I regret not spending more time in Kaikoura. My new rule of thumb for planning future trips is to come up with the number of days I think we need in a given location, then double it.
Our time in Kaikoura was especially abbreviated – only two full days. The first day was glorious, but the second was stormy – a perfect day for indoor activities.
We took two days to drive the 459 kilometers (285 miles) to Kaikoura from Twizel, stopping for a quick overnight in Ashburton.
As usual, we found a few interesting places to check out along the way. In tiny Burkes Pass, “a town forgotten by time,” (according to a local placard), there was a quick stop at St. Patricks Pioneer Church.
On our next stop, we enjoyed lunch at the Brewery Café in Geraldine, a cute town with specialty and boutique shops featuring local food, clothing (lots of merino wool!), and art. Marlene and I spotted this interesting enterprise sponsored by the local police department. Cool.
We checked out the Big Tree Walk in the Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve. As advertised, the trees were very large and also very old. Delightful!
On transit day two, we spent an hour or so admiring the beautiful Rakaia Gorge. Note the fresh snow on the mountaintop.
We found wineries just begging for a visit.
We arrived at our destination in Kaikoura in the early evening, eager to spend the next couple of days exploring.
Kaikoura’s claim to fame is an incredible array of marine life. This small town (population 2,210) sits on the north side of a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. The Kaikoura Canyon, 1,200 meters deep and located only 500 meters offshore, is part of a deep channel system that runs for hundreds of kilometers across the ocean. Its proximity to the coast creates unique sea currents and conditions that support more than 200 species of marine animals.
We were keenly interested in getting up close and personal with two of the locals – giant albatross seabirds and sperm whales. Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen close to shore year-round. (Graphic borrowed from Encyclopedia Britannica)
Alas, whale-watching didn’t happen due to choppy seas, but we had a gorgeous day for our albatross encounter.
Giant Albatross (and More)
They are big, noisy, and feisty. And amazing. With the largest wingspan of any living bird (average = 10 feet/3 meters), a wandering albatross spends 85% of its time soaring above and swimming on the high seas, traveling great distances in a single day to search for food.
In addition to the display version above, we saw 11 of these giant birds during our 2-hour boat trip just off the coast of Kaikoura. Our small group included a bus driver/boat captain/tour guide and a total of nine guests, so we had ample opportunity to ask questions and view the birds at close range.
The feeding frenzy on the water was accompanied by a lot of wing-flapping, vocalizing, and even a few squabbles as participants, including other types of seabirds, jockeyed for advantage.
At the end of the tour, our leader distributed a record of the types and numbers of birds we encountered. In addition to wandering albatross, we saw 2 royal albatross, 2 mollymawks, 24 petrels, 11 shags (cormorants), 8 terns, 62 gulls, 2 gannets, and 2 little blue penguins.
On the way back to shore, our guide pointed out dolphins – a large group of dusky dolphins (common) and a pod of five Hector’s dolphins (rare).
The world’s smallest dolphin, Hector’s is endemic to New Zealand, which means it’s only found here. Adults max out at 4-5 feet/1.2-1.6 meters in length and weigh around 110 pounds/50 kilograms.
The boat tour was an excellent decision, and we still had all afternoon to do a little exploring on foot.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
We opted to hike a little less than half of this popular 7+ mile (11.7 km) loop trail that offers expansive ocean and clifftop views. It was a leisurely walk on a beautiful day, as you can tell from the photos below.
We especially enjoyed watching the too-many-to-count fur seals just hanging out on the rocks below the cliff.
Our chosen segment of the trail ended at South Bay, where we happened upon these Maori sculptures depicting historical figures fishing in the rich waters nearby.
Since day 2 was a bust for whale-watching and other outdoor activities, we decided on a visit to the Kaikoura Museum.
The museum contains a wealth of information about the history and culture of Kaikoura, but the most engaging display was the award-winning New Normal: The Kaikoura Earthquake Exhibition.
The 2016 earthquake was a magnitude 7.8, the second largest in New Zealand in at least 200 years. It lasted 120 seconds, making it the longest recorded quake in the country’s recorded history. Incredibly, only two people lost their lives.
The exhibit highlights stories of people who experienced the event firsthand and provides a detailed description/photos of accelerated efforts to restore road and rail service to Kaikoura after access was severed by landslides caused by the quake.
If you are interested in learning more about this devastating event, read my friend Marlene’s blog post by clicking here.
Our NZ Travels After Kaikoura
As COVID-19 cases were exploding in parts of Europe and just beginning to ramp up in the U.S., it was business as usual in Kaikoura during our visit on March 19-20, 2020. We were monitoring local and global developments on a daily basis but blissfully unaware that the entire country of New Zealand would be in total lockdown less than one week later.
Our 3-month trip to New Zealand was cut short by six weeks, and we returned to the U.S. on March 28. You can read about how our plans evolved during that last week in this previously published blog post: Grounded and Self-Quarantining.
We look forward to returning to New Zealand one day and finishing what we started. So many places we still want to visit when the time is right.
Until then, we are sticking close to home, trying to stay healthy and safe, and re-acquainting ourselves with the beauty that lies within our own backyard in Colorado.
Thank you for following our travels – we’ll be back!