New Zealand- Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 359 (169)

Kaikoura

Wednesday 2nd March (2005)

We were lucky enough yesterday afternoon to find a parking spot in the middle of Christchurch right next to the hostel building, a converted pub, but the free evening and night-time parking was only good until nine o’clock this morning so we had to be up and out before then to avoid a potential parking fine. Consequently, we had to get up earlier than we would have liked. Add to that the fact that our body clocks just lost another couple of hours due to the time zone change and you end up with two very tired travellers – again! Aren’t we supposed to be on holiday? I suppose I could have got up, got dressed, and went down to the street to put some money into the meter but since we were planning on leaving Christchurch pretty much straight away anyway, it seemed like a good idea to get active and make breakfast. I find having a reason to get up is always useful. It was all a bit rushed but we kicked into gear, ate a quick bite and were on the road by around nine-thirty. I had read the guidebook a bit more last night before nodding off and had come to the conclusion that we would make an anti-clockwise rotation of the South island to return us back to Christchurch in about three weeks from now, ready for our flight up to Auckland on the North island on the twenty second, the day after my birthday. The guidebook’s suggested itinerary is something similar but allows for an additional week to traverse the same distance. I hope that doesn’t mean we will be too rushed.

Our intended destination this morning was a place up on the North East coast called Kaikoura. This part of New Zealand’s East coast is something of a Mecca for whale watchers as pretty much every sort of whale can be spotted there at some point throughout the year. We’ve been singularly unlucky to have been in the right place but at the wrong time of year for whale watching in other countries that we’ve previously visited. Sperm whales can be seen off the East coast all season long so we should stand a decent chance of seeing something. Before starting the car’s ignition, we cracked open the guidebook and started to call some hostels in Kaikoura. After the first two places we called confirmed that they were fully booked, I had a horrific premonition that this would be the same story all throughout New Zealand. On the third attempt, however, we found a place that has a double room available and providing our names was all they needed to hold the room for us. I felt much better about starting the car after that.

It took us about twenty minutes to fully escape the clutches of Christchurch but even after making it onto the open road, I still very much had the feeling that we could have been driving through England. The similarities really are quite striking. In an attempt to stave off the anticipated monotony of highway driving, although the mountainous scenery permanently off to our left was quite nice, we decided to stop for a rest break and swapped over the driving duties. This was a mistake. For one thing, we drove out to the coast in search of some cliff caves but it was high tide and the route was impassable. We also kept bickering with each other about, let’s say, the clear difference in our driving styles. Now, it might have been that Sandy was getting used to how the car handled or, more likely perhaps, it might have been my own failing of being a control freak and a poor passenger but I seemed constantly to be telling the new driver to watch the speed, stay away from the sheer drop-offs or whatever it was. Sandy put up with this as best she could for as long as she could but the writing was clearly on the wall and in an attempt to prevent a rupture in our marriage from forming, we stopped and swapped over again. We drove for the next twenty minutes or so in reflective silence before finding a picnic area to stop and eat the sandwiches we prepared for lunch this morning. We’re on talking terms again now.

We made it all the way up the rugged coastline of Kaikoura by around midday. On the main approach road down the foothills and towards the ocean road, we had a superb view of the ocean and I somewhat laughingly told Sandy to watch out for whales. To our astonishment, it took all but a few seconds before we spotted something in the water. We stopped at one of the many small parking areas just a few metres from the beach and tried to study the water disturbances more clearly. It turned out to be a huge pod of dolphins moving across the water about a Kilometre out to sea. Some of them were jumping out of the water a clear two to three metres or more. It was quite a sight to see, even if it wasn’t whales after all. Shortly thereafter, I had to make another abrupt, screeching stop into a nearby lay-by so that we could study what we were this time sure was a small whale. It looked like this whale was swimming on its side with its dorsal fin sticking into the air. There seemed to be another even smaller whale swimming alongside it. Perhaps a mother and a juvenile? They were just a couple of hundred metres from the shore and were moving very slowly along the coastline. We followed them, moving from lay-by to lay-by for a while and I was kicking myself that they weren’t just that little bit closer so that we could make a more definitive identification. After a while, it hit us. It was a couple of seals. In fact, we were suddenly aware that there were dozens of seals all up and down the rocky coastline. We walked onto the shore and rocks to photograph some of them up close. Some were swimming amongst the kelp beds whilst others were simply lounging and soaking up the sun on the rocks. Still no whales but we’ve only been here for ten minutes and have already spotted a huge pod of acrobatic dolphins and several dozen seals up close. I think I’m going to like it here.

We soon made it into the small town of Kaikoura and quickly found our hostel. The room is comfortable but with no ensuite. Still, the hostel itself is nice enough, everything is on the ground floor of the same building and at NZ$55 (€31,90) per night, the price is about right too. I booked us in for two nights. Whilst here in New Zealand, I’m going to try to ensure that we spend at least two nights in every new place that we visit. This should make for a more comfortable pace of travel.

After we settled in and relaxed a bit to unwind from the three-hour trip, I spoke with the proprietor about what our options were for whale spotting. This is pretty much the attraction that brings every last backpacker and tourist to Kaikoura to begin with and although there are some ancillary activities, whale spotting is the name of the game here. Essentially, there are three methods of getting to see the whales; by boat, by light aircraft or by helicopter. Although the more expensive option, I quite liked the idea of a half-hour helicopter tour. It travels faster than the boat but can slow right down in the vicinity of the whales – something the light aircraft cannot. At NZ$185 (€107,30) per person, it certainly wasn’t the cheapest option but this will likely be our one and only chance ever to see whales in the while (or anywhere else for that matter). To hell with the expense, I thought to myself, as I called the helicopter operator to inquire about when we could get a flight. Now, we’ve been in helicopter rides a couple of times before and depending on the aircraft, there are good and bad seats with regards to the ability to take nice photos so we agreed that we would take a flight this afternoon in the proviso that at least one of us would get to sit in a decent photographing position on the aircraft. This apparently wouldn’t be a problem at all, so I went into town to withdraw a load of ready cash. About an hour thereafter, we were making our way over to the helipad just on the other side of the town. When we got there, the person that I spoke with over the phone was in flight out over the ocean so I spoke with another pilot that was staffing the small office. We exchanged a few details and he told us that there would be just us two and another one other passenger and that seeing as we were a couple, we would be sitting in the back seat. I queried this immediately and told him that I had only just arranged with the other pilot that we would be getting the front seat because of the photography. He told me that this was not possible anymore, regardless of what we had previously agreed on. This seemed just so unjust and I felt that same rage building that hit me when we were treated equally unjustly back in Perth. I told him this was not what we had just arranged and that we would instead wait for another flight. Even though I did my level best to be very polite and patient, he sensed my anger and seemed to take the attitude of ‘tough luck pal – if you don’t like it, you know where the door is.’ This did absolutely nothing to quell my raging internal anger. To make matters worse, there didn’t appear to be any space on any further flights for the day and the best he could do was to suggest coming back again tomorrow. Ahhhhhrrrrrrrrggggggggg! With all the poise I could muster, I thanked him and we went next door to book a boat ride out to the whales instead. We actually booked ourselves onto the four o’clock departure but when we got back to the hostel and thought about this some more, it didn’t really seem like a very good idea since this would not give us enough time to eat anything and the boat ride was a three and a half hour round trip. I still had sandy to think about. We decided to cancel the boat ride in favour of a doing this tomorrow instead. In the meantime, I called back to the helicopter operator in the vane hope of trying to secure a flight for tomorrow morning already. The unhelpful moron that we spoke with earlier was thankfully no longer there but the company owner was and I spoke with him at length about what had transpired today. What the previous idiot had neglected to inform us was that the rear seat on the left side of the aircraft, the side that was facing away from us when we were there, has a huge, bubble window, through which a very wide photographing viewing angle was possible. We probably could have gone on our original flight after all and been able to get some decent photos. We’ve already been told that there are definitely sperm whales in the area. Instead, we will now have to hope that the weather tomorrow is as good as it has been today. Sometimes I just want to strangle someone! Think good thoughts, think good thoughts, think good thoughts.

I popped into town to pick up some shopping and Sandy was able to whip up a nice round of chicken wings for us both. This wasn't until after I spent the best part of half an hour trying to kill as many of the hundred or more houseflies that were buzzing around the dining room and kitchen areas of the hostel. Okay, it probably wasn’t more than a dozen or more but I can’t stand flies at the best of times, especially in the kitchen, and they simply had to go.

Our whale spotting fiasco left us with the rest of the afternoon and evening to kill, in addition to the flies, so we decided to get into the car and go for a spin. Apparently, there is a seal colony right near here so we went in search of it. After ten minutes of driving up the coast, we decided to turn around and go visit the seal colony just south of town instead. Yes, I’m having a bad day.

We found the seal colony just south of town. Much like many of the car parks all around the country that we’ve seen so far, this one too is littered with camper vans (bricks). The tide was out and the exposed rocky surface off shore stretched out into the sea at least a couple of hundred metres. Although there were a hundred or more seals out on the distant rocks with a stretch of water between them and us, we did find a dozen or more seals dotted around the rocks closer to the shoreline. We managed to get very close to pretty much all of them and this made for some fantastic photography. We spent a good hour or more just wandering around and admiring the seals and their behaviour in their natural habitat. It was a nice relaxing end to what has at times been a very challenging day.

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