After my final chilled day in Melbourne following the 24-hour bus ride back from Sydney, it was time to catch my flight to Christchurch at an early 8.45am. Upon touching down and flying through customs, I booked myself into the Coachman’s Hostel in Christchurch for the one night, with plans to jump on the Kiwi Experience bus for the following 10 days.
The weather had quite dramatically changed from what I’d been used to over the course of the past couple of months, with Christchurch having a crisp late autumn feeling to it, with beautifully clear blue skies and a slight chilly breeze. Christchurch itself is a very quaint, laid back city with a similar feeling to any typical British town. The main church was central to its foundations with shops lining high streets around it.
Coming from the towering skyscrapers of Singapore and Sydney, it was a welcomed contrast to see the one or two storey blocks. But aside from the pleasantries of middle England, Christchurch had an eerie feeling to it. Even though it was a Thursday, the town felt deserted, almost like an abandoned seaside town. The buildings were generally old and grey concrete blocks, in dire need of modernising. And there really wasn’t much to do. So after a couple of hours wandering, I retired back to the hostel and hit the sack in preparation for my 7.30 am bus pick up.
After breakfast the next day, I rendezvoused in the central cathedral square ready to set off on the Kiwi Experience. I instantly met a guy called Dave from Welwyn Garden City in the UK who was half way through his Experience having completed the South Island tour over the past week or so, and we pretty much stuck together for the next couple of days before he headed to the North Island and I continued on through the South Island. Although he was a bit of a posh boy, he was pleasant enough and we exchanged our experiences so far and both looked forward to South America – he too was planning on travelling there after New Zealand with his girlfriend for a couple of months.
Upon embarking the bus, I was at first a little apprehensive of deciding to tour New Zealand on a Kiwi Experience. I’d have much preferred to travel round the country at my own pace, but with a tight schedule, it seemed to be the most efficient way to see the sights whilst meeting people. But, as I’d heard, it was quite a young crew on board, with guys on there as young as 21 which instantly made me feel a little saggy at the edges!
As I sat back and got comfortable, I found myself just gazing out the windows for the next couple of hours or so before we arrived at our first destination, Kaikoura. The scenery was as imagined – instantly stunning with miles of lush green countryside tucked beneath snow-capped mountains far off in the distance. The roads that cut through the countryside were brilliantly winding, with every corner throwing up beautiful sites. This was a piece of country that would have been amazing to motorcycle through.
Upon arrival at Kaikoura, I was even more blown away by the beautiful coastline. The air had got even chillier complementing the cold looking sea crashing into the rocky borders. The hills nearby undulated out towards more ice capped mountains in the distance.
After checking into our hostel, we then charged off in a hurry to my first activity – swimming with dolphins. Although the activity maybe more clichéd as people become more travelled, it truly was one of the best things I’ve experienced. However, the event was almost completely cancelled as the weather wasn’t particularly favourable with the high winds driving up huge waves towards the coastline, almost preventing us from heading out. Fortunately, they took the chance, warning us of how bumpy the ride would be to get out there.
Once fully suited up and prepped with instructions, we all jumped in the sea to greet the dolphins that had joined us. It was unbelievably cold after crashing in and it took me a good 5 minutes or so to acclimatise to it. With the sea choppy, I also had to get used to the waves crashing into my face, often forgetting to close my mouth in time and having to chuck some back up after swallowing mouthfuls. It was often disorienting whilst you tried to navigate the snorkel and goggles and trying to tread water. Although I’m not a bad swimmer, I also sometimes get a bit claustrophobic when wearing snorkel gear, but once I got over the initial barriers, I finally settled into meeting some dolphins. The site both above and below the surface was incredible – there must have been around 50 dolphins in our vicinity, all charging around us, teasing us into play. We had entered their territory, their playground and it was up to us to entertain them – not the other way round!
So, the 17 of us humans started to swim around and imitate them. We had to try and swim just using our legs and also make as much noise as we could to try and attract their attention. For some reason, I started bellowing Sergeant Pepper’s by the Beatles as loud as I could, and within minutes I was surrounded by around 8 dolphins, each of them swimming within touching distance. They circled round me intrigued, with one the group taking particular interest in me. A few of them brushed past my feet, and a couple bumped into my side. It was quite a strange feeling, all the more so as we weren’t meant to touch them!
After around 45 minutes, we got back on the boat. Mesmerised, we headed back to shore with the dolphins leading the way. But the scenes on the boat turned bad as sea-sickness spread – with the majority of people throwing up in buckets as our brains tried to come to terms with the thrashing waves.
Back on shore and energy sapped, I headed off into town with Dave to grab some food and check out the coastline. The fish and chips we had were some of the best and cheapest I’ve tasted, with the fish freshly caught hours earlier. Later in the evening, it was then time to head to one of the local pubs to get to know some of the others. This is where I met Pauric, Lynsey and Sheika who became part of the core group going forward. They’d been out checking out on a fishing activity earlier and were already a few beers ahead of Dave and me, but we spent the rest of the evening pissing around, later heading to another bar with some late night dancing.
Waking up on a slight hangover, I was raring to go for what was to come next. We headed out of the hostel at around 9am north up the coastline towards Picton. En route, we also stopped off to check out a seal colony lazily sitting enjoying the morning sunshine down below us on the rocks.
The bus then continued onto Lake Grassmere stopping off at the picturesque walk of the Kerengu Forest where I had a chance to start to really get to know the guys.
The scenery we passed through continued to dazzle, with the terrains changing quickly over very small distances. As we hit the northern parts of the island, it was becoming much greener with bushy forests covering the terrain.
At Picton, we then dropped off half the group who continued to the North Island, switching places with another half coming in the opposite direction. Dave and I said our farewells as he went off with a slim but hopeful chance we may cross roads in South America later. From there, we pretty much hammered through to Nelson without stopping too much, crossing through the Marlborough Sounds wineries where some of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world are produced. We also randomly passed through a town called Havelock which claims to be the “Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World”.
At Nelson, I checked in with Pauric whilst Sheika and Lynsey checked in with a new addition to our group, Michaela. We then headed off up to the Centre of New Zealand which stood in the beautiful hills of Nelson, high above the location of the first ever rugby game in the country. It was there we also then met our Israeli contingent – Or, Gal and Oren – three charming lads who were (like most young Isralies), travelling round the world after their Military Service. These guys became very central to the rest of the trip, always pissing around and up for a laugh and getting the most out of every second out there!
Back at the hostel, we then huddled round for dinner with a free beer tasting evening leading us onto another night of drinking.
Dolphin Encounter – Kaikoura
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters