In Culverden, we got to sleep in separate rooms as Mary had kindly offered us each a bedroom. It was really nice to be able to sleep in my own bed - as we have been sharing a room every night for the past 7 weeks (since we arrived in Australia). Sometimes it's the little things that make a difference.
Richard had already left to milk the cows at 4am (wow, I don't think I've got the energy to be a farmer's wife) and they had an early morning appointment, so we left at 9am and drove the scenic route to a town called Rangiora. We'd read about a bakery called Artisan which has been awarded the "Best Bakery in New Zealand" prize several times. Ever the culinary tourists, we decided we should drive the scenic route to Christchurch and try a pie or 2 on the way.
What we hadn't realised was that the earthquake had also affected this area as well. To the extent that half the High street was closed off and under scaffolding as many of the buildings were deemed unsafe after the earthquake and the almost daily aftershocks and tremors which further affected the stability. A taste of things to come in Christchurch...
At Oxford, a very English-looking little town, we stopped for a quick wander through a cooking shop and I bought a signed copy of New Zealand's version of Delia Smith - Jo Seagar. The enterprising Jo also runs cooking workshops in a beautifully equipped kitchen, but the classes are full for the next 2 months!
Onwards to Christchurch, where we spent a whole hour trying to traverse the city. As it is, the streets are mainly one-ways, but with the effects of last year's devastating earthquake, the CBD has been completely cordoned off and is only accessible by those working on the demolition and reconstruction of what's left of the buildings. It is now known as "The Red Zone" and you can see the cranes, bulldozers, half-demolished buildings and workers through the fences.
Luckily, we finally found someone who gave us the right directions and, in fact, escorted us via car to the parking for the retail area where the shops are temporarily housed in colourful shipping containers. I bought a pair of earrings (perspex laser cutouts of birds) from a cute shop full of NZ designed and handmade jewellery.
By the time we left Christchurch, the sun was starting to set. We had a bit of a mini-crisis when we ran dangerously low on petrol in the middle of nowhere! Luckily we came across a petrol station which was closed, but after knocking around a few doors and paying the owner a ridiculous $10 "opening fee" we were on our way again!
Finally, we arrived in Kaikoura, after a rather treacherous drive along a windy coastal road in the dark with a wall of cliffs on the one side and a black abyss of ocean on the other. It took us a while to find a hostel which would cater to our increasingly fussy tastes: beds must be firm, room must be quiet kitchen must be clean, bathroom should be spotless and, most importantly, there should be central heating so that I don't get pneumonia as it was absolutely bloody freezing cold that night!
When we awoke in the morning we saw that the surrounding mountains were covered in snow (so that would explain the cold!). The mountains drop straight into the ocean so it really is an amazing sight to behold! We decided to go for a morning drive and walk to the neighbouring seal colony just around the edge of the bay. We just made it out there in time as the tide was starting to roll in. It was lovely to see the animals basking on the rocks, but what we were REALLY after was the seal pups which apparently play really close to the shore.
We drove on and I stopped a couple of times whenever we saw any signs of seals on the rocks below the coastal road. Eventually, we came across a small, half-hidden and unprepossessing sign: Ohau stream seal pups. We walked up an unmarked path into the forest alongside a stream for quite a while when suddenly we saw a seal pup sitting on a rock in the middle of a pond being photographed by a Japanese tourist!
We continued hiking up the stream and saw more and more baby seals. As we approached a waterfall, we were amazed and astonished to observe dozens of seal pups frolicking, jumping and splashing in the pool of freshwater just below the waterfall. It really was a sight to behold: wild baby animals playing joyfully in a magical and natural setting. I have never come across something like this before and it brought a huge smile to my face to see them enjoying themselves.
It got me thinking that this is really what people come to New Zealand for - getting up close and personal with nature. I've seen wild animals before in a variety of settings and environments: in zoos, circuses, safaris and tours - but they have always been mediated by someone or something. The only other time I have come within touching distance to wild animals (apart from snorkelling), was in Cape Town at Boulders Beach swimming with the penguins.
I would have to say that this was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand! Essentially, what happens is that these baby seals go to play in the freshwater waterfall when their mothers are out fishing for food out in the deep sea. It's a unique phenomena which I have not heard of anywhere else.
Considering that seals are not the most agile of creatures when they're on land - in addition to the fact that the hike up to the waterfall (and then back down to the sea) is quite long and must take those baby seals quite a long time to accomplish - makes this all the more remarkable!
After the highs of watching baby seals play, we were on the road again to get to Nelson by nightfall. Lunch was at a cute, rustic roadside stop called, simply, The Store @ Kekerengu. I had the famous NZ green-lipped mussels which are absolutely massive! The view of the sea was stunning and I felt relaxed and at peace ad ready for the rest of the drive to Nelson. What a lovely day!