Updated on September 19th, 2023
One of my favourite things is to share the stories I’ve accumulated over my 30 years of travelling. And I have many stories! Lockdown has given me time to reflect & I have started to reread some of my old travel journals. Here, I reopen my New Zealand travel diary from 1995 for a couple of fun adventures on the water. Are you interested to know what it’s like to get stranded in a kayak during the worst storm for 20 years? Or one of the best wildlife encounters for meeting magnificent marine beasts? Then read on…”
Kaikõura & Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
Twenty-five years ago, I spent two months on a road trip around New Zealand with my friend Laura. Six weeks of that were in the South Island seeing some of the most breath-taking landscapes I have ever witnessed. We were ill-prepared & naïve but full of enthusiasm & mischief. Here are a couple of my misadventures along the way, namely getting stuck in a 20-year storm in a kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park and getting up close & personal with whales, dolphins & seals in the marine playground of Kaikõura.
Setting the scene
Laura & I had spent 3 years together getting up to a lot of mischief at university. Her brother had relocated to New Zealand, so it was the perfect opportunity to reunite for a few adventures. He had also generously offered us his old car & (very old) tent for our epic road trip. We were both enthusiastic, exuberant & slightly irresponsible 25-year-olds. Budgets were tight. We chose to save money by not buying comfortable mats to sleep on (who needs mats when you have newspaper?!) but seemed to find funds for a regular supply of beer & cider along the way.
These were the days before mobile phones, digital cameras & prior to me discovering the joy of a zoom lens. I, therefore, apologise about the quality of some of the photos but believe it in no way detracts from the sheer beauty of the landscapes that this country has to offer. I believe that sharing my original photos makes the whole New Zealand travel diary somehow more authentic.
New Zealand Travel Diary – Kaikõura
Kaikõura lies at a point where the tectonic plates collide, creating a unique ecosystem. It is THE place in New Zealand for marine encounters with sperm whales, seals, dusky dolphins & albatross year-round. In addition, if you time your visit right you can add orca, humpback whales, blue whales & Hector dolphins to that list.
Sperm whales can last underwater for around 35 minutes before needing to return to the surface for 10 minutes. Therefore, in Kaikõura it is unusual not to see at least one of these magnificent beasts on a whale watching tour.”
Kaikõura was one of our first excursions. We were staying with some friends of Laura’s brother in Christchurch & rather than spend any money on accommodation, decided to get up at 3am to drive to our whale watching rendezvous. For this first part of the adventure another friend, Al joined us.
We needed to check-in for the trip by 6am. Cutting it fine as usual, we screeched into the car park at 5.55am, on an empty tank with the petrol light screaming. Thankfully there was a slight delay & our early start had not been in vain.
As our boat exited the harbour, Al realised that she had left her camera in the car. However, there was no turning back. As we headed out to sea, the water became choppier & some of our fellow passengers started to look a little sick. Helpfully, we tucked into our breakfast of tuna sandwiches & bananas with gusto. On reflection, this may have sent a few of them over the edge ;).
Not too far from the coast, the boat stopped as the captain spotted not one, but two sperm whales resting on the surface. Apparently, this was a rare sighting. With my heart in my mouth, one prepared to breach & was about to give us the perfect flick of its tail.
I was in awe & keen to get the shot, as my camera clicked & the film started to automatically rewind. I had missed the moment!”
Cursing our photographic misfortune, we moved on in search of more luck next time. And we were rewarded, over & over again. Throughout the morning we were able to discover four whales in total & where Al & I failed with our photography, Laura came in to save the day.
After the whales, we headed off to see what other marine life was on offer. Again, we were in luck as we encountered a huge & exuberant pod of over 200 Dusky dolphins. They seemed thrilled to see us as they enthusiastically crossed backwards & forwards under the boat, leaping, twirling & somersaulting around us. They stayed with us to show off their skills for about 30 minutes before heading off on their way. It was a truly magical moment!
Our final treat of the cruise was a significantly less enthusiastic colony of seals. They looked exhausted as they slept on a nearby rocky outcrop. Occasionally one of them raised its head to check us out but, clearly unimpressed, went back to sleep. I had never seen any wild seals before so I didn’t care. Their enthusiasm in no way dampened mine!
One last treat
By 9am we were thrilled, exhausted & back on solid ground. We all felt in need of a rest so lay out a blanket on the verge & fell asleep. Ninety minutes later, a coach load of tourists disembarking just next to us woke us up. As we came to, very bleary-eyed from our nap, the car park surrounding us was full. I started to feel more in tune with the seals after all!
After a short wander around town, it was time to leave. But Kaikõura had one last treat in store for us. As we headed out, Laura spotting some movement on the beach below. On closer inspection, we found a slightly livelier colony of seals on the beach & we were thrilled! Some were frolicking in the water & occasionally one of them would get a bit grumpy & make their presence known. Most of them slept but it felt so special to just be among them.
I knew the limitations of my camera & decided to enjoy the moment. My friends went off in search of that amazing shot, with their fantastic cameras (Al was making up for lost time after reuniting with hers!).
I sat on a rock & just watched in awe. It felt like I was the luckiest person in the world. I learned a lesson that day. Sometimes it’s good to just stop, take a moment & appreciate your surroundings. Mental pictures are often the most precious ones we have.”
If you love a wildlife encounter as much as I do, check out my blog post for my top picks from around the world.
New Zealand Travel Diary – Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is the smallest National Park in New Zealand but famed for its picture-perfect golden sandy bays & stunning blue seas. There are a number of ways to explore the area & the most popular is to hike the Abel Tasman Coast Track. It’s an easy 60km stretch of sea, sand & forest. You may also choose to take a boat & explore the coastline from the sea. Get Your Guide has a number of options available.
However, we decided to take the alternative route & hired sea kayaks for a 3-day, self-guided coastal safari.
Welcome onboard the Rainbow Warrior
On day one they allocated us our trusty kayak for the trip. All the others were plain red or yellow, except ours. They gave us the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ which was apparently a lucky boat.
For those unfamiliar, the Rainbow Warrior was Greenpeace’s flagship. On its way to protest France’s nuclear testing, French saboteurs sunk the boat in 1985. The vessel now lies as an artificial reef off the Bay of Islands in New Zealand & is a world-renowned dive site.
It felt a little ominous that we were due to spend 3 days on its namesake…”
We headed out to sea as a group, & after a short talk on how to read the wind & navigate the coastline, we were left to our own devices. Our first day was reasonably uneventful. A perfect start!
By day two our seafaring confidence was on the rise as were the waves. We hit one completely wrongly & capsized. After reclaiming our possessions, as we sheepishly bailed out the water, a guided tour group appeared. They had seen our full performance. We were embarrassed & knew that due to our distinctive vessel, word would get back about the incompetent crew on the Rainbow Warrior. As the wind picked up, we headed for a break on land. The beach was crowded & as we had developed a tendency for embarrassing ourselves with an audience, we capsized again…we were fast building a reputation!
“Get up or your kayaks will float away!”
We made camp but during the night, a storm hit. Our old leaky tent didn’t fare too well. We were trying to sleep as streams appeared to literally flow through the tent & soaked our sleeping bags, clothes & basically everything. Somehow, we slept but at 7am a cry went through the camp “Get up or your kayaks will float away!”
We stumbled out of the tent to find an angry sea lapping right up to our kayaks, well above the high tide line that we had used as the “safe” zone. We pulled our boat all the way to sit next to our tent. The weather looked like it was in no way ready to ease up which made leaving the park that day look challenging. We had both been stung the day before, & with all our possessions soaked through, decided it had stopped being fun. We planned to call for a water taxi to pull us out. However, that meant making a phone call. And these were the days before mobile phones.
We had to walk for an hour to get to the lodge & find a phone. On arrival, we got the news that it was too rough even for the water taxis to reach us. We called the kayak company. It appeared our reputation as expert seafarers had obviously been fed back. They were hugely relieved to hear from us as it was obvious that they had been worried.
It turned out that this was the worst storm to hit the area in 20 years. The main street of the closest town, Motueka was completely underwater.”
We tucked into a delicious lunch at the café. However, when we finished, they told us that there was no way anyone was going anywhere today. If it was nice in the morning, we could choose to kayak back, if not they would send someone out to pick us up. Now we faced a dilemma. We had run out of food & money & needing to stay for an extra night!
Kindness of Strangers
The cafe staff were amazing! Despite us begging them for stale food as we couldn’t pay for anything, they packed us off with fresh pizza & buns.
By the time we arrived back at our camp, we discovered that we had lovely neighbours too. They had put our now dry clothes in the tent & even hung up our sleeping bags to dry. After a feast of pizza, we had an early night. However, our extra baked goods which we had concealed in our tent made us paranoid that we may be attacked by possums!
Thankfully the next day was calm. The water taxi arrived but by this time we had decided to try our luck at kayaking out. We told the captain our plan & this meant we had until 4pm to make it to the next taxi point at Anchorage.
We made it there without a problem & our confidence was building again. When the next boat arrived, we were told that the conditions looked good & were encouraged to try & kayak all the way out. We cancelled our taxi.
It felt easy at first but then the wind joined us again & whipped up the waves. There was just one headland to pass & we would be out. We tried to keep going but struggled to make progress.
For 1 ½ hours we battled the wind in our faces & at times it got really scary. At one point we even started waving our paddles for a rescue by a passing boat. All he did was wave back!”
Eventually, we gave up & used our last semblance of energy to make it back to Anchorage. The taxi finally arrived & the driver was amazed at how far we had been able to get.
It was great to see land again & when the Rainbow Warrior returned to shore we were treated like heroes. We were exhausted but it was an amazing feeling. It was a challenging, hugely rewarding & totally unique experience. After all, you only get this chance every 20 years!
I hope you have enjoyed reading my New Zealand travel diaries as much as I have reliving some of these amazing memories. There are plenty more to share, including our shambolic adventures on the epic Routeburn, Greenstone & Kepler hiking tracks. I look forward to seeing you there…
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