Kaikoura: Whale of a time

By Pamela Wade

In the shadow of snow-capped peaks and dark, massive humps, Pamela Wade stands among giants.

Kaikoura allows visitors to get up close and personal with the titans of the sea. Photo / Whale Watch Kaikoura
Kaikoura allows visitors to get up close and personal with the titans of the sea. Photo / Whale Watch Kaikoura

They breed them tough here," I said to the man watching the surfers at Mangamaunu, as we stood with our backs to the snowy Seaward Kaikouras. But he was contemptuous: "Pah! Four-mil neoprene, gloves and boots! Never mind the water, they can't even feel their boards." And he harrumphed a few more times to let me know that if he'd been a few years younger, he'd have been out there in the icy water, doing it properly.

I considered telling him how I'd woken that morning, cocooned in goose-down under a possum and merino throw and, despite a toasty warm floor, had scuttled across to light the log burner before running a hot, deep bath by a window overlooking the ocean. On second thoughts, it wasn't worth the risk to his blood pressure; and besides, there was a secret to discover.

Waving to the passengers in the open carriage of the blue and yellow TranzCoastal train as it rattled past - more keen types braving the chilly air in the thin winter sunshine - I drove further north and stopped at an anonymous-looking lay-by.

A path led under the railway line, following a rocky creek up into the bush where, in a pool under a waterfall, I counted 15, no - 20, no - must have been 30 chubby and cheerful seal pups: fat, shiny babies with liquid-brown eyes.

Diving like dolphins, jumping and play fighting, they made the water boil with their energy as they splashed for the sheer joy of it, with no mothers in sight. Word has it that four years ago one found his way up the stream to the waterfall and told his mates: now, when the sea gets rough, they all head inland to their sheltered fresh water playground, sometimes 100 of them.

It's a mystery to the marine biologists, but a gift to everyone else. Endearingly unfrightened by the people delightedly watching them - one galumphed up to sniff my shoe - they were endlessly entertaining; but in the end my cheeks were aching from all that smiling, and I had to go.

My mistake. I had arranged to meet Bruce in town, from where he escorts tours to the seal colony on the peninsula - by Segway.

On the face of it a physical impossibility, it turned out that this self-balancing two-wheeler is a Zen machine: just think of a direction, and away it hums.

"Women do best," said Bruce, "because first, they listen to instructions, and then they follow them." I nodded smugly and swooped away, leaning forward for speed and thinking how brilliant it would be to play polo on one of these things, as Bruce sometimes does. Even gliding obediently along the road was terrific fun, and my cheek muscles were feeling the strain again.

Out at the point the seals were, frankly, a bit dull after the bouncy pups and the super-cool Segway; but the view was a winner.

A squall was sweeping across the bay, the rain dramatically backlit by the sun which caught the white of gulls tossed on the wind, while behind the snow-capped peaks the sky was clear and blue.

Kaikoura town huddled beneath them, perched between mountains and sea. That's why Kaikoura exists, of course. Cold water welling up from far below is full of nutrients, so the sea here is rich in marine life, and the fishing famously good.

Whales have always been very big business in Kaikoura. Fat rusty trypots along the coast are just one reminder of the town's busy whaling days, when the air reeked with the stench of boiling blubber.

Now, watching these leviathans is the main drawcard; the bay's resident population of sperm whales - plus four visiting species - virtually guaranteeing sightings on every Whale Watch trip, often soon after leaving the jetty in one of their fast and comfortable catamarans.

It's a slick, high-tech operation, with plenty of on-board information and entertainment to fill the gaps between sightings of whales, dolphins and seabirds.

It's hard, though, to get a real idea of the size of the beast from the hump of its back in the water: so this time I tried the helicopter option.

Fraser's cute little 'copter, a bubble with rotors, was perfect for the job. Without fuss or drama, it rose up smoothly and skimmed out over the dimpled sea. Minutes later, we were circling tightly over Noodle - the resident whales have names - as he rested on the surface, re-oxygenating after a dive that could have taken him two hours, hunting for giant squid at the bottom of the trench. From the air, I could see all of him clearly, from his blunt head down to the wide flukes of his tail, sharp and black in the deep blue of the water. It was an awesome sight, and when he stirred and his tail rose up, streaming white water, it was spine-tingling.

Swooping across the sea, Fraser followed the golden trail laid by the low sun - pausing above another whale, Tutu, until he too dived - and then whisked up to land the helicopter on top of a hill.

The view was spectacular: mountains trailing wind-blown snow, the ribbon of road threading along the scalloped edge of the bush-swathed land, white lines of breakers rolling on to the black sand beaches.

Then we were airborne again, peeling sideways down the hill, exactly like a fairground ride, except so very much cooler.

The air was just that, back down by the sea: positively chilly, in fact. The wintry conditions were so perfect for enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail by the fire back at Hapuku Lodge that I was foolishly persuaded into a second Manhattan, ensuring a jolly evening which included local organic vegetables, a delicately flavoured crayfish and caramel poached pear; but led to a less jolly morning after.

It was tempting to stay in my fabulous tree house, one of five stylishly simple boxes of wood, glass and copper perched above a stand of manuka trees. I could hunker down in front of the glowing log-burner and gaze out at the mountains, washed pink in the sunrise; but taking a leaf out of the old surfer's book, I rugged up and headed to the beach.

Fat rabbits scattered in the deer paddock as I crunched over the driveway gravel and past sheep grazing among the orange and brown tracery of a vineyard. Hairy cattle watched as I passed a lonely graveyard where lichen grew on old markers inscribed in Maori. Across the railway line, spray-swept breakers left the stones on the beach sparkling-wet in the bright sunshine; the mountains were crisp and clear, their foothills dark, whale-shaped humps. Yet another glorious morning in Kaikoura.

FACT FILE

* Visit hapukulodge.com or ph 0800 KAIKOURA.

* Visit whalewatch.co.nz or ph 0800 655 121.

* Visit worldofwhales.co.nz or ph (03) 319 6609.

* Visit wheelawesome.co.nz or ph(03) 319 7456.

- Herald on Sunday

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