Swimming with Seals, Duelling with Dolphins and the Outrageously Scenic Road to Akaroa

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February 18th 2017
Published: February 19th 2017
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Breathtaking ViewBreathtaking ViewBreathtaking View

View of Akaroa from Summit Road
At 4:35am on the 4thof September 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale occurred 40km west of Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand (and second largest city in the country). As the earthquake hit in the early hours of the morning while most people were in bed, no fatalities occurred – and it seemed the people of Christchurch had dodged a bullet.

Fast forward six months to the 22nd of February 2011, when at 12:51pm a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck just 10 kilometres south-east of Christchurch (and a mere 2 kilometres west of the city's port at Lyttelton). With many of the city's buildings already damaged from the earlier earthquake, the destruction this time around was much greater. But worse still was the fact that the earthquake occurred during the middle of a summer weekday when the city was packed with people. This time 185 people were killed, in one of New Zealand's worst ever natural disasters.

Then just a few short months ago, at two minutes past midnight on the 14th of November 2016, an earthquake started about 120km north of Christchurch (near a small town named Culverdon) which set off
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Kaikoura from above
a complex sequence of events in which multiple fault lines ruptured simultaneously for almost two minutes. The cumulative magnitude reached 7.8 on the Richter scale (the second-highest reading ever recorded in New Zealand) with most of the earth's energy being released far to the north of the quake's epicentre, near the small coastal town of Kaikoura. Remarkably only two lives were lost.

Having happened so recently, the earthquake near Kaikoura (and it's associated after-shocks) was always likely to impact our travel plans for the South Island; and this was confirmed when we discovered that the main highway south from Blenheim to Kaikoura was still closed three months later. But given our determination to visit Kaikoura – whose reputation as a haven for marine life far out-weighs it's meagre population of just a few thousand people – we were left with only one choice: to take the long and scenic alternative route from Picton to Kaikoura, which would take us within about fifty kilometres of the West Coast, and require a drive of around 500km (instead of the usual 150km)... but hey, if anyone could afford to take the scenic route, then surely it was us!

As a result
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Kaikoura Esplanade
of all this, Linda and I had travelled south-west from Marahau to Murchison (via the Nelson Lakes), south to the Marble Hill DOC campground in the mountains, and south-east over Lewis Pass towards Hanmer Springs – where we stopped for a jet boat ride on the Waiau River – before turning north-east near Culverdon for the final stretch towards Kaikoura. And while we may have had to make numerous stops for earthquake-related roadworks throughout the final ninety kilometres, this was more than made up for by the quality of the scenery we encountered along the way, with the sharp peaks of the Inland Kaikoura Range standing out in stark relief against the remarkably dry surrounding countryside.

Finally arriving in Kaikoura on Monday afternoon (13th February), we were immediately impressed by the town's scenic location, situated as it is beside a broad bay that leads to a hilly peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. But it was only once we had driven to a lookout atop the peninsula just outside of town that the true magnificence of Kaikoura's location became apparent, with beautiful curved bays filled with the most beautiful turquoise-coloured water (the sort that usually only occurs in
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Mural in Kaikoura
glacial-fed lakes) stretching out to the north and to the south; and the jagged Seaward Kaikoura Range rising up to 2600 metres into the sky immediately to the west.

Given Kaikoura's reputation for being the best place in New Zealand (and one of the best in the world) for viewing marine wildlife, we had decided to book ourselves a seal swimming trip for the following morning. Having previously swum with seals at Montague Island on the East Coast of Australia – when we were encouraged to splash around and make plenty of noise in order to get the seals' attention and draw them into the water - Linda and I were surprised to find that the approach on this tour was very different; and we were under strict instructions not to approach the seals on land or stir them up in any way, but rather to interact only with the seals already in the water.

Ultimately though we found this approach to be far more ecologically sensitive (not to mention sensible) as it allows the seal colony to rest – which after all is exactly what they are there to do – without being provoked into unnatural behaviours. And since it is only the seals that choose to come into the water (usually to cool off) that come into contact with swimmers, the experience is entirely on the seals' terms - as being the superior swimmers that they are they can leave any trailing snorkeller in their wake whenever they choose to do so.

Of course this more sustainable approach to tourism also benefits the tour operator, since if they failed to look after the seals' best interests the entire colony might simply re-locate to somewhere quieter; but therein lies the beauty of the situation. If only more businesses were able to maximize their profits by protecting – rather than exploiting – the earth's natural resources and wild creatures, the world would be a far better place. But in the meantime, all we can do is enjoy it for what it is – and in this part of the world it still is pretty amazing!

After navigating through the maze of rocky islets at Point Kean (on the tip of the Kaikoura Peninsula) in our small tour boat, we dropped anchor and spilled out into the water, thankful for our full-length, hooded rubber wetsuits that at
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The seals we swum with at Point Kean
least gave us some insulation from the bitterly-cold water – even if the seals' natural insulation made ours look decidedly second rate! Within minutes I was watching transfixed from only a meter or two away as a large New Zealand fur seal slowly corkscrewed it's way past me on the surface, though why they choose to perform this acrobatic spectacle I have no idea!?

Lacking the frenetic energy of the Australian fur seals we had encountered in that country – which was most likely a response to our less-than-subtle prompting at the time – we nevertheless found this experience to be just as rewarding (if not quite as much fun), as it gave us the opportunity to observe the seals more closely and for longer periods of time, while they lazily swam about showing only fleeting interest in their latest aquatic visitors. And as for the seals on the rocks, all they were concerned with was staking out the most advantageous sunbathing spot – which admittedly did lead to the odd noisy squabble!

Having recovered from the excitement of our seal swimming tour, Linda wisely chose to give her still-swollen right foot (a result of her having been
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Fur seal at Point Kean
stung by a bee a couple of days earlier, to which she had an allergic reaction) a rest by spending the rest of the afternoon in town; while I took the opportunity to walk the Kaikoura Peninsula Pathway – a 10km loop trail that circumnavigates the eastern half of the peninsula, passing the seal colony at Point Kean along the way. Or at least that was the plan...

Following the road along the shoreline for the first few kilometres, I then headed out onto the rocky promontory at Point Kean to get some pictures of one of the resident seals as it basked on the rocks, before leaving the road behind as the trail climbed to the top of the headland. With majestic views of sheltered coves backed by steep cliffs at every turn – not to mention a second seal colony visible on the rocks far below, a little further around from Point Kean - I was thoroughly impressed by the scenery en route; until eventually the trail descended a set of stairs bringing me back down to sea level.

It was around this point that the trail started to grow faint, and after rounding a small
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The steps that led me OFF the walkway without realizing it!
headland it seemed as though the trail had disappeared altogether; but since I couldn't see any other alternative I simply continued on, first walking the length of one rocky beach, then another, and then another. Eventually though it dawned on me that I must have somehow gotten off track, but since I had agreed to meet Linda back at the van at six o'clock (and had no way of reaching her to let her know any differently) there was no longer enough time for me to re-trace my footsteps until I found my way, so I simply had to press on... that is until I stumbled upon yet more seals lounging about on the rocks – which is precisely the only time that humans might find themselves in danger from seals - and it occurred to me that I was most definitely no longer on the right track!

Thankfully none of the seals that I encountered during my disoriented stumblings (I knew I had to keep following the coastline until I arrived in South Bay on the other side of the peninsula – I just had no idea how long it would take to get there) showed any hostility
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The beach where I almost walked straight into a lounging fur seal
towards me; if anything they simply looked at me with an expression that said “what the hell are you doing here?”. But I must admit to having the odd nervous moment when I was trying to find my way amongst the rocks only to suddenly detect the unmistakable odour of seafood and realize that a seal must be lurking close by!

Eventually though, after seeing far more New Zealand fur seals than I had bargained for – and at much closer quarters it must be said – I rounded one last headland and could see the small settlement of South Bay sitting pretty beside the water in front of me; and no sooner had I made it to the far end of that final deserted beach than I could see the unmistakable form of the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway descending from the top of the cliffs to meet me, as if mocking me by it's very presence! I was just thankful Linda hadn't been around to see any of it...!

After spending our second night at the Puhi Puhi DOC campground just to the north of town - where we were once again plagued by sandflies - we said
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Smoke from the Port Hills bushfires hanging over Christchurch
farewell to Kaikoura on Wednesday and headed down the coast towards Christchurch... where we were greeted by an apocalyptic-looking cloud of dark smoke hanging over the southern suburbs, courtesy of two bushfires that had been burning out-of-control for two days in the Port Hills just beyond the city limits. Thankfully (for us at least) the persistent north-easterly winds were pushing the smoke away from the city, though doubtless the firefighters tasked with trying to stop the blazes would have preferred a drop in the winds.

If ever there was a city that is hard to love at first glance, it would be post-earthquake Christchurch. With construction zones still covering large swathes of the city centre, you certainly need to know where to look (and where not to look) to get the best out of the city. Having said this, it certainly doesn't help that the heart and soul of the city, the Christchurch Cathedral - which occupies a diamond-shaped block in the very centre of Christchurch – still stands derelict SIX YEARS after the main earthquake (and five years after the last of the major after-shocks), due to ongoing legal battles over what to do with it.

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Christchurch Cathedral six years on...
have seen some strange and inexplicable things during ten years of travel, but seeing this once grand cathedral still standing in a pile of it's own rubble so long after the damage was done is quite possibly the most absurd thing I have ever seen. To just leave it standing as is (in it's present condition it could best be described as a festering eyesore) is an absolute disgrace. And until something is done to rectify the situation, for me at least, Christchurch will always be the city with a dead heart. On the bright side though, we did get to enjoy a delicious meal at a Japanese restaurant - in an undercover shopping mall with a tram line running through it no less - while we were there; so at least we had something to show for our time in Christchurch!

Moving on the next day, we didn't have far to travel to get to the Banks Peninsula, so I figured we might as well take the scenic route there – and what an outrageously scenic route it turned out to be! Heading out of Christchurch to the south-east, we first passed alongside the Estuary of the Avon
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View of the Christchurch coastline
and Heathcote Rivers (that's it's actual name), before turning south-west and tackling the steep climb up to the aptly-named Summit Road in the Port Hills, which gave us a glorious overview of the city of Christchurch and it's nearby coastline; until we reached a section of road that was closed – presumably due to the bushfires that to our knowledge had still not yet been put out on the lower slopes of the Port Hills.

Finding an alternative way back down from the Summit Road, we then took a tunnel right through the Port Hills, which deposited us on the other side beside the large blue expanse of Lyttelton Harbour – which had been the site of the busiest port on the South Island until it was destroyed in the earthquake of 2011. From there we followed the coastline of Lyttelton Harbour all the way around to the Banks Peninsula on it's southern side, where the quality of the scenery went up another couple of notches!

Passing the small settlement of Diamond Harbour, we took the road less travelled over a mountainous ridge that eventually deposited us at the head of the deeply indented Port Levy; before tackling
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Winding road through the Banks Peninsula
the even more adventurous road to Pigeon Bay – which consisted of a single-lane-wide, winding gravel road with virtually no room for passing and steep drop-offs (often un-fenced) on one side! Thankfully there was no other traffic on the road (I have no idea what we would have done if we'd encountered a car travelling in the opposite direction!) and so eventually we arrived in Pigeon Bay safe and sound, but suffice it to say the knuckles were a little whiter and the heart pounding a little faster when we arrived than they had been when we left Port Levy!

But even then I wasn't done terrorizing Linda with winding mountain roads, and as it turned out we had saved the best for last! Turning onto the Banks Peninsula's Summit Road, we soon caught our first sight of the slender blue ribbon of Akaroa Harbour (Akaroa itself meaning 'Long Harbour' in Maori) stretching away from us, with mountainous grassy slopes leading up from the water's edge in every direction. After pausing to flatten our camera batteries at a particularly picturesque roadside vantage point, we then followed the road's twists and turns as it snaked it's way over and along
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Pigeon Bay from above
the ridge-tops overlooking Akaroa Harbour; and only minutes after being bathed in sunshine we found ourselves driving through whisps of cloud as they ascended one side of the ridge and then dropped down over the other side!

And there at the very bottom lay the small but perfectly-proportioned French-influenced town of Akaroa, sitting pretty beside a sheltered bay more than ten kilometres inland from the harbour's entrance. We would have plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with Akaroa's charms, as we ended up spending the next two nights at the Onuku Farm Backpackers and Holiday Park (yep, another farm holiday park!) about six kilometres past - and a couple of hundred metres above – Akaroa.

While it may lack the flashy amenities of other holiday parks, Onuku Farm certainly makes up for it with it's laid-back vibe, friendly sheep (and chickens) and some of the best views you're ever likely to have from a caravan park... and we were even able to book a dolphin swimming trip with them for the following morning, to (hopefully) get up close and personal with the smallest dolphin species in the world: Hector's Dolphins. After heading back into town to check out
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Akaroa's picturesque waterfront
some of the ridiculously-cute little wooden houses in the main street, we returned to the farm and headed to bed early full of excitement for our boat tour the following morning...

Unfortunately though, unlike with the seal swim in Kaikoura when we were just about guaranteed to be able to swim with at least a few of the seals, on this occasion our fortunes would be much more reliant on luck - given that we first had to locate the dolphins and then hope that they would be in a playful enough mood to allow us to swim with them - and luck wasn't to be on our side. Though the first small pod of dolphins we spotted did come over to check us out - with one even gliding along in front of the boat, almost within arm's length, for thirty seconds or so – they soon gave us the slip; and this would be a taste of things to come.

While we did encounter at least another three small pods of Hector's Dolphins (each pod in this case consisting of just three to four dolphins) during the course of the next two hours, each of them
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State Highway 1 closed just north of Kaikoura
showed even less interest in us than the first group had; and so ultimately our quest to swim with them was all in vain... though as a small consolation prize we did spot numerous blue penguins resting on the water's surface in between feeding dives, as well as a solitary yellow-eyed penguin and another colony of fur seals frolicking on the rocks on the opposite side of the harbour to Akaroa.

But it wasn't just the opportunity to swim with dolphins that we had missed; despite expectations to the contrary, not once during our time around Kaikoura or Christchurch had we felt even the slightest tremor coming from the earth - only the damage done by previous earthquakes in years past. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing is certainly debatable, but for now we had managed to keep our feet on solid ground - even if it wasn't always on the beaten path!

Additional photos below
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Picturesque Peninsula

View from Kaikoura lookout - take one
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Picturesque Peninsula

View from Kaikoura lookout - take two
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Picturesque Peninsula

View from Kaikoura lookout - take three
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Seal Sunbathing

Fur seal at Point Kean
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Bountiful Bay

Whalers Bay from above

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