Our ferry journey to the South Island was a splendid jaunt across an uncommonly calm sea. These are waters at the confluence of three rapidly moving currents and most often prove a rough ride. Thankfully the Cook Strait was well behaved for our sailing and we were spared the heaving waves experienced by many passing between the big islands.
We disembarked from the vehicle-packed belly of our InterIslander vessel at 10pm and elected to spend the night at a nearby camper van site in order to hit the main southern highway first thing in the morning. The dawn brought bright sunshine and clear skies, perfect weather to enjoy the glorious coastal drive toward Christchurch. The weaving road, often at the base of tall rock faces, was peppered with dashes through rock tunnels many of which were single lane, adding some drama as we always had some small concerns that oncoming vehicles may not heed our right of way. The coast was on wide display on the open winding road and the ocean became an arresting and massive companion on our six hour drive. The fact that the highway hugged the shore for such a long distance allowed the wonderful experience of occasionally stopping to watch basking fur seals who frequented these southern beaches. We were able to get quite close to these very large marine mammals from the protective perch of nearby rocks and learned up close how loud, quick and smelly these entertaining animals are.
Once we arrived in Christchurch we looked up a Kiwi first cousin of mine and spent a great morning catching up with family news and history while playing in what was likely the best public playground any of us had ever seen. Like all of New Zealand’s playgrounds, the place abounded with really well designed kinetic activities, most of which have been long banned from litigation plagued Canada. Teeter totters, massive slides, zip lines and many other whirling devices invited the kind of exuberance long forgotten in the municipal parks of my home town. This park was part of the massive rebuild of downtown Christchurch which had been horrifically damaged in a series of earthquakes in 2010 and ‘11. It was disturbing to see swaths of city blocks, abandoned due to fundamental structural damage, yet to be rebuilt even five years on from the last major quake. The scale of the damage in the CBD was difficult to comprehend and virtually every resident we spoke to had been touched by the event in a life altering way.
We left Christchurch heading inland to visit the wild, thinly populated southlands. This landscape is gloriously rugged and varied and much less agriculturally cultivated than the North Island. A long chain of mountains, the Southern Alps, divide the westernmost third of the island from the middle highlands and the eastern coastal plains. Before heading up and over the high passes of this formidable barrier we darted to the southernmost tip of the country to spend a few days in the completely unique Catlins region. We aimed right for Porpoise Bay where we had heard sightings of incredibly rare Hector’s dolphins are possible. These are among the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphins and found exclusively in New Zealand’s inshore waters. With a total global population of only about 7000, seeing some Hector’s would be a trip highlight. So it really just blew our minds when we encountered these sleek streaking animals while enjoying a day surfing in the completely empty, perfectly arc shaped, and absolutely gorgeous bay.
Our day was bright and warm but the southern waters were just transitioning from winter and they were only manageable with the protection of full wetsuits. Once squeezed into our surfwear we paddled our long, relatively light foam boards out into the deceptively powerful waves arriving from the deep ocean about 500m across the seemingly tranquil bay. From the sandy shore the waves appeared to be meagre things with slender white caps. Once we were in at about shoulder depth however we were bashed about like playthings. We quickly learned to keep our boards perpendicular to the incoming two meter high curling water. Failure to do so meant being plunged under and smacked unpleasantly by our own watercraft, popping up in the aftermath like so many unfortunate corks, desperately trying to clear eyes and minds. Once we sorted out the natural rhythm of the waves and acquired the necessary balance to stay afloat we were able to get out a bit deeper and take inventory of our surroundings, including a small pod of Hector’s. We first discovered them four at a time, racing through incoming swells, glistening in the sunshine, showing off their small dorsal fins. As they become accustomed to our splashing and sputtering they edged even closer and eventually started swimming right at us, plunging under our boards at the last second and circling around with increasing curiosity. It was a fantastic experience being within arms length of these amazing swimmers. It was slightly unnerving though to have them dodging around us and the experience highlighted our inability to maneuver with anything resembling proficiency even in those shallowest of waters.
Our need to keep moving had us reluctantly depart Porpoise Bay after only a few days but not before spending a few hours at the the nearby petrified forest. The fossilized remains of Jurassic era conifers were fascinating and a visceral connection to an impossibly distant time. Small stumps and fallen timber with growth rings and bark clearly visible were frozen in stone like some strange prehistoric photographs. The location had the added bonus of being one of the only spots on earth to get a closeup view of endangered yellow-eyed penguins. These little guys nested on fiercely rocky shorelands within the Department of Conservation site. We were thrilled to see a few of them scuttle along the edge of the brush where they had established nests. Although we didn’t get to see these marine experts en masse on their evening return from the sea, we were able to get close to a few individuals and marvel at their sweet faces, amusing waddles, and impressive rock jumping skills.