Flirtin' with Disaster

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February 16th 2020
Published: March 3rd 2020
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"I'm travelin' down the road and I'm flirtin' with disaster"

Molly Hatchet

We have been playing on the fringes with disaster this whole trip. Just before we arrived, worst-ever wildfires ringed Sydney and were burning out of control. The city was full of smoke, and the same was true to a somewhat lesser extent in Melbourne and Adelaide. Just as we arrived, they started to die down as winds fell and some rain relief arrived. We saw no signs of the fires in those cities. Then, during our stay in Adelaide, a cyclone hit the west coast and threatened to bring deluging rains to Adelaide, but we left before it could arrive. Now, having completed this stay in Sydney, we were due to fly to Wellington to begin our New Zealand adventure, and yet another cyclone was headed down the space between Australia and NZ, with uncertainty as to its timing and effect. Fortunately, it moved far enough south before our flight that we only got some mild turbulence on the flight, and there was no effect in Wellington when we arrived. Another bullet dodged - more later.

Wellington is a pleasant city built on hills at the far south end of the North Island. Since we were going to need to turn in our rental car at the same place we got it, Wellington represented a good place for starting and ending our NZ sojourn. It is the ferry hub to the South Island and could serve as a temporary stop going south and returning north. Wellington has a beautiful harbor area, and a vibrant if youth-oriented drinking and dining scene. We ended up eating dinner in a pan-Latin American establishment that was actually quite good, although the fried grasshoppers were somewhat lacking in flavor.

After our evening in Wellington, we took the 3-½ hour ferry to the South Island and began our trek. First stop: Kaikoura. Driving south from Picton (the South Island ferry stop), you drive through the Marlborough/Nelson area, a region much noted for its sauvignon blanc wines. We did not stop at any wineries, but did try the wines later on.

After a drive through the hills, you reach the coast, and the beautiful views go on forever. We stopped for some time at what was obviously a nursery for New Zealand fur seals. There was a small area where rocks block exit to the sea, and the young seals could play in the pool in complete safety. I am sure they were learning to swim effectively as will be needed when they go to sea with their parents.

Starting at about the point of the seal nursery, the rock forms seemed somewhat unusual to us, and there was a type of shelf of rock extending out from the cliffs and hillsides coming down to the sea. The area is unusual for the fact that a branch of the Southern Alps comes right down to the sea in this area, rather than having a coastal plain like most of the eastern side of the South Island. Of more importance is the fact that the Hikurangi Trench comes fairly close to shore here, and the prevailing winds and tides result in deep water species coming close to the surface. As a result, there is a resident coterie of juvenile male sperm whales found close to shore here, and whale watching is the prime local activity. Planes and helicopters fly out to look for them with sightseeing passengers on board, and when they spot a whale on the surface they vector the boats toward them. We watched one on the surface for several minutes before it dived on its next hunting expedition for its favorite meal, giant squid. These interesting animals have many adaptations that make it possible for them to dive as deep as about 2500m and stay down for as long as 120 minutes, eating a variety of squid, octopuses, and other deep ocean animals. The females become fertile at about 9 years, and lives as groups with communal care for young, but males are solitary travelers except during mating season, which begins at about 18 years of age. They can live for 70 years. They have the largest brains, both on absolute and relative scales, of any animals on earth, and are the largest toothed predators.

After exploring the unusual rock forms, we finally found the explanation. A large earthquake in November 2016 raised the land here by about 1-2 meters, so much of what is seen along the shore was under water until that time. The earthquake destroyed much of the local infrastructure, trapped 1000 tourists by destroying the only roads and railways in and out, and eliminated the only cinema in town. One local attraction that survived but which we heard about only after we left was the house of the community's founding family, with its foundation made of whale bone.

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