Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kaikoura, Part 1

Saturday, 16 April, 2011
Nelson, NZ

In January of 2007, my good friend Provo and I stopped in Kaikoura (kai-KOHR-ah) on our way from Picton to Lake Tekapo, but we were only there long enough to hit the public toilets, grab a coffee, and see how crowded the place was with tourists. This time, Matt and I had a nice leisurely visit and got to know Kaikoura and the surrounding environs pretty well in our few days there, and enjoy the cozy, sleepy little seaside town that is Kaikoura in the off season.

The coastline and bays around Kaikoura provide a refuge for all kinds of marine life, and thus it is New Zealand's center for whale watching and swimming with seals and dolphins, as well as boasting a number of great surf spots. All of these things, and the need to get some exploration in, led us to spend most of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday seeing the sights and taking in the beautiful scenery around Kaikoura. It's about a four hour drive down the east coast from Nelson, and we had some gorgeous scenery along the way, trees covered in yellow and red leaves, the beautiful colors of fall, which we don't have many of in Nelson, due to our warm little microclimate.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

 Both above photos: beautiful colors on the road between Nelson and Blenheim. 

 It had never occurred to me that grapevines would turn yellow in the fall, until we hit the vineyards around Blenheim! Gorgeous, no?

 A look at a stretch of Highway 6 between here and Blenheim. Note the Radiata Pine plantation on the hill. 

In the settlement of Kekerengu, we stopped for a break at The Store (which comprises the entire settlement), a cool seaside establishment with very unique construction. Neat fireplace!

We left Nelson around 10:30 on Wednesday morning, and hit the coast north of Kaikoura about three hours later. We had absolutely gorgeous weather until we hit the winding highway through the mountains on the way home yesterday, which was fine with us! Mostly, we had beautifully sunny days to enjoy the beaches and the views, with just that little chilly bite in the fall air. North of Kaikoura, the rocky coast is home to a number of fur seal colonies, with our furry friends sunning themselves on rocks right up to the edge of the highway. There are a number of places to pull off and say hello to them, with the biggest colony being at Ohau Point. There were hundreds of seals all over the rocks, this year's pups playing in tidepools, and a few seals out in the water, surfing down the massive breakers that were rolling in. It was really cool to stand right at the side of the road and see such huge numbers of animals, who could care less that the highway is right there! 

 All of those dark spots are seals!

Driving south, we stopped to investigate a couple of potential surf spots, enjoying the blue, blue ocean and the great scenery, steep Oregon-y headlands with the snowcapped Seaward Kaikoura Range rising up behind.

We found the perfect waves at a spot called Maungamaunu (or somesuch- there are about four different spellings for it), a point break right off the highway about 15km north of town. With a chilly wind blowing and only a thin wetsuit, I decided not to get in, but Matt paddled out and ended up doing some of the best surfing of his life, with some of the longest rides in the history of Matt. This wave is incredible- they pull around the point and keep breaking perfectly all the way to the inside of the bay, 150 metres or more. 
 Matt waiting for a wave. 

 The perfect point break. 

The scenery wasn't bad either :) 

I entertained myself on the beach, writing and taking photos, and hunting for paua shells. Paua (POW-ah) are big clams whose shells have a gorgeous iridescent lining. We had only found a couple small shells in our entire time in New Zealand, although they are incredible common. This beach rewarded me with huge numbers, mostly just for the enjoyment of finding them scattered every few feet along the beach! 
 I found this shell with the meat still in it. Yes, Paua are black! A fact that greatly surprised Matt and I the first time we had paua fritters!

 With the small camera for scale. 


The beach was also littered with crayfish shells. Kaikoura means "to eat crayfish," with "kai" being the Maori word for "food" or "eat." The Kaikoura coast is home to an abundance of this kiwi delicacy, but we did not partake because they go for $70-90 a plate!

After Matt's epic surf (he got so many amazing rides, and on such a perfect mellow wave that he was able to do some fancy turns and things that added to the stoke), we headed for a free DOC campsite up the Puhi Puhi River, about 10 km north of Kaikoura. The valley and its braided river were stunningly beautiful, full of yellow leaves, mist, and a couple very old homesteads. The campground sat right below the snowy mountains, and it got COLD that night! We were happy to have our long underwear and lots of layers while we cooked up some sausages and potatoes for dinner, and a quick cup of tea before climbing into the "bed cave." 

 Driving up the valley. 

The view from our campsite. 

A typical New Zealand campground.

On Thursday morning, we headed into Kaikoura and enjoyed wandering around the tiny downtown strip and the neighboring rock beach. Kaikoura only has a population of about 4,000, but overflows with tourists in the high season. The whole economy is built around the tourism industry, centering on whale watching, fishing charters, kayaking, and seal/dolphin swims. We saw plenty of backpackers while we were there, but ultimately it was nice to enjoy the feel of a tourist town in its down time, with local farmers hanging out on the sidewalks and a very peaceful, friendly feel to the place. We really enjoyed walking around, poking about in the shops and galleries, and soaking up the sunshine beside the very calm bay (the town of Kaikoura is built at the foot of a very small peninsula, which provides the sheltered area that draws in so much marine life).

 Matt skipping stones. 

 Beautifully carved clock tower.

Kaikoura business district with the Seaward Range behind.

I think I'll leave it at that for tonight, as it's getting a bit lengthy. Thanks for reading, and tune in for Part 2 tomorrow or the next day!

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