Some people suggest saving the best until last. I’m never sure exactly how I feel about that because what if time runs out before you get there and you’re never able to enjoy it? And what if “the best” doesn’t live up to the hype and you’re left feeling a little disappointed? Thankfully none of those scenarios happened when it came to Kaikoura, it was simply the best!
After fears that we wouldn’t be able to make it there due to road closures and earthquake damage we were finally driving along the highway with sheer cliffs on the left and sparkling ocean on the right. Sadly we knew that this was the end of the line. The last destination in our New Zealand road trip. Due to the most recent earthquake and subsequent landslides the main route north of Kaikoura was still closed months after the event and so after this visit we would be required to take a massive inland detour to get ourselves where we needed. Looking at the cliffs of crumbling rocks looming over the road the problems with the landslides didn’t surprise me. It seemed like the road was teetering on the edge, trapped between the sea and the rocks and I wasn’t sure how much longer it might survive the elements of this eternally shifting landscape.
We meandered along the road, occasionally squeezing through a narrow tunnel in the side of the mountains and constantly staring out to the glorious bay. And that was when we saw it.
The waves where whiter and more active than usual, there was obvious disturbance in the water, did we just see a fin? No we didn’t, we ended up seeing hundreds of fins! We spotted the Dolphin splash and quick thinking Peter pulled into a handy inlet on the side of the road. We grabbed our cameras, rushed out with glee and watched in awe as the biggest pod of Dolphins I have ever seen in my life erupted to life right in front of us.
These were Dusky Dolphins, one of the most playful species who happily leap and twirl and launch themselves out of the water for no apparent reason other than the fun of it. They are beautifully marked, streaked with a dynamic array of darker blues and lighter greys. And there were just so many of them! The ocean seemed to be boiling over with the sheer amount of Dolphins playing in the bay. It was such a spectacular sight and I could do nothing but smile and admire.
We hadn’t even made it in to Kaikoura itself and already this place was proving special for marine life. It was certainly billed as one of the best places to come and explore the secrets that the ocean has to offer and it certainly was not disappointing us. But as quickly as the Dolphins had appeared, they vanished once again. We hung around for a little longer as the insects descended on our flesh, me clutching my binoculars in the hopes that they might return. Eventually we decided to head on into the town itself and find out where we were camping for the night.
We knew of a free camp site north of Kaikoura but we weren’t sure how far north the road extended before it became unusable. Sadly for us that campsite was too far north and so we settled on the paid DOC campsite towards the mountains for our time here.
We wondered around the town, soaking up the delicious atmosphere (and smell of seafood) and reading all the safety notices about the buildings. Some buildings were deemed unsafe and owners of businesses had desperately scrawled contact details onto the disused shop fronts in order to still tout for custom without having a base. Some shops were back in full working order and just required you to weave in and out of the supportive scaffolding on your way in. The local grocery store actually had pictures of the damage the quake had done to all their produce and then triumphant “after” shots of the clear up process. It was like a miniature Christchurch.
But once again the town stood defiant and ploughed on as much as they could.
We ventured up along the cliff top walk, wondering whether the vast expanses of exposed sea bed were a result of the land shifts or not. The water was the most stunning array of blue-ish hues and was incredibly calm as it lapped the rocks, surrounded by lazing Seals. We spotted two people snorkelling too and wanted to join them but the sun was descending, as was the temperature.
Autumn had crept into New Zealand as stealthily as a sandfly alighting on your skin but the nights were certainly colder than they had been. We were very grateful for the luxurious duvet we had purchased from an op shop for a ridiculously cheap price to keep us warm in the night.
It felt very strange to be witnessing our second autumn on this trip and yet we hadn’t seen a spring. The country hopping has ensured that our circadian rhythms were sufficiently confused and now that we were on the complete opposite side of the world the seasons were opposite too. Autumn tinged leaves and whispers of colder air accompanied Easter eggs being sold in the shops and a winding down of the tourist season. Several times I kept surprising myself in thinking “It’s March!” Despite the evidence to the contrary of what I was used to.
However we had come to Kaikoura, no matter what the season, for the purpose of viewing its wildlife. Historically a whaling town, the place had converted to Whale based tourism and was booming with the success of the sightings. Given it’s geography, Kaikoura is like a Cetacea highway, filled with ocean life and all the glorious creatures that come with it. And so we had booked a flight in a small plane to view this life from above.
The day before the flight the weather was appalling. Peter and I spent most of it in a cafe sampling fudge, because why wouldn’t you?! Thankfully the day of the flight was bright sunshine and calm water. Once in the air you got an even more spectacular view of the Kaikoura coastline with the ragged edged mountains, accented with eerie low lying mist and the blues of the sea and the sky mingling in an eternal meeting point.
And then we spotted the first Sperm Whale.
I had never seen one before and he was certainly a sight. Kaikoura’s coastline is a little too cold for the females so it is generally just males that you see and we were lucky enough to see three in total. We circled downwards so that everybody on board could get a good look and watch him breathe from above. It was magical to see him, just floating on the the water and once we even saw the famous tail fluke come out as he went on a deep dive. However because we were so far away from him, cocooned in our metal tube of noise and vomit inducing spirals I felt oddly disconnected from this almighty leviathan. We had great views but there was no way to listen and experience and wonder what the Whale was all about. I was glad we had gone and insanely happy to have seen what we saw but it didn’t feel quite like the magical connecting moments of some of our other wildlife encounters. To be in a completely different environment to what you are observing certainly seemed to have an impact.
We even saw that massive school of Dusky Dolphins once again, this time from above where you could pick out the darker shapes of each individual slicing through the water in their hundreds. But once again I’d enjoyed the view better on land.
After the flight we walked along the cliff tops from the other direction, enjoying the views and bracing ourselves in the wind that had picked up. We also spied some more beautiful Seals tolerating the closeness of persistent pest-like humans lazing in the moss covered rocks. We had loved our time in Kaikoura and felt like it really did live up to the reputation of being so abundant in marine life.
That evening before we were due to leave we took a stroll through a small garden with a Whale bone archway walkthrough. This was erected to commemorate the connection of the town with the Whales and the reverence with which they view them now in comparison to what once was. We had seen that in Akaroa too with a beautiful statue commemorating the endangered Hectors Dolphin that they celebrate in the hope that they will still be there to be enjoyed by their children.
It’s difficult to pick a favourite place or experience from our travels around New Zealand as we have literally seen and done and experienced so much. But I can certain,y recommend that whatever obstacles lie in the way between you and Kaikoura, find a way to get over them and experience this place. I couldn’t just a favourite place but that wonderful little town with its rich ocean life was certainly up there amongst the best.