Tuesday, March 22, 2011

#Blog4NZ - Honeymoon in NZ - Kaikoura

It feels insensitive, in light of recent events, to post about our wonderful honeymoon in NZ. At the same time, though, it also feels like a fitting tribute to the beautiful place and remarkable people that Mike and I both love so much. I hope that whoever is reading these posts starts to understand how truly special the country of New Zealand is, and how much it means to us.

On that note, here is Kaikoura:

We left early-afternoon to catch the bus from Blenheim to Kaikoura...

Leaving Grapevine...

...which was nestled in the middle of a bunch of auto-body shops (see backdrop)

Along the bumpy bus ride to Kaikoura

Our accommodation in Kaikoura

Here's what you need to know about Kaikoura:
  • The name 'Kaikoura' translates to 'meal of crayfish' ('kai'- food/meal, 'koura' - crayfish)
  • The town has a strikingly beautiful setting, as the Seaward Kaikoura mountains, a branch of the Southern Alps, come nearly to the sea at this point on the coast. 
  • According to Lonely Planet: "Marine animals are abundant here due to ocean-current and continental-shelf conditions: the sea bed gradually slopes away from the land to a depth of about 90m, then plunges to more than 800m – warm and cold water converges. When the southerly current hits the continental shelf, it creates an upwelling, bringing nutrients up from the ocean floor into the feeding zone.

The most important facts to note are the stunning Seaward Kaikoura Ranges meeting the sea...

...and the abundance of marine life that populate the waters of Kaikoura.

After we checked in to our hostel, which bordered the beach, we went for a walk along the shore and happened upon a tiny pod of Hector's dolphins playing in the surf:

While spotting dolphins in Kaikoura is pretty common-place, they are not usually this close to shore. In fact, one of the activities we had hoped to do there was to swim with dolphins - however it is a deep-sea activity, and the boats have to find the pods and drop you into them. When we mentioned that we saw dolphins along the beach, locals were surprised and told us it was a special sighting indeed. :-)

Since we arrived in the late-afternoon, we didn't have time to do much than try to book activities for the following day and have dinner. As mentioned above, we had hoped to swim with dolphins, however all of the excursions were booked by the time we arrived. Instead, we opted to go whale-watching.

We woke in the morning and had coffee from the little gourmet-wagon run by the hostel (*note: you cannot just get a plain cup of coffee in New Zealand - unless you brew it yourself. All coffees purchased in cafes or shops are espresso varieties, ranging from flat whites, long blacks, and the familiar lattes and cappuccinos).

We then headed off for our whale-watch fun:

This is a sperm whale - you only see a tiny portion above water. The rest of the massive mammal is below water.

Mike took this!

Another sperm whale

Blowing its blow-hole

And yet another, third sperm whale


And goodbye (p.s. I took this!)

We were exhilarated after the whale watch (3 whales is apparently a very good day), and we decided to try our hand at a little adventure and hike the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk. We were given a very rudimentary map and an approximate walk time of 3 hours, but no warnings that we should avoid taking any wrong turns (hint, hint: we took some wrong turns, as you'll see later).

Here are some rocks at the beginning of the walk.

As you can see above, it was low tide when we ventured out. The main draws of the Peninsula walk are the scenery and the wildlife. There are colonies of fur seals along certain portions of the track, and some bird nesting grounds. There are also signs posted warning against agitating the fur seals when/if you encounter them, and to watch your feet in the nesting grounds (so as not to needlessly trample any poor, little birdlings).

We found one of the seal colonies (which smelled delightful!), and were tickled to be so close. There are no barriers between people and the seals, so it truly is important to respect their space and habitat.

Seal colony in the distance

Fur seal up close

Once past the seal colony, we walked even further. The map itself wasn't super detailed about where to go exactly, so we used our own judgment about where to go. If you look at the map below, we *thought* we were following the blue track along the coast. In reality, however, we didn't realize that the blue track didn't hug the shore the way we were, so we wound up off the track.

Apparently still on the track

At some point we noticed that there weren't any other people around. It didn't look like we were off course (our logic was this: It's a peninsula walk, therefore as long as we were walking around the peninsula, we were fine) although we did notice that at one point one part of the track climbed up a hill and away from the coast. There were no signs (we swear) indicating that this was the only route and we should therefore take it...so we didn't.
And we found ourselves nose to nose with many napping seals:

At this point, we still thought this was cute and kept going. Although I kept reiterating the two rules I had learned about encountering wild fur seals: 1) stay at least 10 meters away from them, and 2) do not come between them and the ocean, else they'll feel cornered and will become aggressive.

Officially off-course

See those hills jutting out in the distance? We wound up having to climb them.

At this point we knew we had somehow taken a wrong step and were not where we were meant to be. It had become really rugged and wild, and the tide that was low was starting to come in. We had already come so far that we knew we wouldn't be able to go back the way we came in time to avoid the rising tide, so our only option was to keep going and hope to get around the peninsula without getting stranded.

At one point, we climbed over more steep rocks, and found ourselves in a mess of, literally, thousands of shrieking seagulls and these guys:

We took that photo before they started screaming at us and dive-bombing our heads. These are Oystercatchers, and we had entered their nesting area. All we could do was try to get through it at lightning speed without stepping on anything (or anyone) or getting attacked by the mama birds. It was horrible.

Once through the nesting area, we had to climb through this

Without stepping on these guys


We were literally surrounded by rock, seal, and water, and the water kept rising. Our one saving grace was that it was nap time for the seals, so as long as we kept our climbing, crawling and whimpering to a minimum, they were not bothered.

Parting shot of an awakening fur seal

We finally, finally saw a town in the distance, which also happened to be where the real track came down off the cliff. After busting a move over slippery rocks that would be covered in water minutes later, and then through some sketchy, scary, possibly-snake-infested shrubbery (I'm kidding. New Zealand doesn't have snakes! But if it did, they would definitely be there) we made it to the path and the town, and the final leg of the well-marked and well-inland track.

We made it back to Kaikoura proper and bee-lined it for a pub and many beers. We still can't believe how we found ourselves in that hairy a situation.

The next day we were heading to Christchurch, but not before we decided to go back and do the Peninsula Walk again! This time, however, we wanted to do it the right way (and apologize to all the seals and seagulls and oystercatchers we disrupted the day before), so here is the correct way to do the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk:

If you see that exclamation point, that's where we were not supposed to be

We went back during high tide, so everywhere we had walked the day before was covered

This was all uncovered the day before

We had most definitely climbed all over that area

The fur seals from above

And below (within safe distance)

So yeah. It does not say to not go there.

It's just napping

Our parting shot of Kaikoura

Up next: Christchurch