manager for DOC, Andy Thompson, has been the leading force in this project. He and his team work to protect heritage infrastructure, so they looked at possible re-use options for the house, a former caretaker’s cottage. Adapting it into a DOC hut has preserved the original building and kept it on the island, something that very much works in line with Andy’s (and DOC’s) sustainability goals.


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“This hut is significant as it will now be the closest DOC hut to Christchurch,” Andy tells me. He is concerned about the issue of many Christchurch families finding it too difficult to get to the Southern Alps, particularly since the earthquakes, and wants to help individuals and families to look beyond their individual circumstances and take a ‘bigger picture’ look to what Canterbury has to offer them when it comes to connecting with the natural environment. “We want to get Christchurch families into their wider backyard, and we want to make it really accessible to them.”

On my recent trip to the island, what particularly impressed me was the stillness of the place. It has a ‘presence’ in the harbour, while also seeming unpretentious and homely. Also impressive is the level of detail that has gone into the design and building of the hut. For example, windows have strengthened glass in recognition that ‘kids will be kids’ and balls may be thrown, and hey, who wants to deal with a broken window in a remote location during a weekend getaway with family and friends?

I spent some time talking to the builder of the hut when he was putting the finishing touches to it, before the official opening in November, 2018. David Brailsford is a local builder who is passionate about good craftsmanship, about DOC and tramping in the wilderness. He spent a week at a time living on the island while doing the structural work, as well as the internal fit out, and has worked meticulously to achieve a sound building structure that is in keeping with its surrounding natural environment.


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“Huts are in my DNA,” he comments. “I spend about a third of my time away from home, in the countryside, whether it be hunting, fishing or just enjoying the landscape.” David talks passionately about how iconic huts are to New Zealand’s history and culture. He sees how generations are missing out on the wonders and beauty of the natural environment and hopes that people visiting this hut will have this same passion ignited in them, leading them to explore further afield. “It’s so good here, it needs to be shared.”

Each year 30,000 visitors visit the island; 15,000 via the ferry service that connects Quail Island to Lyttelton and 15,000 on their own craft whether kayak or larger boat. At full capacity the extra 2000 annual visitors that will come to stay in the hut won’t make a significant impact to these numbers, but will allow many families to experience Kiwi hut living.

Ōtamahua/Quail Island Restoration Trust has also been a significant stakeholder in this project. Its chairperson, Ian McLennan, drew up the building plans pro bono and DOC gave him an award for this work at a recent Conservation Week event. The trust works to remove pests and revegetate the island, with the aim of eventually reintroducing native wildlife. They organise fortnightly working parties on the island to undertake animal and weed pest control, as well as an annual planting project in the spring. The trust aims to restore 24 hectares of native forest to the island (95,000 trees and shrubs have already been planted) to provide a refuge for locally extinct, uncommon, and threatened bird and invertebrate species of the Banks Peninsula region. The island is now predator-free, and kororā (white-flippered / little-blue penguins), an endangered Banks Peninsula native, have been seen here since DOC and the Ōtamahua/Quail Island Restoration Trust began monitoring the penguin population in the mid-2000s. The trust also encourages and facilitates educational activities and relevant research on the natural features and cultural history of the island. What shines through is the love and dedication that this trust, its trustees, and volunteers have for the island.
It clearly touches many people’s hearts and is treasured by them. Their latest project involves bringing a trained tracker dog from Kaikōura to help identify the penguins’ nesting sites and track their passages onto the island. By doing this work the trust can provide more nesting boxes in the right places to help this endangered species to thrive.

I also caught up with Suky Thompson, manager of the Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust which is part-funding this new and highly significant chapter of the island’s history.

The Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust, named after ‘the late’ Green MP Rod Donald, firmly believe in developing future environmental stewards by encouraging parents and children to spend time in the outdoors exploring the natural and recreational treasures of our environment. So when DOC approached the trust in 2017 to co-fund the building of a new hut on Quail Island, it instantly saw the synergy.

“What better way for families to really unwind, bond and build resilience?” Suky asks. With her personal motto of ‘huts capture hearts’, Suky has worked tirelessly for the last 10 years to help connect Christchurch people with nearby Banks Peninsula.


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The Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust has a bold vision to facilitate the restoration of Banks Peninsula to its traditional status of Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū – ‘the storehouse that nourishes’. They aim to achieve this vision through the partnerships they build with like-minded groups. Whether it is working on sustainable management of the Peninsula, public education, or cultural and heritage projects, the trust has a wide remit hinging on four pillars; access, partnerships, knowledge, and biodiversity.

One of the trust’s first projects back in 2014 was the purchase and renovation of the Rod Donald Hut, a nine-bunk tramping hut situated above Little River on the Te Ara Pātaka walkway, now listed in the DOC hut online booking system. It is only a 50-minute walk from Port Levy Saddle, which makes it a relatively easily accessible hut for Christchurch families. It is a beautifully appointed hut constructed of macrocarpa and recycled materials to create a comfortable environment and includes a state-of-the-art VIP (ventilation improved pit) toilet and greywater dealt with by worms in a trench. The hut also has a solar energy system to provide lighting and to pump water to storage tanks above. The hut was officially opened in November 2015, and was almost fully booked the whole summer of 2016/2017, with under-18-year-olds making up 40 per cent of those staying. Certainly it’s a big tick in the box for Suky and the Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust.

The party’s hard work on Quail Island culminated in a launch event to coincide with the Banks Peninsula Walking Festival, organised by the Rod Donald Banks Peninsula Trust. The Minister for Conservation (and local resident), Eugenie Sage, was there to formally open the hut, and Ian McLennan led walks featuring the island’s unique history and the work done to restore its native biodiversity, all in the hope of inspiring families and friends to create their own overnight adventure. A family treasure hunt was also a hit with adults and children alike.

How fitting that Quail Island was originally named Ōtamahua in te reo Māori, meaning ‘a place where children collect sea eggs’, as the trust is actively seeking to welcome children and their families back to the island to explore its natural world.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to this hidden gem. Not just for residents of Christchurch, but the wider New Zealand community. This could be one of the best huts you’ll ever visit. 


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