I found the images of Kaikoura after the earthquake very upsetting, since my own memories of the two days I spent there are some of my best in New Zealand.
As the town is cut off from the land, businesses are struggling with their summer season ruined.
Even those with insurance may not be covered for loss of business “because of closed roads or damaged infrastructure”.
I put here together some of those good memories, hoping that I might entice you to visit. If not this year, soon.
One thing to remember is that Kaikoura has traditionally been reached by the sea. In the early 19C the Kaikoura mountains acted as a barrier and settlers walked a slow, dangerous track skirting the slopes.
That’s why the town was so easily cut off after the earthquake.
Until well into the 20th century shipping was the preferred mode of access to the town which was the only anchorage along the rugged eastern coast of the South Island until Christchurch and Akaroa.
The Old Wharf still stands in the south of town. It was not until 1881 that the current wharf was completed.
Today it’s used for fishermen’s boats who collect paua, a local type of ormer shell (also known as abalone) which is protected: only ten paua per person per day may be collected.
The shellfish is an expensive delicacy but this kind Maori fisherman cut me one for free when he heard that I had never tasted one.
Kaikoura is on the edge of a continental shelf and the water here drops very quickly. Swim five minutes from the shore and you’re up to a depth of 50m. Swim for ten and you will find yourself in waters 180m deep.
This sea canyon has been the abode of sperm whales since, like, forever and Kaikoura was the centre of whaling in the South Island that only ended in the 1960s.
Fyffe House, the oldest house in Kaikoura, is now a whaling museum. It also has the best view in New Zealand according to the lady curator: “You can see the mountains from here“, she told me.”Only in Fjordland do you get such views. The mountains in Kaikoura rise faster than in any part of New Zealand.”
Sadly we now know why.
They still hunt whales in Kaikoura, but nowadays only to photograph them with whale-watching boats sailing up to 16 times a day in high season.
Spotting whales underwater has become very high-tech. Boats are equipped with sonar and radar and whatevar, so sightings are virtually guaranteed.
[Click on images to enlarge]
My boat was Te Ao Marama (The World of Light) from WhaleWatch Kaikoura and, as I had a fabulous time with them, I sincerely hope they survive the downturn. A sign on their site says that they have temporarily suspended their operations. They also say that, on a quick trip out, they discovered that the sperm whales are still around.
Whales aren’t the only attraction here: there are seabirds (cormorants and mollymawks) as well as the tiny and beautiful Hector’s dolphins. A pod is resident in the south of the town.
As I was there in high season (late February), the place was full of tourists. Locals were stretched out so I didn’t exactly get the quickest service in the cafes and restaurants. Still, the seafood was good and the wonderful New Zealand Sauvignon made up for any waiting.
Now for a narrative coda: I didn’t sleep that night.
I had a cabin in a lodge just outside town and at around 11pm a frog started quacking inside my room.
I turned the lights on and tried to find it but, as the cabin was rather sizeable, I couldn’t.
Every time I closed my eyes, there it came: RIBBIT!
I left the door open for it to flee; I filled the washbasin with water to entice it in; I sprayed insecticide everywhere, enough to give me a cough, but no.
It was RIBBIT! all through the night.
That’s also what I remember from my time in Kaikoura.