This year’s social club weekend expedition was to Kaikoura, around 150km north of Christchurch. Kaikoura was devastated by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 14 November 2016, which killed two people, lifted the seabed and caused several massive slips, closing road and rail links for over a year. Today Kaikoura seems to be getting back to its old self, with just the odd closed bar and an earthquake exhibit in the town’s museum hinting that the wildly successful tourist town was virtually shut down due to a lack of tourist trade. A lot of hard work has got the town back on its feet. This included dredging the harbour, the floor of which was raised by the earthquake until it was so shallow the whalewatch boats could no longer berth. In addition, several major construction projects to re-open the road and rail links to the town which were closed after massive slips are still underway.
Aucklanders had flown down the night before so that we could get to Kaikoura by lunchtime the next day. After a late evening meal it was an early start the next day. The Coastal Pacific left Christchurch at 7am, and a few intrepid travellers elected to try the relaxed pace of train travel (and get out of bed an hour earlier than everyone else!) rather than drive up. The train first traverses inland farming communities before skirting the Pacific coast, with commentary along the way. We saw relics of the past, including cottages previously occupied by rail workers, and a veritable menagerie of animals, including llamas, cows, sheep, horses, rabbits, hawks, seals, oyster catchers, and shags. The coastal section on the approach to Kaikoura is particularly scenic; at one point you are virtually looking down at the sea as the train tiptoes along between cliff and rocky shoreline with views of the snowcapped Kaikoura ranges ahead. Seals were easy to spot out on the rocks and we gazed hopefully out to sea searching for cetaceans. Or one could just relax and let the views pass you by. Some of the rebuilt sections of the line are visible on the coastal section where new retaining structures are in place.
It was no great hardship not to spot any dolphins from the train, as the afternoon’s activity was dolphin swimming (or watching from the boat, if swimming was not your thing) in the open ocean. There are around 2,000 acrobatic Dusky Dolphins in the Kaikoura area so your chances of encountering them are very high. Swimmers were suited up in 7mm wetsuits, booties, gloves, hood and snorkel for the experience. Despite the fine day, the water was a chilly 12 degrees – cold enough to make breathing difficult and swimming hard work, but it still worth the shock! This was an amazing experience: it is so rare to encounter a wild animal that is neither afraid of humans, nor a threat to us. Dolphins are curious, intelligent creatures who are almost as fascinated by us as we are by them. We were instructed to sing underwater, duck dive and swim in circles to attract their attention – and it works. Every time I dived down, I came face-to-face with a dolphin. At one point I was encircled by about 10 dolphins, and above the water some 20 metres away more dolphins were seemingly jumping for joy, performing end-over-end flips, and generally showing off.
After we had finished swimming we cruised back to shore, racing yet more jumping dolphins on the bow wave. Although some of us would have gladly stayed longer (you can never have too many dolphins) others were suffering from 3 hours in a rocky boat so reluctantly we had to leave to allow recovery time for the evening’s entertainment - a group barbeque (masterminded by Matt Allan), and a great opportunity to get to know our colleagues better.
To top off the wildlife experience, the next day was fine again and most people walked to the coastal seal colony - a very smelly experience. Not only did we see a lot of seals, we also saw a humpback whale close to shore.
After enjoying some leisure time in Kaikoura it was then a race against time back to the airport – in the group hire minibus this time - but through good driving (thanks Benjamin Walch) and careful planning we managed to refuel the hire minibus and get to the airport gate with minutes to spare. It was a great weekend away!
Blog written by Jo Draper, Associate Transportation Planner at Abley