All four of us woke up delighted to have had a good night’s sleep. A few of us had to deal with the after effects of those begrudged sandflies (Lynn) and deal with their partner’s response to said effects (Doug), but all were able to conk out pretty well after yesterday’s long hike. It was a bit of a hustle, having to all eat breakfast, do dishes, pack up our bags, and be on the road by 7:30 but we managed to pull it off and only be 5 minutes late.
Despite what was stated in the previous paragraph, Doug didn’t feel fit to drive after missing out on two hours during the night so Lynn took to the wheel for the drive south to Kaikoura. We started out a bit disappointed in the weather. It was most definitely raining and there were low clouds hanging out around the surrounding hills, leading us to have legitimate concerns that we wouldn’t be able to go on our whale watch flight. While Doug caught up on his sleep, Stephen called ahead to Air Kaikoura to determine if we would be good to go and sure enough we were currently on. It was raining in Kaikoura, but the clouds were not low enough to be a threat just yet. So we continued on our way for a nice two hour drive over rolling hills nestling more sheep, horses, cows, and vineyards before hitting the aquamarine coast for the latter half.
We arrived at Kaikoura’s airstrip 15 minutes before we were due to depart. Leah, Lynn, and Doug downed some ginger chews (for safe bellies) and we headed into Air Kaikoura to check in. Not much checking in was really necessary though, as only 3 people seemed to work there. Person 1: A lady who seemed to be responsible for shuttling other customers to/from Kaikoura’s town center. Person 2: A man in bright yellow attire who seemed to be responsible for directing the plane after landing and handling the refueling process. And Person 3: The pilot, who’s name we never caught and will henceforth be called “The Pilot,” a nice very tall 30-something scruffy man. The Pilot took our money, weighed us, and handed us waist life vests before escorting us to our aircraft.
The aircraft ::sigh:: was a tiny single engine 6-seater plushed out with sheep fur seats. We were boarded appropriately, donned headphones, and were instructed on what to do in an emergency (would we really survive, Mr. The Pilot?). Then we took off! And it went smoothly, thanks to the zero wind (seriously, the orange wind sock on the airstrip was flaccid). All (Lynn) breathed in a sigh of relief as we headed out 800 ft over the Pacific Ocean to spot some whales.
The Pilot instructed us on how to assist, look for a white cap in the water followed by a water spout. It wasn’t even 5 minutes into the flight before Lynn spotted one out the left hand window which The Pilot then proceeded to circle in one direction then the other so all of us could take in the sperm whale playing on the surface before it dove down for more food. The Pilot clearly knew about whales because he successfully predicted the whales dive and gave us ample warning to get our cameras ready. Alright! Party on!
We continued on our way doing our best to spot another and The Pilot consulting his radio friends (other planes in the area) for additional guidance before we found whale watch boats to circle. Sadly, there were no whales, but there was a large pod of dolphins playing in the surf next to the ships. We did some more circling without any luck before our 30 minutes were up and we needed to return to shore. Thankfully, again, we landed without incident. Overall, it was definitely a cool experience but we all agreed that we prefer whale watch boats because you just can’t appreciate the scale of these beings from the air. But, now we know that.
We returned to the car unsure of what to do next but agreed that a walk was in order. We made our way to the town center so Leah could consult with the i-Site people on our options. She returned to inform us that we should do a nice hike along the coastline with interpretive panels ultimately ending at a colony of seals. Deal! Leah and Stephen grabbed some coffees and we were on our way.
The path next to the i-Site led to a park lined with whale jaw bones before leading us up onto the street. OK? We continued on our way enjoying the view, but lamenting the passing traffic. Every now and then we’d stop to read an interpretive panel, watch Doug pretend to skateboard an entire skate park, or wait for someone from the team to relieve their bladders before making to a point hosting a very adorable seal enjoying the remnants of a fireplace. We watched him pose for pictures then lay his head down to rest before continuing on. We quickly happened upon another seal who wearily watched us before nodding off himself. Being a seal is exhausting!
By this point we had not reached the full seal colony and were running out of time. Before heading back, though, Stephen ordered a white bait fritter sandwich for the road from a roadside stand. It turns out that white bait, at least in that form, tastes like unseasoned eggs so we weren’t missing out on much.
When we got back to the car we agreed we should do the quick drive out to the seal colony then try to hit a winery before we needed to return the rental car in Picton. The walk that took roughly 50 minutes one-way took 7 in a car (yay!) so we were back with new seal friends soon enough. And, there they were, just being lazy lumps attempting to ignore the tourists that were getting just a little too close for comfort.
Back in the car, we headed back north from where we had come. On the way Lynn did some serious napping while the rest of the team settled on a winery that wouldn’t take us too far out of our way. An hour and a half later we were settled in at the very busy Cloudy Bay winery. Everyone was very excited to learn that they had paid tastings (Yay for not feeling guilty when we don’t buy a bottle!). Lynn and Stephen took the lead on ordering two tasting flights to split with their significant others. Overall, they had some pretty good wine, but the standout was certainly the Pelorus, a chardonnay-like champagne that had a significant amount of brightness to it.
We made it to Picton where were refueled the car and returned it after much confusion. First, we had to visit two separate gas stations when the first one did not take pin-and-signature cards. Then, the return location Budget had listed was not where they wanted you to return it as the somewhat confused man refueling other rental cars informed us. Instead we needed to take it to the ferry terminal. Okay-dokay. Oh and on top of all that we attempted to store our bags during the 3 hours we had to kill before our ferry at the terminal, but learned that you had to check everything that was not a backpack, so we went ahead and did that, begrudgingly.
When that was all said and done we wandered the town before settling on a café for some dinner items and returning to the ferry terminal to await our boarding time. Time ticked by with us still having not boarded and we were starting to get worried about seats since they appeared to be loading the cars before the walk-on passengers. And that proved to be exactly the case, because by the time we boarded there weren’t any window seats and barely any internal seats. People were already starting to pull up floor in the hallways. Leah, being the industrious lady that she is, began a ship search and it is lucky that she did because we ended up with a private room all to ourselves that were first-come, first-serve. No one else seems to have been aware of them either because we were the only room that was occupied.
There we sat, enjoying our day beds, private bathroom, and cubby window, while the ferry meandered through the Queen Charlotte Sound on its way to Wellington. Along the way, we took turns visiting the roof deck outside to admire the low hanging clouds, slung in the green valleys of the sound. Eventually we made our way into Cook Strait and settled in for a long ride through what felt like not insignificant swells. At this point we put American Ultra on Leah’s tablet (Note: Not iPad). Not the greatest movie of all time by any means but great for distracting us from the moving boat and ending almost perfectly timed with our arrival in Wellington. We headed downstairs to the cardeck and waited for the ramp to lower, letting us out into the creepy ship harbor at night, in the rain. Here we departed into the rain, grabbed our bags, and caught and Uber to our Airbnb where we promptly put a load of laundry in, commented on the oddity of the place, and passed out.
Daily Walking Mileage: 8.0
- Kaikoura has a significant translation. Kai means eat and koura means crayfish. This explains why there are so many crayfish restaurants around, but we were unable to try this time.
- Sperm whales typically surface for roughly 7 minutes before diving for 45 minutes. The flight tour operators know this and time their flights accordingly.
- In addition to whale watches, Air Kaikoura offers a service called Pilot-a-Plane which allows someone to fly with an experience pilot. There are no age restrictions and experience is not required. So, be careful in their skies.