A Travellerspoint blog

New Zealand

Dolphins and the Bay of Islands

sunny 33 °C

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After another long bus ride (12 hours, with an hour in Auckland), I reached my final destination in New Zealand - the Bay of Islands. The truth's in the name - there are about 150 islands in and around this large bay in Northland, at the very top of the country's North Island.

The little towns around the bay - Paihia, Russell and Waitangi, where the country's founding document, the famous Treaty, was signed - have much cultural significance, as well as being very attractive. As a popular holiday destination, the place is surprisingly unspoilt. Many people sail around the bay and there are countless secluded places to explore. Whilst I didn't get a chance to go sailing, I had already booked to go on a dolphin cruise.

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The boat left early in the morning and, after a bit of cruising around the bay in search of them, we eventually found a large pod of bottlenose dolphins. These were larger than any dolphins I'd ever seen before; up to 3 metres long. Watching out for them is exciting - you see one, then another appears in the corner of your vision, disappears from sight as you turn to look, then another one surfaces the other side of your vision. So, your head is constantly turning and your eyes scanning the water's surface. Due to their fairly random appearance, getting good photos was really hard. I have a couple of brilliant videos, one showing a dolphin back flipping high out of the water, which I will try to upload...

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For animals of their size, they really are very graceful in the water.

It is possible to swim with these dolphins in the bay (I'd brought swimwear!), however this pod had babies so we weren't able to. The reason being, the babies are so curious, they will interact and play with people so much that they forget to drink their mother's milk. They are so playful and use up so much energy that the babies need to feed every 10 minutes. Whilst they would enjoy swimming with people as much as we would enjoy swimming with them, it could be potentially very dangerous for them. Still, just seeing these animals was very beautiful.

Later in the cruise we came across a pod of common dolphins which, again, had babies, so no swimming with these either. These, much smaller, dolphins were very playful - they loved swimming alongside and under the boat. Unlike dolphins kept in tanks, which I disapprove of, these ones could easily swim away from the boat if they wanted to. The fact that they chose to be around, and follow, the boat shows that they really enjoy contact with people.

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I lay over the front of the catamaran, so I could see down in between the two hulls and watch the animals up close. Sometimes one would swim between the hulls, easily matching the boat's speed, and it would hold eye contact. You can sense their intelligence, almost see them thinking, considering you, as their eye fixes itself upon yours. It's hard to explain, but felt very special. One of them kept splashing upwards with its tail, trying to get me, and my camera, wet. Whilst doing this, its eye never left mine - it was clearly playing a game of 'soak the human', and enjoying it.

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On the way back to Paihia, the boat moored at Otehei Bay, on one of the many small islands. From here I walked up to the top of a hill in the centre of the island, which offered great views of the surrounding islands. This really would be a fantastic place to explore with one's own boat; there are countless little corners to explore.

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The following day, 5th February - the day before Waitangi Day, NZ's national day of celebrations - I walked over the bridge to Waitangi. Whilst I didn't go inside the Treaty House, where British and Maori representatives signed the country of New Zealand into existence, it was interesting to be at the site of the nation's creation.

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Being the Waitangi Day weekend, there were tents, stalls and people everywhere. Some Maoris, in traditional dress, were rowing across the bay and up the river in ornately carved wooden canoes.

To escape the noise and commotion I decided to do a walk from Waitangi. This trail passes through kiwi habitat. Whilst not certain, I think I saw something on the ground which looked like a kiwi, scurry off as I approached. Maybe, but maybe not.

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I certainly did see, and hear, many other types of bird, including several tui, with their distinctive call, and a pair of herons.

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At one point, the path became a boardwalk to cross the swampy mangroves. Scuttling around in the mud were tiny crabs and there was a constant clicking noise coming from the mud - snapping shrimp.

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On Waitangi Day itself I headed back down to Auckland and spent my last night in NZ in the same place as my first - Frienz Backpackers.
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After this, it was an early ride to the airport for my flight to Sydney.

Posted by AlTiffany2 06:58 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Te Anau, Wanaka and heading back north

sunny 30 °C

The next few days I spent at Te Anau and Wanaka. I was supposed to have a day less than I did in Te Anau and have a full day in Queenstown. However, due to getting the wrong bus time, and Nakedbus bureaucracy working against me, I was unable to do this. Still, Te Anau is a pleasant place and I didn't really mind. Besides, there's so much to do in Queenstown which costs lots of money (not good for a penny-stretching world traveller), I probably saved myself from the temptation and subsequent disappointment I would've felt spending time in NZ's adrenaline capital. I'll have to come back and do the skydiving and legendary bungee another time; when I have money!

I didn't do all that much in Te Anau or Wanaka, just chilled out and did a few short walks.

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My portable home. A bit cramped with all my stuff in there - especially when it rained and I was forced to stay inside. I was trying to camp where I could to save a bit of money on the accommodation front. However, it wasn't as cheap as I'd expected (and therefore, budgeted for) as many places charge per tent site, not per person. Thus, if 3 people were all sharing a large tent it'd cost each a third of what I had to pay. Some places it was actually cheaper for me to get a bed in a dorm room than camp!

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An evening by Lake Te Anau. The float plane does aerial tours of the area and the fiords. Some helicopter tours land on glaciers. Again, that'll have to wait 'til I have money!

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Interesting thing to have on the menu...

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In Te Anau there is a little park with a water feature in the shape of Lake Te Anau with rocks for mountains.

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A Tui bird I saw from my tent. It has shimmering black-purple feathers, a white ruff at its throat and a very unnusual call. I have videos of the call... still trying to find a way of getting them online!

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Although I didn´t see any kea (alpine parrots) on the way to Milford Sound, a bird sanctuary near Te Anau had some. This place takes in injured birds and releases them when they´re well enough to have a good chance of surviving by themselves.

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Another view of Lake Te Anau from a walk leading to the beginning of the Kepler Track, a famous multiday hike that I, unfortunately, didn´t have the time to do.

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They´re rare and nocturnal. The only place you´re likely to see them in the wild is on Stewart Island, off the coast of Southland.

Parts of Central Otago and Fiordland have an abundance of red deer. There are many deer farms you see from the road. A pie shop in Te Anau is reported to make the best venison pies in the world. I had one every day I was there (total of 3) - they were that good!

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Scenery on the way to Queenstown.

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The Remarkables range - a steep ridge over 2000 metres high. Queenstown is just the other side.

As I previously wrote, I hardly spent any time in Queenstown. However, in the brief time I was there, I made sure I ate a Fergburger. These things are famous and an absolute institution for backpackers. Everybody who has been to Queenstown as a backpacker has eaten at least one - a kind of right of passage. They are exceptional. I opted for the traditional Fergburger with Cheese, but there were many others on offer. Bun Laden was the falafel variation. Cooked and made infront of you as you wait, these things are seriously good - and huge! Sometimes I feel certain things people rave about (as I´m doing now) don´t live up to the hype... Not these beasts.

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Wanaka is a peaceful, pleasant, lakeside town. This is the height of summer and I was there at a weekend but, still, there were hardly any people around. I did a walk along the lakeside, past sunny vinyards, and lay on a beach which I had completely to myself.

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With nobody else in sight I fell asleep there, and woke up rather sunburnt. The lack of ozone above NZ means it´s very easy to get burnt.

I had planned to go, from Wanaka, up the west coast to Franz Josef to see the glaciers and mountains up close. However, the busses were all booked up (should´ve booked earlier) so I had to go back up the east coast again via Christchurch and Kaikoura. The weather was a bit better this time though so at least I got to see these places in the sunshine. Thankfully, my timing didn´t coincide with any of Christchurch´s terrible earthquakes. Whilst looking at the media coverage more recently, the images showed places I recognised, except when I was there they were still standing.

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Cathedral Square in the centre of Christchurch, with the iconic tram.

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ChCh Cathedral.

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The Chalice, built to celebrate the millennium.

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All of my worldly posessions. Looks so small in a pile there. To last me 8 months!

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I liked this.

My hostel in Christchurch, Jailhouse, was in the buildings of an old prison, only closed in 1999. Instead of a dorm, you get a cell! A really fun place, it certainly had the novelty factor.

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They kept a few cells in their original state, to remind all what would happen if anyone broke the house rules...

In Kaikoura I tried a different hostel - Albatross Backpackers Inn - and was really impressed with the place. The owners were very friendly (they gave me free eggs to make an omelette for breakfast) and the facilities were great. There was free organic fairtrade tea, coffee and drinking chocolate, a herb garden for visitors to make use of in their cooking, loads of board games, guitars, ukuleles and a fantastically well equipped kitchen. In addition, they had guests´artwork all over the place, produced in the "creative corner", with paints and canvasses, and they recycled almost everything imaginable - including all kitchen food waste, which was fed to local pigs, in exchange for fertiliser for the herb garden and flower beds. Full circle.

Whilst the weather was pretty terrible when I got to Kaikoura (again! - heavy rain), it got gradually better until, by the time I caught the train the next day, there was glorious sunshine and superb views of the mountains - the first time I´d seen them.

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The whole journey up the coast to Picton I spent outside on the observation carriage, getting some great views.

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Very 'Lord of the Rings'-like scenery.
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The sailing on the Interislander Ferry was really enjoyable. The sun shone and the sea, this time, was calm.
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Leaving the South Island, the North Island is visible in the distance.

The next place on my itinerary was Napier. Totally destroyed by an earthquake in February 1931, this town was rebuilt in the, then popular, Art Deco style. When I was there the place was gearing up for Deco Weekend, when people dress up in 30s costumes and cram the roads with vintage cars. There were displays everywhere and I got the feeling that some people go a bit crazy for it.

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It was certainly interesting to see the architecture as many functional, everyday buildings are in full Deco style - quite unique.

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In Buenos Aires I´d met a couple from Napier, Kelly and Rick, who very kindly offered to put me up when I was there. We shared our thoughts and experiences of Argentina, and travelling in general, over a bottle of local Hawkes Bay wine, which was great. Thanks again guys.

Posted by AlTiffany2 05:58 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Fiordland and Milford Sound

rain 15 °C

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Mt. Cook from the road between Lake Tekapo and Queenstown.

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Lake Wakatipu, on which Queenstown is situated.

It was an early start on the morning of the 26th. From Queenstown, where I'd arrived the previous evening, I had a day trip booked to Milford Sound. After a brief stop in Te Anau we began the 119km Milford Road - one of the most scenic in NZ. It started to rain in Te Anau and didn't stop until I got back there that evening. However, the guide assured us that this trip would be just as great in bad weather as in fine. The reason being, rainfall feeds the countless waterfalls tumbling down the sides of mountains on the way to, and in, the fiords, creating a spectacle not nearly as impressive on fair weather days.

Once into Fiordland National Park we made many stops along the way, to do little side trips and walks to see interesting features. One of these being the Mirror Pools which (apparently, when it's not raining) reflect the surrounding mountains perfectly. Needless to say, I didn't get to see this but the walk through the forest was pretty.

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Another stop was by a stream with water so pure it's supposed to make anyone who drinks it live until they're 102... (well we'll just have to wait and see - it tasted great though; crisp and clean.) There are usually plenty of kea (the only true alpine parrot in the world, only found in NZ) hanging around this area, however we didn't see any.

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As we got closer to Milford Sound, the scenery became even more spectacular. Although masked in thick, rainy clouds, mountains loomed overhead and, yes, the waterfalls really were raging. Cliffs loomed overhead, rising vertically from the road. Streaks of white water cascading down the dark black walls of rock gave the place a raw, wild feel. And every bend in the twisting, turning road revealed a new sight, more impressive than the last.

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The Milford Road, between Te Anau and the famous fiord, is one of the most dangerous. There are many one way bridges and extremely tight corners (often with sheer drops of several hundred metres falling away from the road). The risks of avalanches are serious, even in the summer, as many of the surrounding mountains have snow on them year round. In addition, the road is often closed due to flooding. FIordland gets between 7 and 9 metres (!) of rain every year with an average of 250 rainy days per year - so I guess I should've been expecting it!

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Fiordland's valleys are mostly filled with temperate rainforest of jungle thickness. A boardwalk takes you through some of this on a short walk to 'The Chasm'. This feature was formed by a river eroding soft rock faster than surrounding harder rock, creating a cavity into which water roars. You can hear and feel the force of this before you see it. After periods of exceptionally heavy rain, the spray can reach the top of the bridge!

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Near Milford the road goes through the Homer Tunnel (over a kilometre long, one lane with traffic lights alternating direction every 15 mins) which is very dark, with rugged walls and dripping water.

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The tunnel descends 100m as the two valleys it links are at different heights. On the other side: more vertical, black cliff faces and walls of water.

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Eventually, you get to Milford Sound. My first sight of it was shrouded in mist and sheets of rain - very ominous. I boarded the boat and we slipped out into the mist.

Waterfalls here were even more impressive. Mountains and cliffs rise vertically out of the fiord, at sea level, to over 1000m and, from them, pour countless waterfalls - some merely white ribbons against the black backdrop, others cascading torrents which shake the air and send spray rolling across the fiord.

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The much-photographed Mitre Peak, looking very unlike the way it does on the postcards. Still, it was very impressive, rising 1692m (over a mile) almost vertically from sea level.

We were very lucky in one respect on our cruise. The captain pointed out to us some very special visitors, a pod of dusky dolphins. These animals hadn't been seen in Milford Sound for almost a month and the captain said that he had not seen so many of them together for at least four years. There were, literally, many hundreds of them, some of which were leaping (backwards!) all the way out of the water, then landing with a splash. (My videos are the best way of seeing just how many there were... keep checking my YouTube area!)

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These photos don't really do the scale of the place justice - it really is massive. These cliffs are over a kilometre high!

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Seals on a rock and in the water.

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When the boat got to the entrance of the fiord, we went out briefly into the open, choppy Tasman Sea to get a view of the mouth of the inlet. The boat you can just about see in the entrance (above photo) is a fairly large ferry!

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Seals, again.

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The captain steered our boat right up to the bottom of this waterfall and I, out of fear for my camera, quickly retreated indoors. Those who did not got thoroughly soaked by the spray. Good call.

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After all the rain that had fallen that day, the waterfalls on the drive back were even more powerful.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 00:47 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

A rather blissful Birthday

sunny 28 °C

The day after the night of the crayfish feast, I caught the train down to Christchurch. Tranz Coastal's route along the west coast and through the Canterbury Plains is rather scenic and I made full use of the outside viewing carriage. (Outside, in that it had a roof to keep off the, fairly frequent and heavy, rain - but no sides.)

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Upon arrival at Christchurch station, I had to walk 5kms into the city centre (with my very heavy bags - about 30kgs total) only to discover that the hostel I'd planned to stay at was fully booked. I then phoned 20 (no exaggeration) others - practically every one in the city - and they were all booked up too. Or destroyed by the earthquake. Great. (*I should point out that this was the first, largest earthquake - not the dreadful one that's just occurred recently. Good job I was there last month and not this one.*)
The 7.point-something quake had seriously damaged many buildings in the city, including lots of hostels. So, the surviving places were inundated with backpackers who'd all had the common sense (unlike myself) to book well in advance. Anyway, I finally found somewhere, 2km out of town, with a bed for me. The owner was even kind enough to pick me up and drop me back by the bus stop the next day.

Christchurch is the most 'English' of NZ's cities. One can punt on the River Avon and much of the architecture looks English. There are many familiar sounding street names: Hereford St, Gloucester St, Oxford Terrace etc. My hostel was, by chance, on Worcester Street! (Although they pronounced it 'Warchester'...) Given that I had only a month in NZ, I decided to spend as little time in ChCh as possible, figuring that, if I wanted to be in England, I wouldn't have bothered flying to the other side of the globe.

So, the next day (the 24th, my Birthday) I got a bus to Lake Tekapo, in the MacKenzie region. I set up my tent in the grounds of the YHA, by the lake. The views from the tent door were incredible.

On the lake shore lies the Church of the Good Shepherd and a statue of a sheepdog - a tribute to the first shepherds who roamed this area, and their trusty dogs.

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What a place to spend a Birthday!

Mt. John, rising from the western shores of Lake Tekapo has a path leading up to an observatory at the top. (**To Marilyn+John, Nick+Sue and Rosalie+Frank, this is where I was when I replied to your Birthday text.**)

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Rather a nice spot for a cafe.

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A pretty enviable place to live.

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Loads of wild hares.

By the time I'd got back down to the lake, the sun was very low in the sky and it painted the mountains many colours.

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The vista, with shimmering reflections in the lake, was sublime.

I cooked and ate with a German guy, Chris, I'd met that day and then sat outside and watched the stars. Lake Tekapo has the clearest skies in the whole of NZ, hence the observatory, (no light pollution anywhere around - it's pretty remote) and is one of the best places in the world to see the southern sky. I decided to sleep with my head outside the tent and drifted off under the countless millions of stars above.

An incredible way to end an incredible Birthday.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 18:15 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

Kaikoura and the whales

rain 17 °C

It had been my intention, upon arrival in Kaikoura, to book a place on the Whale Watch boat for the next day. However, a guy at the desk said "You can go on one in 10 minutes if you like." So I did.

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The sea was extremely rough, like nothing I'd ever experienced before. The fairly large, very fast catamaran was constantly being thrown up into the air (literally, out of the water) by the 3 metre swell. I don't really get seasick, but the smell of other people throwing up all around nearly did it for me (but, fortunately, not quite). I'm probably painting a rather negative picture of the trip. It was, however, one of the best things I've done so far. Thankfully the sea calmed down once we got out to where the whales were.

I remember clearly my first glimpse of a whale. It looked like a large, dark log floating in the sea - until a jet of spray shot up into the air above it. Then, another whale came bobbing along beside it. The guide said that these male sperm whales are usually solitary creatures and so to see two together was pretty rare. Then, almost simultaneously, they both took one last, large gulp of air and dived down into the deep, flicking their tails up into the air as they went down.

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The reason why Kaikoura is such a good place to see whales is the deep oceanic trench just off the coast. About a kilometre from the shore, the continental shelf slopes steeply down to a depth of over 1000 metres. Warm and cool water mix here causing an upwards current rich in plankton and fish. This is why so many whales are found so near to the land - it's a great place to find food.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whale and feed mainly on giant squid. Small sharks are popular meals too. These whales are also among the most dangerous for humans. Apart from their ability to easily swallow a person whole, their sonar is also exceptionally powerful and loud; 180 decibels (louder than a jet aeroplane taking off). Once, a fisherman who got knocked into the sea was killed after being hit by this sonic wave - the extreme frequency ruptured all of his internal organs.

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In total we had seven good sightings, one time being the same whale we saw earlier - identifiable by a large white mark of scar tissue on its side. The whales can dive down 1000m, to near the sea bed, and they hold their breath for up to 45 minutes so, once the one you're watching has dived, it makes sense to go looking for another.

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The Whale Watch boat was very modern and high-tech. They use sonars to detect the whales' sonar and calls, then position the boat near to where they think the whale is - but not too near, although the animals don't seem to mind boats and people watching them. Apparently, when a whale goes quiet it is about to surface. Then, you scan the sea looking for a spout.

Kaikoura used to be a whaling station, before it became a place dedicated to the protection of the whales. However, sperm whales seemed to know who their enemies were and fought back, ganging up on the whalers' boats and trying to smash them. Good for the whales, I'd say! We need some more smashings up of those Japanese 'research' whale killers' boats in the Antarctic. And the Norwegians', and the Icelandic's. (The three countries named above are the only ones who officially condone the hunting of whales.)

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As well as whales, we saw seal and more albatross than I could count. (Videos should be on my YouTube area... if it hasn't worked, I'll try and sort it.) On the previous cruise they had seen orca, but they'd gone by the time we got there. Still, seven whales was over twice their average and the albatross were a bonus, so very successful. It was a special day.

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The last whale we saw decided to play games with us. The video is called 'Kaikoura 4'. Again, if it doesn't work, apologies - this technology is rather temperamental.

As I wrote in a previous entry, the weather was not great for me in Kaikoura - loads of rain and very low cloud obscured the (supposedly?!) spectacular coastal mountains. Fortunately though, the rain held off for the entire time I was on the Whale Watch cruise.

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The Kaikoura peninsula has a lovely walk which I did, accompanied by a Belgian girl from my hostel. It only rained for 15 minutes, which was also pretty fortunate.

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Along the way we saw many fur seals, only found in NZ. The seals have a favourite spot on the northern end of the peninsula and they haul themselves up onto land and sprawl out on their beds of seaweed.

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The track then climbs up to the top of the cliffs and offers some spectacular views down to the sea below.

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We hardly saw another soul the whole afternoon. Desolate, some people might call the landscape. I'd say, instead: untouched, wild, unspoilt, magnificent.
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All that could be seen or heard was the seabirds, wheeling and crying overhead, and the sea. The quiet peacefulness of the place was addictive. I think if I lived anywhere near, I'd come up and spend a lot of time here.

In the evening we returned to the hostel to find two crayfish lying on the kitchen counter next to a sign saying "Eat me". 'Kaikoura' means, in Maori, 'Eat Crayfish' and I was keen to try some - supposedly the best in the world. However, for $55 in a restaurant, they were a little out of my budget range. So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise upon learning that someone from the hostel had gone out fishing that day and caught too many so was offering free crayfish to anyone who wanted it. Not that I'm a crayfish connoisseur or anything, but they were so sweet, juicy and flavoursome that I'd be inclined to believe that Kaikoura crayfish are, indeed, the best in the world.
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Posted by AlTiffany2 16:51 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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