We drove north on highway 1 on a cool, wet morning through the outskirts of Christchurch. Now here we are back in Kaikoura. We were here for a few days back in late July and early August of last year when we did the whale watch and dolphin encounter trip and then for a very brief two days in December when our friends were visiting. Both of us bubbled with excitement at the thought of getting to stay for two weeks.
The accommodation we’d booked was a self-contained bungalow only a half a block from the ocean. We arrived too early for check in so we made our way to the west side of town to try out a little café for lunch and pick up a few groceries before getting settled in. Our hosts, Billy and Susan greeted us warmly and it didn’t take us long to connect. She’s from the US and they’d spent a winter not too long ago in Salida Colorado, which is not far from where Paul spent part of his childhood. I’m not sure if it was due to shared interests and familiarity with where we’d all lived or simply our personalities, but it felt sort of like we were old friends. They have traveled extensively all over the world and we could have listened to their stories for hours. They told us to help ourselves to the plethora of ripe grapes hanging on the vines covering the fence in front of our bungalow and Susan left a large bowl of apples from one of their trees. Autumn, tis the season of harvest. Also the season for fresh snow. Upon waking our first morning in Kaikoura, we peeked out the door to see a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains.
The weather system that was sprinkling rain on us during drive from Christchurch was scattering tiny white frozen flakes at higher elevations. Just as before, we stood in awe here where the mountains quite literally touch the sea. Having already experienced the whale watch and dolphin encounter which are the two main tourist activities in Kaikoura, we set our sights on getting to know the area a little more in depth. The trail up Mt Fyffe had been on my radar ever since our first visit here. We just ran out of time and good weather during the previous stay to do the mountain and bush walks. With the forecast showing a couple days of sunshine we took the opportunity to get out and soak it in. On our first outing we walked up and over the peninsula to South Bay then followed the Peninsula walkway all the way around Point Kean and down to Fyffe Quay before walking back up the paddock to Ward street and finally descending on another track down the hill behind our bungalow.
The route is one of our favorite walks because the views are unlike anywhere else. The peninsula walkway follows the cliffs high above the ocean yet to the opposite side you can see the mountains piercing the horizon.
To our relief the internet connection is superior to that we had in our last accommodation and we were able to spend some time on Skype with both of our families. While Paul was working the following day I prepared to hike Mt Fyffe.
We didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity with such a clear sky. Because we’d be getting a late start, our intention was to just climb to the hut then evaluate if we had the time and energy to continue to the summit. As soon as Paul closed his computer we headed out the door. It took us about 20 minutes to drive to the trailhead and get started on the walk. The trail which was actually a 4WD dirt road started off steep, and kept going up and up. Each time we’d round a corner I’d look up to where it disappeared around another bend, set that as my goal and hope for some small segment with a gentler incline. That didn’t happen for the first hour of the hike. Each time I reached what I thought was the “top” of the hill, where the trail curved I’d round the corner and there stood another giant stretch of steep gravel. We left the carpark at about 11:30 and took a lunch break in a grassy clearing looking out over the Kaikoura Peninsula.
During lunch, a bee decided to leave his stinger protruding from my wrist. Ya ouch! However, the pain wasn’t really enough to distract me from the grueling climb as we continued up the mountain. Quite often throughout the journey we did get to enjoy the panoramic view on both sides, the peninsula and ocean to the east and a deep, green river valley with mountains stacked behind it to the west. Two and a half hours after we left the car, we arrived at the hut.
We paused again for another snack and considered the possibility of continuing on to the summit. The signs indicated the summit was another hour and a half up. Already feeling the fatigue in our legs and knowing the terrain we had to navigate down we opted to descend. Plus, taking into account the time, we knew the shadows would soon be stretching in the afternoon light and already we’d be getting done about dinner time. The descent was just as difficult as the climb maybe more so.
We could both certainly feel it in our legs, knees especially, once we reached the car a couple hours later. On our way down we somewhat jokingly talked about doing it again on a day that Paul wasn’t working so we’d have plenty of time to get to the summit, but the weekend was several days away. Without having a better idea of what the weather would have in store for us over the weekend we didn’t pursue the thought. That evening, we splurged and went out to dinner at the Green Dolphin for dinner. Seafood in a coastal town just can’t be beat. The green lipped mussels I had were the best of any I’ve tried so far.
With the beach so close we took many opportunities to walk down and play hacky sack, just sit or wander along the shore. On one of our first visits I found a cat’s eye shell on the beach. Then I was almost obsessed with wanting to go beachcombing every chance I got. Kaikoura’s beaches were full of treasures besides cat’s eyes. There were paua shells and beach glass too. A few mornings the tide was such that I could visit the beach while Paul was working.
As forecast, the rain showed up, but only for a day. Then the sun returned and we were back outside, this time walking into town taking time to smell the flowers and then back to the bungalow along the beach. During our initial chat with Billy and Susan we’d learned that Billy grew up on the Coromandel peninsula on the North Island. This was one of the places we intend to visit before we leave NZ so we set up a time to stop in and chat with them about what to see and do while we’re there. Susan said to bring a bag if we wanted to raid the garden. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that so we arrived at their door with a couple bags and proceeded to follow them around the yard filling them with all sorts of fruits and veggies. They had practically every citrus tree you could imagine along with peaches, apricots, walnuts, avocados, feijoas, watermelon, almonds, on top of all the ordinary garden vegetables we’re used to seeing in Colorado. They generously filled our bags with an overwhelming selection of garden goodies. It was hard not to feel spoiled. Then Billy invited us in for tea and the four of us spent some time discussing our visit to the North Island and sharing more stories. Billy encouraged us to try some feijoas from the supermarket as theirs were not quite ripe.
The closest we’d gotten to tasting the flavor was in a chocolate bar with feijoa pieces. I didn’t care for it but after hearing Billy’s description, I wanted to taste the actual fruit. We figured it was the best time to try them since they’re in season. They certainly are unique. I still did not find the flavor to my liking, but I’m glad I tried one.
We spent that afternoon wandering along the beach which I was surprised Paul was willing to do. Earlier while playing hacky sack he’d hauled off to kick the sack to the moon and caught the heel of my shoe instead, leaving him hopping in circles for quite some time. It resulted in a large puffy bruise across the top of his foot.
Susan told us that the Ohau stream had lots and lots of baby seals and we should visit early. The previous times we’d been there we’d only seen a handful of the little guys. We chose to go on a weekend so we could get there early, hopefully before crowds of tourists arrived. The day we went there were only a handful of cars parked when we arrived and I’m so glad we visited again. Before we got even ten steps up the trail Paul spotted a group of them playing in the stream. A few more paces and we looked down to see one tossing a fish around like a puppy with a favorite toy. At the top of the track where the waterfall splashes into a little pool, the water was literally churning with baby seals.
There were at least fifty of them frolicking in the pool. It was captivating to watch them spinning, twisting, leaping out of the water, diving and darting to and fro. Periodically one would squirt out of the water and poke his nose under the waterfall. There’s a video of them here. Seal video. After the walk to the waterfall, we spent some time just sitting seaside where the stream enters the ocean. A pod of dolphins swam past and several baby seals came scrambling under the bridge out to the open water.
After lunch, I was eager to find a different shore to look for shells. It was just after low tide when we left the house, walked to South Bay and started around the point of the peninsula again. I suggested since the tide was out that we walk around the base of the cliffs this time.
We’d walked for several minutes when I remembered that the last time we’d been in Kaikoura, there were quite a number of seals along this coast. I jokingly told Paul not to let me step on one in my beachcombing trance. It was literally only a couple minutes after that, I was startled by an abrupt, raucous bark. A blast of seal breath walloped me in the face and I leapt to the left a few feet and scurried across the rocks several more before pausing to look back. Legs quivering, short of breath, I reassured the seal that I’d meant no harm and thanked it for the warning bark instead of a bite. From that point on, Paul and I both kept a careful lookout for seals and carefully navigated a path to give each one as much space as possible.
We didn’t have much of a choice whether to continue as we both knew we’d probably passed the point of no return, at least no return without getting wet and so we pressed on. Once we reached the point we knew from walking the trail several times before that there was a set of stairs to reach the upper track on which we could return.
However, we hadn’t prepared for such a long walk and did not have any snacks or water with us. Oh, how we wished we could simply snap our fingers and instantly be back at the bungalow. Instead of trying that, though we opted to just keep walking. At the top of the hill behind the bungalow we paused, stopped by the golden glow of the sun sinking behind the mountains. It was a refreshing break and then we were just minutes from “home.”
The following day, clouds returned and we spent the day mostly inside, but then the fine weather returned and out we went. This time for a walk around the peninsula on the North side, again along the bottom of the cliffs.
No seals along this route, at least on this day. On our return we couldn’t resist one more dinner at Green Dolphin. Delish! The sunshine and peninsula drew us out again the following day. We jogged this time, up to Scarbourough street along the high spot of the peninsula, then down through the paddock to Fyffe Quay and out to Point Kean before returning along the coast.
During the afternoon I was back at the beach while Paul relaxed inside. Friday was again cool and cloudy, but the extended forecast was showing clear days for the weekend. This forecast also allowed us to focus with more clarity on whether we wanted to take on the challenge of Mt. Fyffe again. My how quickly two weeks seemed to pass here. Saturday, we wandered toward town and stopped in at the dive shop to inquire about doing a bit of scuba diving. The owner confirmed what I’d suspected that the diving is quite different here than what we’ve experienced in our limited tropical dives. Chiefly, cooler water temperature and secondarily limited visibility, which I’d not considered. He was like so many folks we’ve met here in New Zealand apparently in no hurry and chatting with us like he had no other plans for the day other than conversing with us. From there we enjoyed a relaxed walk over the crest of the peninsula to South Bay once again and back.
Sunday was the day, the only day left for us to consider attempting to summit Mt. Fyffe and I left it up to Paul. I didn’t particularly fancy making that arduous climb all over again, but I knew it’d be great exercise and the views really are worth it. His injured foot didn’t seem to bother him while walking so he decided we should go for it. We packed the backpacks and departed as soon as we could. I’m not sure if it was the familiarity with the trail or the knowledge that we didn’t have to hurry, or simply the fact that it was a new and different day, but the climb didn’t seem quite as grueling. We only took one brief break at the lookout where we’d eaten lunch the first time and didn’t stop again until we reached the hut.
The climb took us less than two hours. Then we stepped into unknown territory. It wasn’t much different than the previous miles other than the trail was considerably narrower in places and much of it was shaded. The cool damp stretches had several mushrooms sprouting alongside the trail.
Many of them stood out with their bright red dome tops. Just over an hour later we set foot on the summit and inhaled the surrounding panoramic views.
It was the perfect place for lunch. We dropped our packs and snapped a few photos and videos. I plopped down in the grass and propped myself against a bump in the terrain so as to keep the peninsula in sight. Paul stood, as we both munched our peanut butter sandwiches. We didn’t leave until I’d practiced my handstand. For some reason, after thirty years, I’m moved to try them again. It was something I never quite mastered when I took tumbling lessons as a girl.
We knew a long descent lay before us. Just as during the climb we didn’t feel pressure to hurry, and found ourselves making good time. The entire trip only took us two hours longer than our first walk to the hut and we did notice how interesting it was that we had to climb as such a remarkable incline for so long just to reach an elevation that is equivalent to where our house sits in Johnstown. Upon returning that evening, we found an invitation from Billy and Susan to join them for some nibbles. It was a wonderful way to wrap up this visit to Kaikoura. They shared goodies made from the fresh veggies and fruits in their garden. Bruchetta with fresh tomatoes and basil and some homemade peach pie as well as a taste of some paua. We got caught up in sharing stories again and realized we’d been there for hours. Before we called it a night, Susan showed us a glimpse into an impressive collection she’d acquired during years of beachcombing all over the world. We made plans to return to their place in August to see Kaikoura at least once more before this New Zealand adventure draws to a close.