We took a few days off in late summer, once all the schoolkids had gone back, and headed for Kaikōura. As the town’s name suggests – ‘kai’ means eat and ‘kōura’ crayfish – the consumption of seafood was to play a major part in our trip. We ate crayfish at a beachfront barbecue stand where small handfuls of German and Japanese tourists sat at a row of scruffy picnic tables, and (twice) at the venerable old Pier Hotel on the way out to the peninsula.
The views from Kaikōura seem to me among the world’s most beautiful, with a steep backdrop of towering mountains and a luminous sea below. And the town is thick with whaling history and Māori history and culture; Fyffe House is famously built on foundations of whale vertebrae, but when I asked our Air B’n’B host, Susan, about those chunks of whiteness in her back garden – could they be? – it turned out that their big villa was also sitting on pieces of whalebone.
So, whales. We didn’t go whale watching. We didn’t swim with dolphins, not wanting to bother the poor beleaguered creatures, victims of their own friendly dispositions and smiley appearances. We certainly didn’t swim with seals – those things are vicious! But we tromped around the end of the peninsula at low tide, when the big rock shelf is exposed, and I became mesmerised by the gorgeous stands of kelp – huge and glowing yellow – swaying gently with the waves. It had not occurred to me that seaweed could be beautiful. I was surprised, but glad, to see that the sign informing people of fishing regulations included a limit on the amount of kelp you could take per day – ‘5 litre wet volume in a 5 litre bucket’.
I remembered Kaikōura around 1990, when the Whale Watch operation was new and the town was sleepy and rather down-at-heel. It had an appealing dinginess about it, and my then partner and I stayed in the ratty old Adelphi Hotel. The Adelphi has now been irritatingly jazzed up with bright paint and corrugated iron, turned into a cheapie backpackers’, and much of what was the main shopping street (haberdashers and bookshops, no doubt, sensible shops for locals) is now a strip of bars and pizza joints, although Susan laughed at me when I compared it to Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Still, there’s seldom anything beautiful in the kinds of developments aimed at tourists, although the tourists themselves were pleasant enough – gentle Japanese couples photographing seagulls on the beach and their dinners in restaurants, chattering French families in campervans, young women sunbathing in tiny bikinis. The people-watching was good even if we didn’t want to spring the $145 for a whale-watching trip. It was expensive enough having a few crayfish dinners.