After travelling back to Auckland we flew to Wellington and boarded the ferry to the South Island of New Zealand. The journey is breath-taking: the massive and comfortable ship departs at 8am from the capital and jiggles its way out of Wellington Habour into the waters of the Cook Strait to Picton, a charming village with a small maritime museum and a fabulous breakfast café. From there we hired a car and drove through Marlborough County’s plentiful vineyards, sampling a few characteristic Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs. Then we arrived in Kaikoura, on the east coast.
Kaikoura shows few signs of the Maori civilisation that preceded its European settlements. The last remnants of this particular history are the numerous and clearly recognisable Pa sites - terraced hills where the Maori villages/camps used to stand. The Maori presence is not as strongly felt round here as it is in the Northlands, but the town thrives on legends and myth: the story of the demi-god Maui, who fished the South Island out of the sea - in the struggle to pull it up from the waters stomped his foot onto the land, causing the Southern Alps to pop out of the earth’s crust - is literally inscribed into the landscape with wood and stone carvings. (We learnt in Russell that the traditional Maori carvings should be interpreted as a veritable pictorial language; the Maori language wasn’t written down until the arrival of the European settlers.)
Polynesian mythology also tells the story of Kahutia-te-rangi, the wronged son of a king, who was rescued from shipwreck by a humpback whale and carried to the shores of the island on his back. Kahutia-te-rangi was thus renamed Paikea (the Maori name for humpbacks) and became the progenitor of the Ngati Porou tribe in the North Island. While this is a legend of the North, it is still relevant here because whales are a crucial chapter in Kaikoura’s history.
Kaikoura flourished in the late nineteenth century, when its waters full of Southern Rights and Spermaceti attracted the international whaling industry to set up shop. A whaler’s cottage remains, and various peaks and viewpoints are named after tools of this cruel trade.
Different kinds of whalers come to this town today: Kaikoura is NZ’s top site for whale-watching. A few sperm whales live just off the coast, and humpbacks and blue whales are known to pass though these waters during their seasonal migration.
Whale bones still regularly drift ashore, and the locals are allowed to collect them under the strict conditions that the strong and pliable baleen or whalebone be worked and used a jewellery, rather than sold as ivory or rough material. I bought two tiny keepsakes: a humpback whale carved out of totara wood, and a small neck pendant made out of found whalebone.
Despite my well-documented interest in whales, we decided to skip the whale-watching - we had such an amazing experience last year in Cape Cod that any other whale sighting so close in time to that one would feel somewhat disappointing.
So we opted for sea kayaking in the Pacific, and went on a tour of a fur seal colony. The seals were mostly sleeping or lazing about on the rocks after large meals of octopus and fish. Most of the seals seemed untroubled by human presence: they opened one eye, took a good look at us, and went back to sleep. A few put on a little swimming extravaganza, and rolled themselves in the water next to our kayaks to show us how to tumble in pursuit of dinner.
The name Kai-koura, means “eat crayfish” in Maori, so we couldn’t give the crawling rock lobster a miss: grilled on the beach in a small food truck/caravan, and consumed with garlic butter and lemon on greedy fingers it was just perfect.
In the afternoon we walked the short spectacular loop track along the peninsula for some breath-taking views. The fog and clouds lifted for a moment to show the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, a sublime backdrop to the dramatic landscape of the rocky tidal plains and rugged coast.
When we left this morning the sun was finally shining again, and the coastlines were revealed in all their glory. After a few turns on the southbound highway 1 we exited a tunnel and were greeted by a huge pod of dolphins doing acrobatics in the open ocean.