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New Zealand’s South Island moves at a different pace from the north. Divided by the formidable Southern Alps, the sheer extremes of the land inspire adventure, as Mike Laanela recently discovered.
It’s a clear early morning when I find myself waving goodbye the North Island from the back deck of a southward bound InterIslander ferry. As we cut out into the open water of the notoriously rough Cook Strait, the wind turns cold and soon jumpers and long pants start appearing from bags and backpacks on the crowded deck. Already the change from north to south has begun.
As New Zealanders will quickly let you know, the larger South Island is more than just geographically apart from the north. With its smaller scattered population, snowy winters, and mountainous landscape, the South Island seems to ooze an independent and adventurous spirit. Only a long day’s drive in length, (a patch of land that wouldn’t much exceed a couple outback stations), it has an entire continent’s worth of geography, all clenched together like a tightened fist.
All morning on the sundeck I watched the clouds over the South Island cliffs growing steadily closer, but when we finally enter the narrow mouth of the Tory Channel, I’m caught in the coffee shop below deck with the locals who find it all too familiar. By the time I scramble up on deck we’re already negotiating the narrow channel. The massive ferry seems out of place next to the farmhouses and cribs (summer houses) that speckle the sides of the hills. Already the South Island feels more open than the North.
At the ferry terminal in Picton, I board the train for my first stop on this mighty little island, Kaikoura, a former fishing and whaling town on the dry east coast. In the past ten years it has reshaped itself into one of the nicest little tourist traps on the circuit, but not without good reason. As I stroll the extremely stroll-able main street, it’s easy to see that a globally recognisable tourist kitsch has already taken over – large murals of sea creatures and bright ‘olde shoppe’ type signs, have replaced the dull attire of a true fishing village. But it is also obvious that there is an inspirational energy lurking behind the tarted up weatherboard shop-fronts.
From the backdrop of corrugated mountains, onto the pale blue ocean out front, it’s just five minutes to the edge of the Continental Shelf where the sea bottom drops a thousand meters into the depths of the Hikurangi Trench. In this underwater canyon the world’s largest toothed predators, sperm whales, hunt giant squid in the blackness by sonar clicks. Years ago whaling was common on this coast, but like the sealing and the gold rush it died out and was almost forgotten. However for the last ten years, humans have again chased sperm whales from Kaikoura.
t’s 7 am on a clear morning when I finally get my turn. With the water glassy calm and the brown slopes of the mountains emerging from the lifting clouds, it’s just beautiful to be out on the water. The captain turns off the engine of the twin-hulled boat just five minutes out of the harbour. He then lowers a microphone into the water to listen for sonar activity. Since sperm whales dive for up to an hour tracking them is a detective style search.
Several times the Captain motors off in one direction only to take another listen and then turn us back around. Finally we catch sight of the mammoth creature resting almost motionless on the surface, over 14 m in length. For ten minutes it sits barely moving and then with a grand flick of its tail, it heaves up and disappears into the depths.
Sperm whales are not the only creatures that thrive in the nutrient rich waters around Kaikoura. Over three days I manage to kayak with Fur Seals, cage dive with Blue and Mako sharks, and then snorkel with five hundred Dusky Dolphins (yes, five hundred) who just can’t seem to stop playing. The whole town seems mad for marine life and tales of heart stopping encounters are eagerly swapped over late dinners in front of the panoramic windows of the hostel dining room.