MARK: What’s the best way of seeing a whale? You’d think in a boat of course, but you would be wrong!
A few days ago we started researching trips to see whales in the waters just off the east coast of South Island. It’s supposed to be one of the best places in the World to see the largest animals on the planet, where the warm waters of the North Pacific meets the South Pacific in a deep “trench” a few miles from the small town of Kaikoura. These perfect conditions, created by the fault line that runs just underneath the surface of the earth, produces an abundance of squid and marine life that dolphins and whales love to munch on.
Our keenness to see these massive creatures was stimulated following a brief glimpse of a tail in a small boat off the west coast of America with Joe, close to Carmel, California in 2002. It all happened so quickly that I never did get a photograph as the “big grey thing” dived down to the depths. I vowed that one day we’d have another go…
Whilst trawling the ‘net (or should that be surfing) the thought also crossed my mind that I might want to swim with Dolphins, but after you have swum with sharks darling in the Barrier Reef, splashing around with “Flipper” is a little bit tame. Actually that last statement, whilst partially true is rubbish really. The waters here are far too cold and trying to find a wet suit large enough for a big boy is always interesting, plus I did not want to be snapped by Sarah and other wildlife photographers as a fine example of a MAMIL – Middle Aged Man in Lycra…
So we looked at TripAdvisor to see the reviews of local boat companies offering whale watching (WW) trips and were immediately put off by the whole idea due to the constant reference to sick bags and people throwing up. We did not want to go there again – see: https://masters20152016.com/2016/02/04/if-in-doubt-just-do-it/
We “parked” the idea and only re-visited the notion of WW when we reconfirmed our delightfully named First Light bed and breakfast accommodation. Tracy the owner, gave us details of a boat company, but then casually mentioned in her email, that we could see whales “from above” if we were interested. Her husband just happened to be the manager of the local Aero Club. It got better. We were entitled to 10% off the flight cost because we were staying with them and the cost for a 30 minute flight was unbelievably cheaper than a three hour boat trip. Plus we wouldn’t be bobbing up and down whilst trying to keep our lunch down.
We signed up there and then, with the added flexibility that we could fly when the weather was good during our 36 hour stay. This of course after saying our trip over Mount Cook would be our last tourist flight…
All this email correspondence was happening whilst we were on the other side of the South Island at a place called Greymouth. I’d pictured Greymouth in my mind as a place that would resemble something like Workington in Cumbria. It was the sound of the place. GREY MOUTH. But this town was far from dull, as we saw hundreds of Hector Dolphins riding the white waves just under the surface at the mouth of the Grey River.
Next morning we said good bye to the dolphins and set off on a 286 mile journey through the mountains, by way of the Coast Road. We knew it would add nearly a hundred miles but we wanted to see the Pancakes en-route before cutting through the mountains on scenic, if rather windy roads. Much better than the main boring Highway!
Shrove Tuesday had come and gone but the Pancakes served up a visual treat of sedimentary rock strata unique in the World. It was worth the extra miles, as we saw wave after wave of 5 metre high breakers crash in to the rock and then “blow” through the holes in the cliff. It was another geological marvel in a country which just keeps on making us go WOW.
We were just catching our breath as we walked away from the coast back to the hire car, when we spied a hitch-hiker. We’d already picked up two guys earlier in the week – a 24 year old Frenchman and a young German from Cologne. And, after we had both eye balled him and thought he was “ok”, we asked if he wanted a lift. Martin (25) from Frieburg in southern Germany wanted to go to Nelson and we worked out with a further 35 mile detour we could take him half way. He was chuffed, got in the back of the Ford Focus and we had a great chat for the next two hours. Elloquent, good looking, funny… he was very similar to me 27 years ago!
The parting of the waves came really quickly and we gave Martin a banana as we peeped the car horn and said goodbye. Four hours and 200 miles later all driven on ‘A’/’B’ Roads we arrived in Kaikoura an hour later than we had confirmed.
On the door of the beautiful timber house was a note welcoming us and saying that she (Tracy) was at the local swimming club with her daughter, and our whale flight had been booked at 4.00pm! A glance at Sarah’s watch showed we had just 13 minutes to drive 7 miles back to the Airport.
Wheels spinning (James Duckworth you know what I mean), we shot off back down the coast road and in a cloud of dust, screeched to a halt, slammed the car doors and ran across the car park to a small office where a Piper Cherokee PA28 plane and a PC Six PA32 variant (John Smithson) were waiting on the grass.
Murray (Tracy’s husband) and the boss man/pilot/chief bottle washer greeted us and said we were a little late for his 1600 departure with four other people, but if we could wait an hour, his colleague Mel would “take us up” in a special flight just for the two of us. A no-brainer. The weather was so calm with little wind and bright blue skies. The forecast for next day showing really bad winds of up to 75mph and very heavy rain.
The 60 minute wait went in a flash and one hour later we were heading along runway 05 and the four seater Piper C’ rotated (took off) at 68 knots per hour, me sitting in the co-pilot seat.
The flight should have been for 30 minutes, but 25 minutes in and there were no whales to be seen – just hundreds of dolphins that had come out to play as the two Orcas (Killer Whales) had left the bay heading south.
There were three whale boats 1200 ft below us and every so often, Mel our pilot used her Short Wave Radio to update the boat captains as we had a much wider vision of the Ocean. They in turn reckoned they were in the right place as their sonar had detected a 16m (50ft) Male Sperm Whale which was timed to surface any minute. Nothing happened, another ten minutes went by.
I was resigned to the fact that we were going to be unlucky. But Murray very kindly gave the go-ahead for another 20 minutes of flight – a perk of staying at the bosses house.
We kept searching, like a Nimrod after a Russian sub during the Cold War. Hope all but gone, I suddenly spied out of the corner of my eye a spray of water and a white crest on the blue millpond. “There she blows” some 400 metres away from the boats. We dropped to 800ft and started to circle. Wow what a view.
The obvious thing to say is that these beasts are big – this one about 55 tons and as big as the whale boats. Captain Mel’ told us they often dived down over 9,500ft and ate up to 800 squids day. We circled a dozen times totally mesmorised and then with a quick flash of his tail – WHICH I MISSED AGAIN on camera – he was gone.
Job done, we returned to the airstrip over the Peninsula and landed 55 minutes after take-off.
Still excited we listened to Radio 2 (Suzi Perry in for Vanessa Feltz) and she gave us both a great name check. Click on the link below and “fast forward” to 56 minutes 35 seconds (available until 16 March 2016 on BBC i Player).
Next day, the weather changed completely! It started off fine on the beach….
…but then the wind and rain hammered down. The views out to sea amazing, but no chance to see a whale. Our mantra of “do it now” paying off yet again the day before.
We left Kaikoura very happy and headed north for a date with a Marlborough Wine Tour from our new base of Blenheim – the top of South Island, near the Picton Ferry.
Two hours later, we arrived in Blenheim but kept on going to Nelson. We picked up our first English hitch hiker a guy called George Maule from Frome!!! Frome, where Sarah went to school and it soon transpired that Sarah went to school with his Auntie Ruth and he had been to Sarah’s Dad’s sale rooms! Small World.
But our main reason for visiting Nelson was to see Sarah’s God Daughter Becky, who we had last seen at her 21st birthday @ York Race Course ten years ago and who had been one of our bridesmaids! Becky has been living in New Zealand for a decade and sadly suddenly lost her husband George a few months ago…
It was lovely to see Becky 12,000 + miles from home. She looked really well and was on top form – look at her proud God Mother!!!
END OF COPY WHILST SOBER – WRITTEN 18 FEBRUARY 2016
MARK: DATELINE – 09:27/SATURDAY 20 February 2016/Picton Ferry Terminal – South to North Island Interislander
Well, there’s no way I could have begun to write anything yesterday evening. And yes, I did have a drink, or 40 to be exact, falling off the wagon temporarily for what was one of those “stand out days” (and nights) which we’ll remember for many a long year to come.
We had no need to wine or gripe as Bubby Grape Tours and their affable Owner/Director Kerry came up trumps with an unbelievable trip around the vineyards of Marlborough including Cloudy Bay, Hunters and boutique wineries such as Nautilus.
I’m going to attempt, in this second part of the Blog to remember some of the key highlights of the day, but forgive me, I may have to resort to a few photos to fill in the somewhat hazy gaps in my memory. Here goes, wish me luck.
Picture the scene. A German couple from Frieburg who had brilliant personalities (rare for Germans as I told them), two Tasmanian blokes who we later found drinking beer rather than wine and four Americans, two of whom were doing something I’d have loved to have had a crack at if I’d been 30 years younger. They were largely funding their year-long travel trip around the World by writing a Blog, which now has 60,000+ followers and real commercial potential.
CHECK OUT: http://www.roamaroo.com – Don’t quit your Daydream!
As a result of their large online following, Collette and Scott have been given freebie cruises, hotel stays and exciting experiences such as bungy jumps so long as they promise to publish a video story or write about their exploits. It’s a very clever niche business – more about that later.
Back to this terrible ordeal which started on Friday morning at precisely 10:17 with the first of 10 wines from the wonderful Nautilus Vineyard. First up, a chance to sample some Vintage Rose 2013 fizz. I diligently wrote some comments in the little purple spotted notebook Kerry had given me. This Rose was a pale salmon colour with a creamy mousse. Floral rose petal notes supported by strawberry and nectarine fruits on the nose. Made from 100% Pinot Noir, wine has real strength and depth, balanced beautifully by a touch of brioche….
It was a truly elegant sparking wine, a superb start to the day Chris Towers!! But that, I shamefully have to admit was my very first and very last entry for the entire day as nine more wines were quickly sampled. Pinot Gris Marlborough 2014, Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay BBC (bring back Chardonnay) rather than ABC – Anything But Chardonnay.
By 11:00 Sarah was dancing on a small round table and nearly fell off. Me, I was just mellow and thinking that we had five more places to visit plus a “gourmet three course lunch”. Bring it on.
Smiling inanely to myself, I managed to somehow walk across the small car park and then without any assistance, fasten my safety belt in one of the Mercedes Van’s middle seats. The side slide door slammed shut and off we went again a few miles down the road. Kerry keeping a watchful eye on me through the rear view mirror because as she said “there is always one….” I took that as a big fat compliment by the way.
Next up on the tour was the Bailey request stop @ Cloudy Bay, the place which 30 years ago really put Marlborough on the map in terms of being an internationally renowned wine making region. It did not disappoint and I was given a personal behind the scenes tour, sneaking off with a very nice lady (not like that) in to the inner sanctum which held all the barrels.
Outside the sun shone, the mercury was rising to a very pleasant 25C in the shade. This was a little piece of heaven with deckchairs and basket chairs suspended from trees just in front of the tasting area. Five more small glasses down the hatch including a red number (name forgotten surprisingly) which Cloudy B now grows further south near Queenstown. Yes Cloudy Bay still “The Daddy” for me in terms of wine producers.
Back on the van and it was banter time with, Scott, the blogger trying to outdo MB’s puns – he did a reasonable job for a young man. Just reasonable. Through a pretty small village with a cemetery, he thought he was being very smart with his “ah gee we must be in the dead centre of town” throwaway line. I said he would be making a grave mistake if he kept coming out with such rubbish.
Suddenly the mini-bus stopped – we had come to a dead end, with one of the Tazzy Men coffin like a good-un from too many fags…
We’d arrived at our next torture chamber namely the Hans Herzog Vineyard, the requested visit of Norbert and his lovely wife.
Reisling, SB, Pinot G, something xxx…?!? Seven more fine wines to try and the chance to wander around the vineyards and smell the roses which were in full bloom – a good sign that the vines themselves were very healthy.
The wine here excellent, the visit all too brief, but we had a date with a gourmet lunch at Alan Scott’s vineyard 5 miles away and it was 12:45, or so somebody told me as my eyes were unable to focus on the large clock by the exit as we left.
LUNCH. Now this was my sort of lunch. High quality – bordering Michelin star standard as I mentioned to the chef, and the chance to wine taste between courses and then sample wines with the starter, main and desert. I told the waiter I liked things hot, so he promptly brought out a very tidy glass of Reisling which was made with Chilli. You took a sip and my God, the Chilli gave you a real kick down the back of your throat. It was excellent. Forgot the name though, now there’s a surprise. NOT.
Back on the bus and we were telling people – when asked – about our trip around the World. Our American friends could not believe that two “old people” in their 50’s would give it all up and do this. We had gained new respect, with Scott asking us if we would do an interview later in the day for his blog as he thought it would make a story. After much persuading, well all of three seconds, I said yes and then promptly forgot about the conversation…
Two more vineyards. Hunters – real quality!
and then the last one…. Ah yes the last one. I’m sorry, I don’t remember. It was somewhere in New Zealand and the staff were really good and so was the wine and, well, er yes hic. The room was beginning to go round and round tumble dryer style.
Back on the bus, we thought that was it after we dropped off the Tazzy’s. But we then decided to make a day and night of it at the suggestion of Collette and Scott. I was immediately up for it. Sarah looked at me in that “why did you say yes” type of face, but interestingly put up no resistance – YES, party time in down town Blenheim. We ate some food – not sure what, think it was a sandwich and then started on the craft beers which were all 5.5 Vol plus. This place a possible replacement in 2017 for the Real Ale Train (RAT) boys night out JD?
Suddenly Scott asked if were still up for the interview. He whipped out two radio lapel mics whilst Collette a TV commercial producer by profession got us ready with a couple of warm up questions. We chatted away, and that was that. Not sure what we said, but hey we might have 12.5 seconds of semi-fame, if Scott can edit my drivel down to a two minute sound bite. Good luck with that mate.
Another three hours went by and by this time it was late in the night – 8.15pm! We called it a day, staggered off down the road with our two German friends saying we must meet up again when they next come to the UK.
And that was that. This is what travelling is meant to be like. Great wine, great banter, great people, great weather, great food, great…. Well you get the idea, just great.
Enough. Time to go. Our car lane is now moving on to the ferry for the three hour journey across to Wellington. Good bye South Island, hello North Isand. Phil – I will be sober now and will report back to you what the North is like in due course.