Kaikoura: Where the mountains kiss the dolphin-filled seas
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Hannah Klein
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Kaikoura: Where the mountains kiss the dolphin-filled seas

A town close to the edge

 

Words by Emma Fenton-Wells

Blog #7 of her solo trip in NZ

 

 

Legend goes that when explorer Tama ki te Raki reached the place now known as Kaikoura, and cooked locally caught crayfish (koura) over an open fire, he was inspired to name the area Te Ahi Kai Koura, meaning “The Fires where Tama ki te Raki at crayfish.” That’s a bit long, so overtime it was shortened. However, the delicious crayfish has not changed one bit. 

 

Photo credit: Helen Stegney

 

On a whim (and some bad weather), I had switched the entire trajectory of my trip now heading down along the east coast of New Zealand - another reason why New Zealand is best travelled adventurously by camper. 

From Blenheim, I visited a few vineyards and museums (namely the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre which is a MUST SEE) and drove through Marlborough where the brown hills were alive with vineyards to the edge of the country, where black sand meets the purest blue seas. It’s a breathtaking drive. 

 

A casual visitor at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

 

Kaikoura is described as a town close to the edge as it sits on one of the deepest underwater canyons on earth. It’s alive with more sea creatures than you’ve ever seen - huge pods of wild dolphins roam the bay, whales toss and turn, and the mighty albatross soars. If everyone on earth knew Kaikoura existed, you’d never get into town (and they’d put SeaWorld out of business). 

 

 

As you’re descending into town, you’re hit with a whiff of seal. That’s right, you’ll smell them before you see them. Along the coast, the rocks were FILLED and I mean FILLED with a huge colony of seals. It was late in the day so they were getting hungry, preparing to hunt by nightfall. You’ll also drive past the world famous in New Zealand, Nin’s Bin- a fine seafood eatery on the side of the highway. If it’s open, stop by for a bite and peruse of his only neighbour (the seal colony). 

 

 

The town itself is small. It’s overpowered simply by the huge mountains and seas between which it’s wedged. I drove five minutes out of town and parked up at Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park. I picked this spot as I could camp right on the beach. The fact it’s actually a nice campsite and the owners were lovely, giving me lots of tips to spot the local wildlife was a total bonus! 

As the sun went down, the whole camp was surrounded by one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve seen in New Zealand. The sky turned from an iridescent blue to a glowering pink in the blink of an eye. 

 

 

Over a coffee out the back of my van the next morning, I was joined by a pod of dolphins! Just like that! I knew staying on the beach was an excellent decision. 

That day, I booked with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura to go and find some of these beautiful creatures up close. The company has been running for more than 30 years and is one of the only operators who can facilitate swimming with the wild dolphins. Within 15 minutes of sailing, we came across a pod of nearly 300 dolphins who were on a mission to show off for us. It was mind blowing. 

During our trip, we also came across an albatross, a rogue seal, and an enormous, majestic humpback whale cruising along the coastline. We really won the lottery of good luck that day. 

 

 

Photo credit: Pablo Heimplatz

 

That night, I grabbed some koura for myself from locally recommended Cods & Crayfish. The crayfish was delicious and went down beautifully with a few glasses of wine as I sat on the beach and watched the sunset again. 

 

 

On my last lazy day in the wild, I grabbed breakfast in town at Slam Club (great coffee) and meandered the well curated Kaikoura Museum. They really dive into the natural environment and the wonders of the area. The town itself has just been rebuilt following the quake, so it is small (but growing). The real draw is nature. 

I finished off my time in town by trekking down to the seal colony. Down there, it’s mostly the retirees who are lounging across rocks. Again, you can smell them first. But then they are EVERYWHERE. The walk itself is great and takes you (what feels like) off the beaten track. Then there’s no shortage of seals to gawk over. Just remember, they’re wild animals so don’t get too close! 

 

 

In all, the three days I spent in Kaikoura were great. I could see myself stretching out in either summer or winter on the beach, watching the marine world swim on by. Next time, I’ll definitely go whale watching too (officially, that is!).

 

 

Hot tips for Kaikoura:

  • After their huge earthquake in 2016, State Highway 1 is still being rebuilt. Throughout the year, parts are closed at night. It’s worth checking ahead [hyperlink: https://www.journeys.nzta.govt.nz/nelson-and-marlborough/traffic-update/681411] to make sure your trip won’t be impacted by these roadworks (as State Highway 1 is the only road into town)

  • During busy periods, dolphin and whale watching sells out months ahead. When it comes to swimming with wild dolphins, the Department of Conservation only allows for a very limited number of swimmers to be in the water at any given time. If this is a bucket list thing to do, get in quick!

  • The skipper of the boat I went on also advised that winter is a phenomenal time to see the sea life. It’s not uncommon to come across pods of 500, 1000 dolphins! Definitely add a visit to Kaikoura onto your winter wonderland escape. 

  • If you’re a surfer, buckle up! Surfers flock to the beaches to tackle some of the beaut conditions. Chat the locals for the best breaks to hunt down. 

  • Be prepared to eat well. Very, very well. 

 

 

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