17 November: In which we’re rained out.
We had intended to go on a dolphin swim this morning, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Rain and wind were making the seas too choppy for tourist-type adventures, which we discovered only after we had woken at 7:30 and hurried down the hill from Bad Jelly to the Dolphin Encounter office. We then spent an hour on the porch of the local information and tourist center, waiting for it to open while munching on the remaining fare from the cheesemonger.
Once inside we rearranged our itinerary, mostly moving around some bus tickets and scheduling another try for the dolphins after our upcoming walk. With no obligations before our 4:00 bus, and with a cold rain pelting down from a dreary sky, we spent the rest of the day moving from building to building: first to an internet café, then to a food café for lunch and postcard-writing, then to a Backpackers called the Top Spot to book a room for the 20th, then to a store to buy film, and then (finally) back to the bus stop in time for our ride to the Staging Post. (Kate wrote a special note in our journal about the lunch, and specifically about the chocolate mousse cake with a layer of sweetened condensed milk. “Heavenly,” she wrote. Who knew heaven was 1100 calories a slice?)
The Staging Post is a 4500 acre farm (complete with cows, horses, sheep, chickens, peacocks, dogs and cats) out of which walkers start the three-day Kaikoura Coast Track. We arrived in the early evening, were shown to our room, and invited to the farmhouse for tea. There we met Babette and Monique (two tourists from Switzerland also embarking on the Track) and the owner of the farm, John MacFarlane. John was an 82 year-old man who mumbled his words, walked slowly with a cane and had trouble standing up, but his wit and humor were whip-snap sharp, and he punned in French with Monique and Babette. For a few minutes the five of us sat by the fire chatting and watching a replay of the other rugby semifinal (England, over France), and then John took us on a short tour of the farm while our hostess Gypsy cooked dinner. The place was like a museum, with a barn full of old stagecoaches and a covered wagon, and a black-smithy with a working guillotine. (“They used to use it for chopping wood,” said John. And with a twinkle in his eye, he added “and noisy women.”) Everywhere were beautiful views of the surrounding countryside set to the tune of a yapping dog; the MacFarlanes had a small puppy named Jane that ran around with boundless energy and lung-power.
Dinner was hearty and copious: sole, barbecued chicken, potatoes and lots of vegetables. Dessert was meringue, Swiss jelly, cheesecake and ice-cream. Full and happy, we retired to the living room for tea, coffee and a slow wind-down to a good night’s sleep.
The Kaikoura Coast Track, like the Milford Track, is a multi-day walk through a beautiful place.
There. I’ve summed up the similarities. Here’s a breakdown of the differences:
Milford Track: Physically taxing and sometimes grueling.
Kaikoura Coast Track: Leisurely stroll.
MT: Pouring rain 70% of the time.
KCT: Mostly sunshine, and not a drop of rain.
MT: Carry 40 lb. packs the whole time.
KCT: Carry 5 lbs. packs, with the bulk of our luggage transported by car.
MT: Meals are boiled water poured into a bag of freeze-dried stuff.
KCT: Meals are home-cooked multi-course affairs at host farms.
MT: Sleep on thin bunk mattresses in unheated cabins; oatmeal for breakfast
KCT: Sleep in comfortable farmhouse guest beds; wake to prepared breakfast
MT: Waterfalls, but no ocean.
KCT: Ocean, but no waterfalls.
MT: Typically chilly.
KCT: Typically warm, occasionally hot.
You get the idea.
On the morning of the first day (of three), we were driven a short distance from the Staging Post to a small hill by the side of the road. With little ceremony we set off across the countryside, following the occasional “W” signs whenever it wasn’t clear which way to go. The path took us up immediately into the broom-covered hills, up and around and back down into a beech forest. Kate decided to take an impromptu nap by a bubbling stream.
Beyond the beeches was a podocarp forest with some very big trees, though none so big as the big tree from Big Tree Walk. Then the Track took us up onto the hills again, and after stopping numerous times to admire various views and sit ourselves on benches named after people, we reached the saddle of the main ridge. Far below us now we could see the stark line of the ocean, dividing the green lands from the vast blue swath.
For a short time we walked along the ridge, stopping once in a thwarted attempt to climb a crumbling local summit. Then we descended into a scene of such utter bucolic loveliness that I nearly sprained my hyperbole several times, threatening to declare ourselves in “the most beautiful place in the world” every thirty seconds or so until Kate became annoyed. Down, down we went, across fields of sheep, along rickety wooden fences, by pastures filled with wildflowers, as the deep blue pacific came ever closer. At mid-afternoon we arrived at “The Loft,” the farm at which we were staying that night. Our kindly hostess Heather met us and had already put out lemonade. Aaaaah.
We dozed for an hour or so, and then walked to the ocean before dinner to dip our feet. It was here I made a wonderful and tragic discovery.
I love to skip rocks. Put me near a lake with two minutes to spare, and I’ll dig up any likely stones and skip them as best I can. Here, lying strewn on the beach in a thick strip, were Perfect Skipping Stones. Thousands of them, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, every one of them smooth, round, flat, and sized to my hand like they were tailored. Eagerly I picked one up, hefted it in my hand, and turned to face the ocean.
The ocean. Waves coming in. No flat surface on which to skip a rock. I felt like Tantalus, surrounded by fruit he could never quite reach. Imagine being in a room full of your favorite food, but it’s all in cans and you have no can opener. It was like that. I defiantly skimmed a stone into the turbulent surf, and got one measly skip. Kate expressed sympathy, which I appreciated. Then we went back to the farm for an excellent dinner of lamb, fresh-picked vegetables, and a berry rhubarb dessert. Our hosts Heather and Bruce were delightful company, and we talked well into the evening while their dog and a neighboring Jack Russell frolicked in the yard.
19 November: In w..w..which I’m lucky Kate doesn’t brain me w..w..with a hiking pole.
Breakfast was set out when we awoke; Monique and Babette were already eating. Before leaving we called the YHA in Nelson (our next stop) but found it booked up solid. Instead we ended up securing four nights at a place called the “Green Monkey” (green from eating Bad Jelly, maybe?) By the time we left it was 10:00 in the morning.
The first couple of hours was a walk straight down the beach. The view ahead of us was nice, but the views behind use were much better, which meant we would walk for two minutes, then stop and turn around. Then walk for two more minutes, then stop and turn around. Repeat, repeat. A steep cliff was rising on our right, and I knew from seeing pictures on the Track’s website that we’d end up at the top of them eventually.
We passed some interesting sights on the beach: a “buried forest” of petrified broken-off stumps rising from the sand; a large intact spine of a large bird or fish (we couldn’t tell); half a large shiny abalone shell; tiny seashells embedded in the face of the cliff; and a pair of dolphins and two spotted seals out in the water. We also saw thousands upon thousands of perfect skipping rocks, upon which I gazed wistfully. We stopped to rest on beached logs a few times, and spent a while at a huge piece of driftwood that resembled a dragon.
The beach was straight but our path along it was not. As you probably know from experience, walking on sand is hard work. The vagaries of the incoming tide had created patches of harder sand in meandering swaths, and we followed these whenever we could to make the going easier. Someone watching us from a hot-air balloon would have thoughts us a couple of drunks, staggering in crazy diagonals.
After two and a half hours the Track left the beach behind. Five minutes inland was the Circle Shelter (built on an ancient Maori campsite) but there were too many flies there, so we went back to the beach and lunched on a log. Er…sitting on a log, I mean. We had company, too – not too far away a lazy seal lounged further down beach as we ate. Also nearby was a short narrow “pond” (more of a long puddle) where high-tide water had become trapped in a long depression, and after lunch I managed a couple of ten-skips before the rocks would reach the far side.
As expected the Track now took us up a steep hill to the top of the cliffs under which we had just been walking. The higher vantage gave us all-purpose views: ocean, beach, cliffs, fields, farms, hills, trees, sheep, cows, and snowy mountains in the background. Then, as if eager to show off its versatility, the Track descended into dark and densely forested conservation land. We followed a stream up and down some shady hills before breaking out once more onto the sheep-covered farmlands, and there, on a spot high above the ocean, was a long bench beneath a sign that read: “Rest and Reflect.” Well, who were we to argue?
A brief digression from these descriptions of scenery: do you remember the kids’ show “Sesame Street?” There was song on that show about the letter “W,” a verse of which went like this:
“When you’re in trouble you
just need a double-yew,
and that sound, wuh, wuh, wuh, wuh.”
This song was brought to my mind every time I saw once of the “W” signs that marked the Coast Track. For almost the entire day I had, upon seeing each of the many such signs, said “Wuh wuh wuh wuh” out loud. No good reason for it. Kate may have thought it was cute the first time, and tolerable the 10th time, but eventually the practice was earning me some serious glares. When my lovely wife became visibly annoyed, I turned to her and said, “We’ll see if I run out of Ws before you run out of patience. Only time w..w..will tell!”
Kate graced me with a sweet smile that indicated I was one “W” sign away from a serious w..w..whuppin’.
Back down into the woods, then up one final hill, and we arrived at “The Whare,” the farm where we’d be staying the second night. Instead of a host we found a note directing Kate and me to “the honeymoon suite.” (The fact must have come up during conversation at the Staging Post, and word sent ahead.) Another five minutes of walking brought us to the “Cottage in the Garden,” a cute private bungalow with our own bathroom, bathtub, TV, fridge, and tin of cookies. Ah, the luxury. The window by the bed looked out on a small field of placid sheep.
20 November: In which third place will have to do.
The rising sun woke the birds, humans and sheep, in that order. After breakfast we set out on the final day of walking, a day clear and blue and increasingly hot. Up, up, up went the trail, mostly following a tractor road, past acres of yellow broom, miles of rickety fence, and countless sheep.
With almost no breeze the flies were a constant nuisance, particularly on the summit of Mt. Wilson (the highest spot on the Track).
After some photos taken from that lofty perch, we descended for a couple of hours until we reached a small hut. We had lunch there with Monique and Babette, before the long descent back to the Staging Post. The last few miles were through a cool forest where, if one stopped and listened closely, one could hear a loud hum of buzzing insects from all around. Flies? (ew!) Bees? (yikes!) Whatever they were, we could hear them, but not see them. Just as well, we thought.
There’s strong circumstantial evidence that it was flies. On this hot, sunny, windless day, the Staging Post itself was like a fly farm. Though Gypsy and John were their usual friendly and generous selves, and the puppy Jane was as cute and rambunctious as before, the swarming flies gave the whole thing a vaguely creepy horror-movie ambiance. This was largely overcome, it should be said, by the homemade cookies, cold drinks, and friendly conversation of our hosts. But….vaguely creepy.
Kate fed some grass to the local horses while we waited for the East Coast Express bus to take us back to Kaikoura. The silent bus driver drove fast along the curvy roads, and with my heavy pack I was hard pressed on every leftward curve not to crush the slight woman sitting between me and the window.
Dinner in Kaikoura was crayfish for Kate, and a venison pizza for me. After that it was lounging on the beach, laundry, e-mail and rugby back at the Top Spot Backpackers. The All-Blacks handily defeated France in the consolation game, 40-13.
21 November: In which nearly freezing to death in the Pacific is absolutely worth it.
We rolled out of bed, down the hill, and directly into the Dolphin Encounter office. They issued us wet-suits, liners, booties, flippers, hoods, masks and snorkels, and we watched yet another training video on What To Do. There were two primary lessons to learn.
1. Don’t touch the dolphins (which was an exciting rule, in that it implied that dolphins would be close enough to touch).
2. It’s our job to entertain the dolphins, and not the other way around.
In the interest of #2, we were taught ways of making ourselves interesting to dusky dolphins, to wit: thrash around violently and make lots of noise. Understand that this was not a controlled event with constrained animals; our boat was going out into the ocean to where dolphins typically hung out, and if we saw some, we’d jump off the boat.
That’s exactly what happened. The ship motored around for about half an hour while we shivered on deck, at which time the captain spotted a pod of dolphins. We staged ourselves on the back of the boat while it slowly maneuvered into position. As learned in the training video, we waited until the boat horn sounded, and the dozen of us leapt into the water.
My first thought was not “This is pretty neat,” or “I hope I swim near a dolphin.” It was “YYYYYEEEEEAAAAARRRGGGGHHHHH! I’M FREEZING MY ASS OFF!” But after a few seconds my body started to warm up the thin layer of water inside the wetsuit, or I’d gone completely numb, or something, because I stopped thinking about how cold I was and, along with everyone else, started hollering through my snorkel and kicking as hard as I could.
“More goofy humans!” thought the dolphins, and they came over en masse for a look-see.
We were swarmed by dolphins. Several times I made enough of a spectacle that groups of two or three of them would circle me several times while I tried to spin as fast as I could, hooting and hollering and kicking all the while. A few minutes later a group of more than a dozen dolphins, including two very cute young-uns, passed directly underneath me, so close I could have reached out and touched them. It was a wondrous experience, though eventually the pod decided we weren’t intelligent beings after all and moved away. Only then did I realize I had probably frozen to death ten minutes ago.
The horn sounded a second time, summoning the tour group back to the boat. We repeated the fantastic experience twice more, each time driving around the ocean until we saw more dolphins (or maybe the same dolphins; it was hard to tell) and then leaping into their midst. Even the boat-ride back to shore was amazing, as we found ourselves in the midst of a large dolphin pod (over a hundred, I figured) Many were leaping out of the water on both sides of the boat, and a few were turning somersaults. They also enjoyed cruising effortlessly in the pressure wave of the boat itself.
The rest of the day was relaxing and (relatively) warm. We basked on the beach of stones for a while before retrieving our packs and hopping on the bus to Nelson. An employee of the Green Monkey picked us up and brought us to our lodging, which turned out to be across the street from good, cheap ice-cream. Location, location, location, as they say.
(Sadly we have no photos from this day; we bought a disposable underwater camera and then forgot to use it. If you follow the above link to the Dolphin Encounter site, their photo gallery will give you a good sense of what it looked like. In the meantime, here are some more pictures of the Kaikoura Coast Track.)
22 November: In which Mt. Doom is closed for the day.
No, not the real Mount Doom, or even the mountain used for filming. I’m using the term symbolically to indicate the shop of goldsmith Jens Hansen. You may remember from several pages ago that our wedding bands are replicas of the One Ring used in the movies, forged by the same smith. Jens Hansen was the man who made them, and we were hoping to stop by his shop, but we showed up an hour after he closed for the afternoon. We settled for a photo of the storefront.
This was a pretty low-key day, as evidenced by the fact that our journal entry takes only a single page from our notebook. After booking some trips for the next couple of days (more horse-riding, and some sea-kayaking), we pretty much just loafed around Nelson. The only excitement came that evening in front of the TV, where all of New Zealand held its collective nose and watched the rugby finals between their two biggest rivals, Australia and England. Australia looked like they had it sewn up for a while, but England took the lead late, and only some last minute heroics by the Aussies sent the match into “extra time.” England scored first in the extra frame and Australia tied it up again with only three minutes to play, before England’s youngest player, Jonny Wilkinson, scored the winning drop-kick with only 26 seconds remaining.
23 November: In which I accidentally take flight.
After an early breakfast we were picked up at the Green Monkey by Phil, an employee of Western Ranges Horse Treks in Kahurangi National Park. Phil was a jovial guy of around 50 years, who until recently had owned his own backpackers not far from the Green Monkey. He drove us for about an hour, half of which was on a winding gravelly road through lush farm country.
At the stable we were matched up with horses. Kate was first set upon “Zeus,” who turned out to be too aggressive. She ended up on a horse named Dusky, while I was given an old dun fellow named Joe.
Off we went, on a sedate trail ride through pleasant green hills and valleys, mostly following (and often crossing) a local river. At lunch time we tied up the horses and ate by the riverbank in forest shade.
The ride took us back to the stable and then off in a new direction, this time with more steep hills and a few long flat bits where Phil allowed us some brisk cantering. Joe was like a finely-tuned sports car – great on the flats and the turns, but unstable on rocky ground and highly reluctant to step in water. The only real excitement of the day came when he decided (with no urging from me, I swear) to bolt down a narrow hill and jump the large log at the bottom. Suddenly we were sailing through the air over the log! Woo hoo! Upon landing I bounced off the saddle and back into the air, and the next thing I knew I was on my back in a thick knot of brush, wondering where the horse had gone. Only my pride was damaged (or so I thought at the time), so I hopped back into the saddle and we finished up the ride.
I left it to Kate to describe Dusky. She wrote in the journal: “Dusky was really nice to ride…unlike Zeus he had good brakes! Chomped at the bit a lot…kept up with cantering horses by trotting really fast – very smooth and comfortable.”
Phil drove us back to Nelson, where we had burgers at a restaurant across the street. Kate’s patty wasn’t beef, but mussel and kumara (a kind of sweet potato), and we discovered that when you order a salad with a burger in New Zealand, they put the salad on the burger. With a few hours of daylight remaining we walked into town for cash, then back for ice-cream, but were too lazy to walk up a nearby hill to the Geographical Center of New Zealand. It was probably for the best that we didn’t, since after a shower I discovered that I had hurt a thigh muscle in the fall, and by mid-evening I could barely lift my left leg off the ground. I hoped I’d be more mobile the next day, since the kayaking people were picking us up at 7:00 A.M.
24 November: In which we paddle, but go faster when we stop.
“Most excellent,” writes Kate in the journal, in reference to Abel Tasman National Park. It was here that we spent the day paddling around in a double-kayak, as part of a tour group of about a dozen people. Instructions included the proper way to seal one’s spray-skirt around the seat of the boat, how to twist the paddle for optimal rowing efficiency, and what to do if we flipped.
As when we go canoeing, and indeed as a metaphor for much of my life, Kate steered the boat. I sat in the front and flailed around with my paddle while Kate also provided most of the propulsion. (See earlier comment about our relative physical strengths. There’s a reason Kate’s nickname was “Paddles Like the Wind” at Cornell.) For the first hour or so we paddled along the shore of the park, sun glinting off the water and white sandy beaches. A brief inland detour took us under a high swing bridge, and afterward our route took us past jutting rocks covered with cormorants and basking seals.
We stopped for lunch at Te Pukatea Bay. My lunch bag included a trick orange that couldn’t be peeled with mere human fingernails. Kate watched with amusement as I fruitlessly (pun intended, I confess) picked away at the peel, until at last I gave up and mutilated the thing with traveling scissors. Having done that, I couldn’t open the wrapper of my oat bar with my juice-slick fingers, and Kate was now grinning widely at my incompetence. I’ll be she was privately thinking: “W..w..w..what a doofus,” but she’d never admit it.
For the return trip we maneuvered all of the kayaks together to form a large raft. The guides brought out a large tarp and made makeshift yardarms by tying two of the corners to the paddle-handles of the outside rafts. Hoist sail! Break out the grog, run up the Jolly Roger, hornswaggle the bilge-pumps and man the mizzenmast, ye scurvy landlubbers!
(No, we didn’t have any grog, no one had a skull-and-bones, we didn’t have bilge pumps and couldn’t have hornswaggled them even if we did, and the mizzenmast was conspicuously absent. But we were landlubbers, and scurvy would come quickly if our only source of vitamin C was those $#@% trick oranges.)
The stiff sea-breeze sent our raft rocketing through the waves. By unlucky happenstance our kayak was in the exact middle and its front was lower than those around us. Why was this unlucky, you ask? It meant that every time the water broke over the bow of the raft, the resulting splash landed directly in my lap. Despite the spray skirt my kayak shipped some serious water, and soon my legs were completely soaked. But this was only a minor nuisance; the speeding raft was great fun, clearly the highlight of the day. We put in at a last small island, broke apart the raft, and paddled the rest of the way.
25 November: In which all good things must come to an end.
If you’ve read this far you’re basically done with the exciting stuff. This was the last day before the long flight home, and we spent most of it on a bus and a train. The bus took us from Nelson to Greymouth. It was a long scenic ride with a tour-guide-quality driver pointing out the history of everything we passed. We stopped at Punakaiki (allowing us to see the famous “pancake rocks”) with a warning from the driver that if we were late getting back he’d leave without us. No idle threat, this – at the appointed time the headcount fell one short, and when no one aboard could vouch for the missing passenger, we drove off without them.
At Greymouth the TranzAlpine was two hours delayed due to a broken rail, allowing us time for lunch and souvenir shopping. The train ride itself, billed as one of the finest in the world, allowed us to see our whole vacation in miniature through the windows. It passed through mountains and hills, over fields, and alongside woods and rivers, constantly bringing to mind all the wonderful places we’d been. (It also went through 19 tunnels, including one that was 9 kilometers long.) At around 9:00 at night it arrived in Christchurch, out of which our homeward flight was leaving the next morning.
In writing up this account I’ve wondered several times how I’d finish it. There’s no prosy summary that would do it justice. I could say it was the best 25-day stretch of my life, and it was, but I suspect my use of superlatives is long past the point of diminishing returns. I’ll leave you with a word count from everything you’ve just read, which turns out to summarize things quite well. That, and the last picture.
“green”: 9 (not including “Green Monkey” references)
“Lord of the Rings”: 6
Yeah, you could talk us into going back.