October 27, 2008 – Wellington to Kaikoura, New Zealand
We arrived in Wellington at 6:30 p.m. last night. Paula and Ifapo, a wonderful Samoan couple we met on the cruise, had invited us to spend the night. Unfortunately, my worry button kicked in when we arrived at the railway station and realized they were a 45-minute train ride away. That would mean someone in their household having to make an early-morning run to get us to the ferry by 7:45 a.m. next day. So I called to thank them while Robin went across the street to check us into the backpacker hotel. We’ll see them when we return to New Zealand – with more time for a real visit.
Today’s backpacker hotels are a change from the hostels I remember. Some still have the slightly rundown, bordering on seedy, ambience. But nowadays they also have private rooms for travelers wanting a bit more privacy. We were in a “superior” room, which means we had a bathroom instead of sharing one down the hall. The bed was comfortable. We were warm. What more does one need?
The Richmond Guest House was better value ($80 including breakfast instead of $85 without), but this place had the advantage of being right across the street from the railway station. That put us a quick walk from the free shuttle to the Interislander ferry.
Cook Strait has the reputation of sometimes being a challenging passage for non-sailors. A day earlier waves had reached three meters, and the ferry stayed in port. On this day the sea was calm, the skies clear.
Other Volendam cruisers were heading for the South Island. We saw four other couples and a man on his own who’d made the cross-Pacific voyage with us.
Only a pilot with good charts, plenty of experience, and steady nerves would want to navigate the rocky bay on which Wellington sits. The Harbour is deep enough for cruise ships and container traffic, but Barrett Reef guards the inlet and has called many ships to a watery grave.
On both sides of the ferry we sailed past hills yellow with Scotch broom (an invasive transplant), pine forests, and green hills dotted with sheep. Houses reachable only by boat or steep, gravel roads were tucked into sheltered bays. The calm water was the many hues of turquoise.
Docking in Picton, we had a quick lunch at the Toot N Whistle Café and then caught the train for Kaikoura. Liability suits haven’t yet put an end to the open viewing car, where passengers can hang onto a railing as they lurch along a coastline that provides one jaw-dropping scene after another.
Judy and Louis (a miniature poodle) picked us up at the train station. Before taking us to Brook House B&B for the night, Judy drove us to two favourite viewing spots. The first was a rocky beach where seals crawl out of the cold water to warm up and rest on sun-heated rocks.
Being that close to fur seals was a first for me. For years I’ve told stories of the selkies, the sea people who drop their seal skins and dance as humans on midsummer nights. These fur seals slept as comfortably as cats on the rough stones, ignoring the staring humans.
We walked softly around them so as not to disturb their sleep. But those moving clumsily across the shore looked around with eyes whose sea intelligence must have caught those of sealers in a gaze not easy to dismiss as “only” animals.
A promontory above the beach looks down on sandstone platforms eroded by tides and populated by seals, birds, and tidal life. Looking back toward Kaikoura, the terraced slope of a Maori pa caught the late-afternoon sun.
On the other side of Kaikoura we climbed to a viewing platform atop the town’s water supply to look out to the sea on both sides of the peninsula on which the town sits.
Judy is famous for her chocolate muffins, the treat she served us with tea when we arrived at Brook House. The recipe is on her Web site, but why not come to New Zealand and sample the original?
After tea and settling into our room, we walked into town for dinner at a Thai restaurant (one we’d recommend to other visitors to Kaikoura). By the time we walked back home, we were ready to check e-mail (thanks to Judy’s wireless connection) and tuck into bed.