KAIKOURA - THE RUTLAND EFFECT - robmellors

KAIKOURA PENINSULA

As predicted in my last blog, our evening meal at Cherswud was excellent. Washed down by some good NZ wine we had a great evening and were up bright and early the next day for our 9 am ferry crossing. Normally the Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton goes without a hitch but they're having a bit of problem at the moment as one of their ferries has lost a screw. Not your average 8mm hex head screw (for which you never can find the right screwdriver) but one of the propellers that drives the ship. So they are down to two ferries and consequently a lot of freight traffic has to be loaded for any given sailing. So, we were over an hour late leaving Wellington which slightly messed up our plans but no matter, by the time we'd got to the south island the grey overcast had been replaced by bright shining blue so that put a smile on our faces.

We drove down through Marlborough country. No, not the fags but wine. Acres ( I refuse to call them hectares; this is the colonies, you know) of vines as far as the eye could see.When we came across a sign for one of our favourite vineries, Peter Yealand, we just had to wander off track and call in to see the place. I always think you should take something away with you when you leave a place. So we took a couple of bottles . We paid for them - don't get the wrong impression here.

Our destination was Kaikoura, a town noted for dolphin and whale watching tours. To be honest, we weren't at all sure we were going to enjoy this place because it's highly geared to tourism and seemed to offer little else than pre-packaged tours. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be. Using the trusty Book-a-Bach website we booked ourselves another holiday home. We went a little bit mad this time and chose a rather more up market place, Kincaid Cottage, a few Klms outside Kaikoura. It was an inspired choice. We had a truly lovely cottage, which was Jessica and Greg's home until the children came along and they needed more space. They moved to the larger lodge right next door (which they used to let as a B&B). We later learned that Jessica is, in fact, Swedish (though she speaks with a Kiwi accent) which explains the interior decor. We were surrounded by gardens, a tennis court (our friends Mike and Annie should come here!), a veg patch for the cottage's use (too early for much veg for our dinners), fields, a pet sheep called Billie Jean and THE most fabulous views of the mountains backing the property. This is a place we were truly sorry to leave.

The place being so glorious we just had to slip up the road to Nin's Bin, a sort of caravan shack where, Jessica reliably informed us, we would find the best Crayfish (lobster to you or I) in the area. And so it proved; washed down with a bottle of Peter Yealands fine pink sparkling wine we had a meal fit for a King looking at a view fit for Gods.

Kaikoura itself is not the prettiest of towns but that isn't unusual for New Zealand. Settlements are often somewhat functional rather than picture postcard perfect, but what they lack in design aesthetics they make up for in location. Kaikoura is on a peninsula shaped rather like a flattened arrowhead. The walk around the peninsula is glorious. On the seaward side a wonderful craggy coastline set amidst a tourquoise sea whilst inland rear majestic mountains. In the small inlets and bays are hundreds of fur seals and New Zealand's largest colony of Red-billed Gull. The mountains provide nesting grounds for the rare Hutton's Shearwater which only breeds in this area. They are trying to establish a colony of these endangered birds on the peninsula and are having some success.

Although we were on the coast we initially turned our backs on it and gazed to the mountains, still with a covering of snow despite the sun drenched weather. We decided on a hike up Mount Fyffe. It's quite a stiff climb up a four-wheel drive track (used only by Dept Of Conservation vehicles) and at one point we were going to turn back, the going was so tough. But, we persevered and we were then rewarded with the most glorious views of the mountain range surrounding Kaikoura. It was worth the effort.

It is possible to hike all the way to the top of Mt Fyffe but you need to stay overnight in a mountain hut and we are a bit too creaky for that now. However, we had a great day out in the hills and, having started out early, got back before the clouds suddenly socked in. You never can tell with mountains - clear as a bell one moment, shrouded in cloud and rain the next.

Now, I know you must be wondering why I've called this blog the Rutland effect. After all, Kaikoura is on the coast, thousands of miles away from Britain's smallest county. But what you probably don't know (unless you're rather sad people like us) is that every year Rutland becomes an international mecca for a large gathering of folk who largely have one interest in their lives - Birds. For in August Rutland Water hosts the world famous International Bird Fair. Oh come on, you must have heard of it. It's the most important event in the birding calendar.

At this gathering many hundreds of tour companies, guides, tourist organisations and other sundry folk gather. One such being Albatross Encounters, a company which organises pelagic (seabird) birding trips around the Kaikoura Peninsula. So when we attended the Birdfair (I told you we were sad people) we spent a long time talking to Gary Melville, who runs Encounters. We ended up promising him we would definitely come to Kaikoura and book one of his trips if he gave us a discount. Which he did.

So we found ourselves at 9 am on a sunny morning sitting on a boat about to be towed into the water along with some other like minded individuals for a trip out into the bay. This area of New Zealand is teeming with seabirds, fur seals, whales and Dolphin and in our two and a half hour excursion we managed to see all of them. The fur seals are not difficult to find as they tend to lounge about on rocks looking a bit grumpy at the intrusion of a noisy motor boat. Dusky Dolphins inhabit the bay in large pods and will usually turn up. We had several large groups come and check us out, leaping into the air and generally showing off, though they didn't spend a long time around the boat. Perhaps they were looking for snorkellers or swimmers they could go and pester. Swimming with dolphins is a popular pastime in Kaikoura but understandibly involves getting wet so we passed on that one.

The whale was a Humpback logging on the surface of the water. Gary doesn't have a licence to whale watch (they are strictly controlled) so he could not approach the whale directly and we motored off with only the briefest of glimpses.

We had, however, come for sea birds and were not disappointed. From Giant Northern Petrels (ugly beasts, really) to Cape Petrels (small, dainty and lovely to see in flight), Fluttering Shearwater to rafts of Hutton's Shearwater (locally endemic but otherwise the rarest Shearwater in the world), White-fronted Terns to Mollymawks (Albatross). And from the incredible Wandering Albatross (the largest wingspan of any bird in the world) to the Little Blue Penguin (wings not useable for flight and the smallest penguin in the world). It was a great trip and all thanks to a tiny county in the middle of England.

We were surprised that we enjoyed Kaikoura so much but much of it was down to having a fantastic house to stay in. Jessica tells us that she would consider a long term let so we may yet return to this little slice of heaven.

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