Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sealed with a Kiss: 36 hours in Kaikoura

In the march of "active vacation destinations," there are those that set Gold Standard-- offering cheap and plentiful activities-- and then there are that group's lesser brethren, either offering only a smattering of cheap adventures or an abundance of expensive ones. Kaikoura, two hours up the coast from Christchurch, fell into the last category. Almost everything to do in the town was way above my price range. So when, the morning after Waitangi Day, I hopped a bus 2 hours up the (stunning) New Zealand coast to Kaikoura, I knew I couldn't spend very much time there. I had already decided that I would only take advantage of one of the panoply of exciting opportunities available, from kayaking trips to dolphin swimming to whale watching, and I knew that if I stayed longer than a night or two I would be tempted to keep spending.

View from the bus en route to Kaikoura

If the above activity roster didn't give it away, Kaikoura is famous for its marine life-- I had the tectonic complexities spelled out for me a couple of times, but suffice it to say that the way the mountains plunge directly into the sea creates an incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem. Out of all the expensive ways to experience this diversity I had chosen seal swimming. Although it has been something of a dream of mine to swim with dolphins, I figured there would be many other places and opportunities for this dream to come true. Swimming with seals, on the other hand, struck me as less common, especially outside New Zealand. So to Kaikoura I came, ready to shell out for a magical experience and maybe bumble over another adventure in the meantime.

I arrived at my hostel mid-morning and just had time to cram down a "Salisbury steak sandwich" (i.e. new Zealand hamburger) at a flea market happening nearby before heading for the seals. At the company's headquarters in little downtown Kaikoura, we were provided with wet suits and snorkels and advised on basic seal behavior, a briefing that basically boiled down to: don't challenge their territory, don't touch unless they touch you, don't get between a mother and her pup.

At the swim point we were motored out about 1000 meters from shore to a large rock where a colony of seals lived. The deep green water was still a little choppy from the morning's wind but calming by the second. This was where it occurred to me that I should have bought an underwater camera in Australia and used in on the Great Barrier Reef and then here. But alas, it was not to be.

Unfortunately this is the best seal shot I can offer you. After this I jumped into the water...

The bay was so cold it left me gasping for breath in my wet suit. After the bathwater temperatures of Australian Ocean, I wasn't expecting such cold water. But after a few minutes my body adjusted and I started to admire my surroundings. We were swimming above a thick forest of kelp, a view almost exactly like an IMAX movie I saw once, the fronds swaying languidly in the current. Although they were nothing but playful and curious, being at such close proximity to so many seals was scary at first. I remembered the guide saying that seals are extremely adept in the water, and I couldn't help but think how un-adept I was in comparison. And all the time the waves were constantly pushing me toward the large rock, which we had been warned not to approach to closely in order not to infringe on the bull seals' territory.

After awhile I was able to maintain a constant position against most of the waves, and that's when I realized that the seals swimming around, under, across me were just curious, just playing. Several of them seemed to like to shoot at incredible speed through the kelp several feet below me, breaking rapidly to change directions and nose to the surface. Another watched me upside down from not far away, hanging in the water with it's tail just breaking the surface. And then there was a family around me, a bull and a mother and a pup, and they were surrounding me on all sides swimming and twisting, their big liquid eyes searching me out. The pup put its tail in its mouth and started propelling itself around in circles in a little ball, bubbles fizzing to the surface, looking at me as if to say "Can you do that?" Of course I couldn't, and it wasn't until I almost opened my mouth to say so that I realized, with shear joy, that they weren't just playing. They were playing WITH me. I swam in a circle; the pup swam in a circle. I did a somersault, the pup dove backwards, and then with a splash they were gone.

The entire experience was exhilarating.

After showering and changing clothes at my hostel, I spent the night wandering the little main street, which mostly featured overpriced meals angled at tour groups. I looked into a few stores full of tacky souvenirs, then went into a"trash fashion" show in an art gallery, featuring clothing made from found/recycled items. My favorite:

A dress made out of a waiter's apron and menus
I finally found a reasonable fish and chips joint (which is where I drank the Lemon & Paeroa featured in the last entry) and had taken my food outside to eat in the waning light when I heard singing. The sounds were foreign but slightly familiar, and at length I was able to identify where I had heard it before--the day before at the Waitangi celebration.

Night had fallen and I was cold, so I bought a cup of tea at the restaurant next door and settled in to enjoy a kapahaka or traditional Maori song/dance performance, this one also celebrating Waitangi Day. There were something like 10 or 15 performers, mostly female, swaying their hips and arms and singing strong and plain melodies interwoven with surprisingly sweet harmony. At one point they pulled out their poi, pairs of soft balls attached by string and swung in intricate patterns that those of you familiar with fire twirling practices will recognize.

From one of the tacky souvenir shops: the exoticized Maori, sold to promote tourism and make money

Real Maori, practicing their own traditions in their own ways

The night was only getting colder, so I moved farther inside the open cafe and ended up sharing a table with Tiffany, an exchange student from Georgia Tech. We shared our admiration and curiousity about the performance. Tiffany was not as shy or self conscious as I was, and before long she was at the head table asking the performers all sorts of questions about Maori culture. Some part of me, the part that is a trained anthropologist, was embarassed, feeling that she was crossing some sort of invisible line. But in the end we were sitting at that table with the leader of the kapahaka and her parents, talking about America and New Zealand, Maori life and traditions, the things we had in common.

Tiffany and our two new Maori friends

The night wore on and we all got more comfortable with each other, chatting and laughing, the akwardness of before erased by time and cold beer. Instead, there was a wonderfully horrible Maori karaoke session with a singer from Christchurch performing over prerecorded tracks, there was dancing, and then somehow I found myself teaching a good 5 or 6 Maori to do the electric slide. Not a bad way to finish of my Kaikoura adventure-- the next morning I caught a bus to Blenheim, and then on to Nelson, for fear that if I stayed any longer either the whales or dolphins would have won me over to another day in the ocean.

The scenery heading out of town was just as good as coming in

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