Swagman #24 – Kaikoura, New Zealand

24: Kaikoura

In a town with roughly the same population as a Manhattan apartment
building, the marine related activities are staggering. From crayfish to
killer whales, you can have a gander at any link in the marine food chain.
Seals lay out on sunny shore rocks like drunken tourists. A short boat ride
away from shore can land you in the middle of up to 300 curious dusky
dolphins. A family of orcas occasionally saunter by. The water looks like
bright blue dye and the chain of frost tipped mountains are almost too
Disney. It’s like being in the ultimate aquarium. If it can be found in the
ocean, chances are it can be seen in Kaikoura. A mermaid sighting would
probably wind up in the “Oh, by the way” section of the newspaper. Surely
this is where the Loch Ness Monster spends her summers.

And there is almost no one there. Or maybe it just seems that way because
everyone is out in the water on dolphin tours, whale watch, sea adventures
or getting poked around in shark cages. Or it could be because there is
little to do in Kaikoura aside from these things. Somehow the moniker of New
Zealand being the adrenaline capital of the world has created the illusion
that if you’re not doing something outrageous, well, then you’re not
experiencing New Zealand. There certainly is no better place to measure your
courage or sense of adventure, but the country also has some of the most
relaxing beaches and serene locales. It’s like having a cozy haven when you
are coming down from the buzz.

There is not much to the town, and rightfully so. In a place this visually
remarkable even something as seemingly insignificant as a new street sign
could be like one of those “happy little trees” the painter Bob Ross used to
add as a final stroke that would ultimately ruin an otherwise beautiful
landscape. There are the obligatory hostels, the cafes, and the grocery, but
miraculously the greasy hand of instant gratification consumerism seems to
have passed over without incident.

I arrived in Kaikoura under a perfect sky. I had boarded a bus in Picton
immediately after stepping off of the ferry from Wellington. The ride was
short but exciting. Our elderly driver navigated the curves with an
instinctive skill while the passengers swayed like metronomes. He stopped
just outside of town so that we could take pictures of some seals posing on
the rocks and so that he could have a cigarette.

“We might be a few minutes late,” he said. “But what do ya got if you can’t
spare a few minutes for something like this?” He was one of those people
that you just want to instantly know and be friends with, passing over the
boring banter of introductions.

He let us off in the center of town and I immediately set out for a place to
set up camp. My pack had gotten significantly heavier over the previous
month. I had collected numerous books that I intended to keep, and could
have effectively started a catalog system to keep track of everything. Every
time I opened my pack it was like that gag with the fake snakes that pop out
of the nuts container. But I only had a short time left to go, so I felt no
need in holding my own personal yard sale.

I set up my tent among a cluster of others at a nearby caravan park and
spent the day wandering around and reading. I had booked myself on a dolphin
cruise for the following day so I could get out into the water. There was
some excitement because I had never seen dolphins before, at least not
outside of a tank where trainers made them moonwalk in front of crowds for
fish. Soon the sun dipped down and I was breathing through yawns, because
you learn to live by the sunlight when you camp for an extended amount of
time. It’s like when you’re a kid playing outside with friends – it’s
automatic game over when the sun goes down.

There is something slightly depressing about sleeping alone in a tent after
you have shared it with others for awhile. It seems larger but ultimately
void, like a living room after a party. It’s strange when you go out for
drinks with other travelers, because eventually they return to their hostel
bed and you must retire to your triangle of fabric. It also doesn’t help
when the people in the tent next to you are loudly having sex for the better
part of the night, as my neighbors were. Eventually I succumbed to listening
to music through earphones, which did not completely drown out the sound so
much as provide tolerable background music. Que sera. Things would become
dull if they were easy.

Dolphins in Kaikoura
Dolphin Encounter delivered as advertised, and for several wonderful hours
I watched as an unbelievable amount of the animals circled our boat and
leapt around us. I had opted out of actually swimming with them, which was a
bit of a personal disappointment because if you want to do it, Kaikoura is
the place. But I couldn’t help but watch with a grin as those that had paid
the extra $60 squeezed into wet suits, dropped into the water and swam
around making strange noises in an attempt to draw the dolphins’ interest.
Once the dolphins swam away, usually after a few minutes, everyone was
summoned to swim quickly to the boat, whereupon we would jet off to their
new location and everyone would have to jump back in and repeat the
procedure again.

I am sure their experience was amazing, and may have even surpassed mine. But it also seemed arduous, and I had come to Kaikoura to relax.