While most travellers head east from Christchurch and make straight for the historic French settlement of Akaroa, there is a quieter side to Banks Peninsula that few discover. It encompasses the tiny hamlet of Birdlings Flat – and a guided motor bike tour through the sort of scenery that leaves you wondering why the whole world isn’t looking at it with you!
Birdlings Flat is best known to rock hunters who scour its pebble-strewn spit in search of gemstones. But visit the spit in late April, and a natural wonder awaits. Stimulated by brine carried in the storm-driven waves that crash over the spit and into the fresh water of adjacent Lake Forsyth, huge eels gather at the lake-end to prepare for migration. Their one aim is to wriggle their way over the spit and into the ocean so they can begin their journey of thousands of kilometres into the Pacific.
But even if the migration isn’t in action, Lake Forsyth is still a must-see. Bring your binoculars, and arrive in the evening when the setting sun casts an orange glow over the surrounding cave-pitted hills. Terns, scaup, Canada geese, black swans, crested grebes, shags, and the occasional spoonbill can be spotted, especially toward the spit-end of the lake. When the weather is calm, look for tiny fish snapping at the insects that hover over the water, but don’t be tempted to take a paddle. For all its beauty, Lake Forsyth is subject to pollution from phosphates washed into the water from surrounding denuded farmland, and toxic algal blooms are the norm.
More quiet peeks of Banks Peninsula also begin in Birdlings Flat, home of BP (Banks Peninsula) Experience. Matt and Jan Daffin, and daughter Bree are an adventure biking family offering tours to some of the peninsula’s seldom seen southern bays. Climb aboard one of their late model dual sport-adventure bikes and Matt will take you on a guided tour of empty beaches, seal-strewn rocks, wild coastlines, and regenerating forest – with a comfortable patter en route that is sure to answer all the questions you come up with as you ride. This is a tour that takes in the tops, and while it looks down on busy Akaroa, it takes you to quieter places where flags of lichen flutter in the breeze from original totara straining posts, pairs of hawk and native falcon comb the steep bare hills, and demure pippets scamper over grey shingle.
When you wend your way back to Birdlings Flat via rugged trails, it’s to the warm welcome of a refreshing drink and the possibility to stay over (if you have a campervan, Matt and Jan are registered with Campermate, and there is also a guestroom in the family home). The Daffin’s also have several kayaks, and what could be better than finishing off your adventure with a mosey out onto Lake Forsyth (observe safety procedures when in the vicinity of algal blooms) to do a spot of bird watching, or a stroll down to the beach to hunt for those coveted coloured rocks. If you enjoy the quieter side of Banks Peninsula, whatever you do, don’t bypass Birdlings Flat.