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Terra Australis Incognita

South Island: Coastal Exploration and Sea Critters Galore

NEW ZEALAND | Friday, 26 December 2008 | Views [493]

"Here I am again on my own"

Thus concludes a two and a half week journey all across New Zealand's south island with my dear old dad and a fully equipped campervan. This is really THE way to travel, and I saw more sights in less time than at any other point on this whole trip. So, I've got a lot to write about - I'll try not to abbreviate anything, but I apologize if I do, because this trip isn't over yet and I didn't come here to spend all my money in internet cafes!

Both of us flew in to Christchurch on the same day and were off to Kaikoura after getting fully equipped and prepared. The campervan, by the way, was basically a van with a raised roof, a mini-kitchen, and a table and benches that were convertable into a queen sized bed. A shelf for an additional bed slides out above this. It is THE way to travel.

Kaikoura is a town in the northeastern part of the south island that is very big on whale watching tours, because of a very deep trench (thousands of feet deep) literally just offshore. Sperm whales come to feed on giant squid in the depths. Going in, I didn't expect to see anything, but after only a very short wait, a whale was spotted and we jetted in its direction. He (only males dive to these depths to eat squid) was just resting on the surface, so we only saw the tip of the iceberg as it were, but even that was like watching a surfaced submarine. You could fit your head in one of those blowholes, easily - and then he was back down for another hunt, giving us a great fluke (tail) shot before going under.


But that was just the beginning. Then dolphins started showing up, flipping around and swimming along with and ahead of the boat. These were dusky dolphins, which have a little more color and our smaller than their bottlenose cousins in Florida. And they travel in enormous numbers...they kept arriving, until perhaps a hundred were doing ever more complex flips, backflips, and dives, with, we were told, twice that number underwater. Then seals started showing up, and in the midst of this fray, the whale surfaced again two more times! I saw him surface both times, which was unexpected and really exciting (despite the slight seasickness I was feeling at this point).  The second time we were very close, with the dolphins going absolutely mad around the whale, and he went under again, apparently annoyed. We went in after that, and given my stomach situation, I wasn't too dissapointed.

The road north hugged the very edge of the sea, with a sheer cliff on one side. But we didn't get to enjoy it for too long before the battery died. The upside is that I got a picture of a quirky seafood shop with a giant crayfish on top. The car started later, but not before we already called a repair guy.

The next two days were a camping trip by kayak. In what would turn out to be a trend, the day was sunny despite forecasts for rain (the next day was overcast despite a sunny forecast). We kayeked in the beautiful Abel Tasman national park, on a stretch of coast lined with crescent shaped bays that had orange colored sand, which provided quite a contrast with the nearly tropical looking turqouise water (tropical looking, despite being as far from the equator as New York). There's plenty of seals that make this land their home, and we saw one flinging a quite large octopus tentacle back and forth before snacking on it, just feet from our boat. These seals were as big as our sea lions, and I thought they were the same thing. But New Zealand has their own kind of sea lion too, which is a really massive beast we saw much later.

We landed at a perfect looking bay, and camped under a grove of trees that's otherwise right on the beach. Then we ventured inland a bit - trails crisscross all over this park, and the "great walk" here is NZ's most popular. We first came by another, much larger and more crowded bay that made me appreciate our secluded cove all the more. Then after exploring a small cave and an interesting rock formation, we kept going up and inland, into the mountains, which provided great views of a vast sandy expanse - this turned out to be a tidal lagoon, so despite being the size of a small town, it fills up and empties out twice a day! The huge tidal range in this park would end up being quite an inconvenience.

We ended up at "Cleopatra's Pool" a wide spot in a cold mountain stream. The attraction is a perfect slide carved into the rock - perfect except for the jagged rocks at the end, but it's fun going down.

The next day we kayaked even further, around a large seal colony on an island, in a vast bay that we never seemed to reach the end of. After another hike, we came back to find the kayak far, far up on the beach because of the tide. Seeing such a change is a little surreal but mostly irritating, because it meant we had to carry the kayak all that way.

After handily catching a "water taxi" all the way back to our start point (and marvelling at the distance we had covered) it was down towards the West Coast. We stopped briefly at Nelson Lakes national park, which afforded a fantastic view of a lake and snowcapped mountains, but also our first and worst experience with sandflies, a notorious biting bug in NZ. Maybe a hundred got into the van after only a minute of the door being opened, and proceeded to bite us all the way to our stop that night.

The next day we reached the West Coast itself, a rugged, beautiful and nearly empty stretch of shore. It's also one of the rainiest places in the world, but we got by with only a little cloud that day, and were rewarded with views of beautiful cliffs and crumbling offshore islands. It reminded me somewhat of California, as many other places in NZ have, but so much more lush.

The highlight of the day, which was right across the road from a limestone cave that's free to explore on your own (NZ is lousy with caves, and this wouldn't be the last or biggest we'd explore unguided), were the Pancake Rocks. I didn't think these would be any great shakes coming in, but they're actually these amazing limestone formations that look like stacked layers of rock, riddled with tunnels and forming arches and strangely shaped piles. Dad likened it to a Dr. Seuss landscape. The mighty Tasman Sea crashed spectacularly against these formations, adding to the drama.

That night we made it to the glaciers, and got a glimpse of the snowcapped peak of a far away mountain. We'd be seeing a lot more of that kind of thing in the days ahead.

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