If there were a book called 1,000 Beautiful Drives in New Zealand (and there should be), at the top of the list would be the Kaikoura Coast.
On the northeastern side of New Zealand’s South Island, the town of Kaikoura spreads along a hilly peninsula and nestles between a scenic bay on either side. Getting from our town of Blenheim to pretty much anywhere on the South Island, we have to drive south along the Kaikoura Coast. It is true that every journey in New Zealand offers jaw-dropping scenery, but this one is particularly magnificent.
Leaving Blenheim and driving south winds us through the rolling Wither Hills with velvety, lush vegetation in winter and yellow grasses fanned by the wind in summer. Next we dip down through the Awatere Valley, with vineyards as far as the eye can see along the river and climbing up the hillsides. We pass through the quiet towns of Seddon and Ward. From there the highway turns coastal with rocky shores and blue-green waves on our left and hills covered in native bush on our right. Trapped among this drastic scenery, we poke fun at ourselves for cursing the loss of radio stations and cell signals.
Just before reaching Ohau Point, where hundreds of fur seals laze in the sun, we arrive at Ohau Stream. We have made this stop a handful of times and each is as stunning as the first. There is a simple gravel parking lot right off the highway and something of a sign. We park and walk less than a minute into the bush to find a little stream and a small natural pool. Frolicking about in this tiny paradise are about five baby fur seals. They are adorable – agile and playful. These babies belong to the larger group down on the rocky shore. For fun, and possibly safety, they make their way up this little stream to play in the waterfall at the top while their moms are out fishing for dinner. Liberated, these independent youth flaunt their freedom and mischievousness to their captive audience.
A modest audience gathers around this first pool hidden in the bush just off the highway. We smile and laugh together like humans do when something cooler than us is present. One man puts his GoPro under the water and the baby seals swim around it and smile into it, curious and photogenic as ever. My son throws a fall leaf into the water and the babies dip under it and dive toward it. They flick it up in the air to one another, chase it, and race each other for it. They smile all the while, the way they do with their twinkly brown eyes.
I am affected this day, being there with my husband and son, sharing space and time with some of Mother Nature’s perfect, innocent creatures. There are no fences, no signs, no wardens, and only a few other people. Were this stream along a gorgeous coast in any other country it would be thronged with tourists, trash, gift shops, and rules. New Zealand’s remoteness means everything special is still accessible.
We carry on up the misty, shaded track alongside more seals making their artful progress toward the waterfall. This second show does not disappoint. About ten baby seals flip and tease in the waterfall and scramble up the rocky side to push each other in.
Back in the car, still joyous, we wind our way through more gorgeous scenery until our view is abruptly blocked by the towering Kaikoura mountain range. Now we have beach one side and snow-capped peaks on the other. My brain slows to process this and my jaw is once again ajar. Our destination quickly approaches so it is time to pull myself together.
Kaikoura is a colorful and sunny fishing town. We stay in vacation rentals with friends and spend time perusing the rock pools for sea life, browsing for perfectly round rocks on beaches, and tramping along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. The air is crisp high up on this path and I can see forever in all directions.
We finish the day at a pub near the peninsula tip. We drink ice cold Speight’s while looking out over the sea toward the mountains as the sun sets. Our kids play on the playground (at the pub, bless this country) and I remark, as I’ve done so many times on this New Zealand sabbatical, that all this wonder we have absorbed was only shared with a handful of other people. Once again, we had the whole country to ourselves.
We do manage to find some other tourists when we sign up for a whale watching adventure. Whale Watch Kaikoura welcomes about thirty of us onto a nice-sized catamaran to head out into the Pacific Ocean in search of sperm whales. We have instant success (of course!) and we pause near each whale to watch it breathe and descend once again. At times, we humans are so easy to please.
Feeling lucky and satisfied, we find our seats inside the boat’s cabin for the journey back to shore when a group of dolphins approaches. Excited, we hop up and run back out to watch these silly dolphins play. I am overjoyed at the opportunity to show my son all these new animals and experiences. He handily bursts my bubble when we plop back in our seats and he says, “Can I watch YouTube on your phone?” Kids. I suppose he is lucky to believe these kinds of experiences are just part of being alive. Sperm whales breaching and YouTube. Just normal things one watches on a Saturday. Totally interchangeable.
We drag our feet whenever it’s time to leave this “magical world where the mountains meet the sea” (as stolen from the Whale Watch Kaikoura brochure). We always find time to explore more beaches and bury Mason and Leonardo in stones just once more.
Though we have to go back to jobs and responsibilities, we find consolation in the fact that we get to do the whole Kaikoura Coast drive in reverse.
Kiwi Glossary: Sweet FA. Sweet f*ck all. Little to none. How much work do you have to do this weekend? Sweet FA, we’re going to Kaikoura to relax.