South Island Wanderings – Kaikoura

Leaving The Haven, we waved goodbye to Sue, Richard and the sheep and turned left to continue our journey down the Motueka Valley Road. Running past Golden Downs and Kikiwa we eventually hit the main SH63 at Beeby’s Knob (mentioned two blogs ago) which is where the headwaters of the Motuka River rise. So we had followed it from sea to source which was a nice thought.

We now had a choice of route as we journeyed to the West Coast. The main route was up the Wairau valley again to Blenheim and then on down the coast via the SH1, the main north/south highway. This had the benefit of being on a fast blacktop road. However, there was an airshow taking place in Blenheim and also roadworks further on south.

The other route was to turn onto the Hanmer Hydro road and take this unsealed road up into the Crimea Range and down into Hanmer Springs following Clarence River. It’s a long route on gravel and with some difficult stretches so would be slow going. From Hanmer it would be a two hour journey to get to Kaikoura. We decided that it would just be too long and tiring so we retraced our journey down the Wairau valley hoping the airshow delays around Blenheim wouldn’t be too bad. Anyway, Jane had worked out a side street route so that we could avoid the airport.

What both of us failed to appreciate was that the airshow wasn’t being held at the airport which we were cleverly avoiding. No, it was taking place at Owaka airfield and the Old Renwick Road which we were driving on would take us directly past the main entrance! As it turned out we were diverted away from the airfield before we got to it and in any case the traffic was quite light. I guess we had been expecting something similar to the International Air Tattoo at Fairford which is to be avoided at all costs if you don’t want to get hung up for several hours. New Zealand just does these things on a smaller, more intimate scale.

The roadworks on the SH1 about which we had been warned weren’t that bad either, perhaps because it was Easter and the construction workers were all at the airshow. Just before we got to Kaikoura we turned into the Ohau Point viewing area to see the New Zealand Fur Seal colony which lives there. This was an area badly damaged by the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016 and it was feared that the colony would be displaced. But they seem to have come back and it was good to see a healthy population with plenty of youngsters playing about in the water or clambering about the rocks.

So, we made good time to Kaikoura and turned into our favourite destination in New Zealand: Kincaid Cottage there to be greeted with a hug from the lovely Jessica our wonderful Kiwi accented Swedish host.

This is the third time we have stayed at Kincaid and we have developed a tradition. We had brought with us from our stay in Renwick a most beautiful method Marlborough (champagne in all but name) Vintage Rose 2015 from Nautilus winery. At Nin’s Bin on the coast 20 klms from Kaikoura we bought a crayfish (lobster) at an outrageous price. And from the local supermarket we bought some fresh sourdough bread.

We were able to sit on the lawn outside our cottage and gaze at the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, wearing their snow crowns in regal splendour, and toast the closing days of our trip with a splendid wine which had been blushed with the rays of the dawn sun, lovingly fermented and bottled then released into our glasses with bubbles of joy.

It was too chilly to eat outside so we drank the rest of our bottle to accompany the lobster, simple salad and buttered brown bread in our comfortable house whilst looking at the view.

Night had fallen when Jane looked out of the seaward facing window and said, “Rob, what’s that orange light over there.” I leapt up and ran for my camera when I realised that it was a fabulous moon rise.

Kaikoura is in a very favoured position which makes it a magnet for tourists. The mountains provide a dramatic backdrop but also a kind of bastion against the rest of the South Island. Which means that Kaikoura turns its face to the sea for it is here that there is bounty to be had. A long, wide bay provides safe harbour to the fishing boats for there are many fish and crustaceans to be caught in these waters. Crayfish, or lobster, are very abundant and with the right gear you can easily hand dive for some.

Wildlife is attracted here in large numbers because of the plentitude of sea life. There are colonies of New Zealand Fur Seal resting up on inshore rocks and beaches, Albatross and Petrel cruise above the waves and below it pods of dolphin swim. Further out, in the 1,000 mtr deep upwelling of the Kaikoura Trench, Sperm Whale and other cetaceans patrol (including that most iconic dolphin, the Orca, at certain times of the year).

When the sun shines down on the ocean and the snowy mountains Kaikoura is truly a paradise. Unfortunately, for the next two days the sun most definitely did not shine down and our first evening’s glimpse of the mountains was the last we had for some time. And it rained. Not heavily, just persistently and we were more grateful than ever that we were staying at Kincaid Cottage where we could be comfortable, relaxed and able to catch up on reading and blogging. And it was lovely when Jessica invited us to her house to share some wine and a wonderful Swedish smorgasbord with her, husband Greg and a Swedish friend over on a visit.

The rain did at least entice us into the museum to view the display on the Kaikoura Earthquake. At 12.02 AM on Monday the 14th of November 2016 an earthquake struck. It lasted two minutes, the longest recorded in New Zealand and a very long quake by international standards. They usually last less than a minute.

At the time, shortly after the quake, Jessica wrote us an eyewitness account of what is was like to be involved. Of being awoken by violent shaking and crashing crockery, of bundling up the kids and fleeing in the car, together with two guests who were staying in the cottage, to higher ground. Of boulders crashing around them. And of sitting it out for 24 hours, riding the aftershocks and being fearful of what had happened to her beautiful home.

But visiting the exhibition gave us a wider context and understanding of what had happened. The quake was, in fact, centered further south but the worst effects seem to have occurred around Kaikoura. It was a high magnitude quake – 7.8 – and it travelled fast. The seabed in the bay was raised by 6 mtrs, a staggering amount but it’s just as well because the tsunami which was generated was measured at 7 mtrs so if the seabed hadn’t risen Kaikoura would undoubtedly have been destroyed.

As it was, damage to properties, though bad, was not as severe as it might have been and, thankfully, only one person lost her life as a direct result of the quake, though that is one person too many. Jessica’s house, though damaged, was readily repairable.

Perhaps the worst impact was on infrastructure. Both road and rail were severely damaged by massive rock slides, north and south of the town so that it was cut off. Tourists and locals were stranded, businesses were ruined and people had to live on limited food supplies which meant they were reduced to eating crayfish. We had eaten it for pleasure, these people had to eat it to stay alive.

Kaikoura is now beginning to get back on its feet. The authorities have made a sterling effort to repair the infrastructure damage. It has been a massive undertaking and will no doubt go on for some time to come but tourists are now back and business is thriving. If you live in a fault zone you just learn to accept that the earth may throw something back at you from time to time.

Our time in Kaikoura was not a complete washout. On our final full day we woke up to cloud but at least no rain. We quickly prepared for a day out and first of all went out onto the peninsula to walk among the seals and birds. The Peninsula is an area of beaches, rocks, cliffs and undulating land which sticks out into the sea at the southern end of the town. You used to be able to walk out on the rocky shoreline only at low tide but since the raising of the sea bed you can do so at any time. This in turn means that you can get even closer to the fur seals which rest up during the day after a busy night feasting at sea.

It is possible that us humans are putting some stress on the animals by walking amongst them and poking our lenses in their faces. But the large number of young seals there seems to indicate they are breeding successfully so perhaps they are just attenuated to our presence amongst them.

To see other marine animals you need to get out on the water which we did by booking an ‘Albatross encounter’ with a long established operator. There were only three of us on the trip and our guide was the delightful Gary, whom we have met several times at the International Bird Fair held at Rutland Water every year.

Almost as soon as we had started out on the ocean a Giant Petrel starting swooping around the boat, gliding inches above the waves in an incredible aerial display.

Before too long a white bird with extremely long, tapered wings came into view, riding tiny thermals and air currents inches above the waves. A bird with the longest wing span of any in the world – the Wandering Albatross.

There is something truly magical about seeing these birds flying towards you like a small aeroplane. They are ungainly on land but out at sea they seem to epitomise the very essence of freedom from the everyday bounds of the world.

All around seabirds were making a b-line for our small boat. Not to gives us a special flyby but because they have learned that following Gary’s boat means food. He cut the engines, went to the stern and opened up a metal box. Out of this he pulled a plastic cage full of foul smelling fish parts, mostly liver, and heaved it into the water. Suddenly there were birds flying in from every direction, splash landing in the water and fighting amongst themselves to get at the ‘chum’.

Around us there were Giant Petrel fighting and looking like thugs,

and tiny Cape Petrel daintily paddling amongst them looking for any scraps.

There was a New Zealand White-capped Albatross with his viscious looking yellow-tipped beak and a Black-browed, wearing a delicate eye shadow.

A lone Royal and several Northern Wandering Albatross. All were intent on getting at the chum but the largest and most aggressive dominated the cage of bait and so got most of the food. Gary told us that those birds with the pinkest beak and pink on their necks were breeding males and they fought the hardest for food.

Once the food was gone the birds flew off and we moved to see if we could find the Hutton’s Shearwater. Critically endangered, these diminutive birds were in danger of extinction but a habitat has been secured for them on the Kaikoura Peninsula with wire fences protecting them from introduced predators. They nest in burrows and the adults spend their day out at sea. Generally they fly out around dawn and come back in around dusk so getting to see them on land is challenging. Out at sea they sometimes gather in ‘rafts’ and Gary was hoping to find some for us but many of the adults have moved away from the area having brought up their offspring so we were unlucky in our search.

What we did find is dolphins. Dusky Dolphin gather in large pods in this area and will readily come and play in the water beside the boat. Indeed, you can go on a dolphin encounter cruise which puts you in the water with these mammals but, even wearing a wet suit, the water would have been too cold for us. We contented ourselves with watching their antics from the boat.

We were happy to be out on the open water and occasional breaks in the clouds gave us views of the lovely Kaikoura mountains.

This time around the Easter weather was not too kind to us but we still had a great four days staying in our favourite house and it was a great way to end what has been a wonderful trip. For the most part the weather elsewhere has been glorious and we are glad that we came at this time of year. We have revisited some old haunts and met up with friends we have made. And we have discovered new places to explore, new homes to stay in and made new friends to come back to.

As Singapore Airlines SQ298 lifted off the tarmac we waved goodbye to New Zealand one more time. Until the next time.

5 thoughts on “South Island Wanderings – Kaikoura

  1. Are you working for the NZ tourist board? I’ve enjoyed your travels. Kaikoura looks spectacular. Great photos. Will get there one day soon. Safe travels.


    1. Thanks Jan. We’d love to work for the NZ tourist board if they would give us a free holiday! Hope you had a wonderful time in Australia and we’ll catch up sometime. Jane and Rob xx


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