Encounters with Nature

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19/03/08
The byline for this post would probably have to be “Camera Survived, GPS Didn’t” Yup, that’s right, after months of faithful service and helping me create great custom maps of all my cycling trips, my little Garmin looks like it can now officially be called dead. She fought bravely in the cold ocean waters, but in the end, it appears as though it suffered death by drowning. Too bad, it had always been waterproof in the past, but I think some of the knocks it’s taken on the road caused cracks in the housing, and the salt water rushed in and fried the thing sometime while I was frolicking with seals. Seals? Yup, I made my way to Kaikoura today, and the highlight has got to be swimming with New Zealand Fur Seals. Hunted to near extinction, but making a comeback. Of course, you’ll have to read on for the whole tale, and you can check out a partial map of the day as well. Sadly, this will be the last map you see. Good thing I’m almost done. Looks like I’ll be on the market for a new training tool now as well. Jealous Kevin? I’ve already come to grips with it, and I’m not that upset about it. It functioned great for a long time.

To get things going, the last night in jail was a quiet one for me. I spent most of the evening in the lobby area, working on getting my pictures uploaded to flickr as most I could while I had wireless Internet. I headed off to bed around 11:30pm, knowing that I’d have to get up at 6am the next morning in order to check myself, bike and trailer into the train station by 6:30 for the 7am departure. Unfortunately, I was in a 10 bed dorm room, so there was a fair amount of coming and going and various noises in the room as well. However, since I’m no longer on the bike early in the mornings with full days of physical activity, I’m not as grumpy about these things anymore. I made the best of it and had a reasonable night’s sleep. When I left in the morning, it was still pitch black outside, so I actually had to use my little headlight for the first time in the entire trip. I got to the station, and headed straight to the platform, where a fellow told me where to load my bike. It was funny, as they all knew and were expecting me. Small trains around here I guess, with only one departure time each day.

I wasn’t expecting this rail trip to blow me away, because we would be heading along the mostly flat way to Kaikoura, following the coast for a good bit. However, I was wrong, as I found this to be one of the most enjoyable rail trips I’ve taken, and certainly no less impressive on the scenery front than any of my other rides on the bike. You see, once we hit the coast, it was a brilliant day, with shimmering waters, and lots of pointy bits here and there where rocks and cliffs punctuated environment. The first hour or so however was pretty plain Jane. It was still dark out, which meant that on the plus side, we were treated to a stunning sunrise while in motion. I had the good fortune of being on the last car on the train. Why good? Well, this time, which isn’t usual, they had a panoramic car on the back. So there was a couch lining the entire back of the car, and a full glass window in the back. I had an assigned seat at a table with two other older ladies, but as soon as the train started moving, I just headed to the back and stretched out on the couch. It was pretty nice.

Along the way, I chatted with various people on the train. I was in a good mood, and felt chatty enough and sociable, so I answered any and all questions thrown my way, rather than throw on earphones and ignore the world. I tried taking pictures, as you’ll see in the map, but just like the TranzAlpine train, this one also had pretty strong reflections, making photography difficult for the most part. The ride to Kaikoura was a shortish 3 hour trip, so before too long, I was getting my bike out of its storage car, and pedaling my way to the Dusky Lodge, my home sweet home for the night. Since I was so early, I couldn’t check in. I dropped off my computer, bike and trailer, and headed into town to explore and see about booking something for later that day. Basically, there were three options. Whale watching, either in the air or in a boat. That started at 130 and went up. Then there was swimming with the dolphins, starting at 150. The last option was a chance to swim with seals, for 75 (with discount). I looked into the other options. Dolphins was sold out, and whales didn’t have me convinced. So, rather than do nothing, I headed to the seal swim place and plopped my name down for a 12:30 boat trip. I was the first person signed up, so we’d need a few other names to make it a go.

To kill time, I headed to the iSite to check into any other things going on. While there, I saw they had an audio-visual show available to watch for 3NZD about Kaikoura and it’s natural history. What they heck, right? I had 20 minutes available, so I did it. I’m glad I did, as I learned a bit more about why whales are so prevalent here, and saw plenty of pictures of the creatures. So, I figured that would have to count as my whale watching trip. I even took pictures to prove it 🙂 Once back at the seal swim spot, I saw they had a roster of at least 6 of us now. so we were good to go. When we finally boarded the bus, we were already fully suited up in diving wetsuits (2-piece suits with hoods), and had a mask, snorkel, and flippers as well. The general idea is that guide boat would take us out to the colony, and we’d pop in the water on our own to swim with the creatures.

The great thing is that we were pretty much guaranteed a great trip due to the weather. It was hot. Fur seals, although usually more active in the nights, need to regulate their own body temperature, and the only way to do that on a hot day is to go for a swim, so there would be loads of the fun little guys in the water near the colony. That’s a good thing, because you don’t mess with a seal on the rocks, as they are very territorial, but in the water, they are quite docile. We’d barely gotten into the water when the seals started getting curious and showed us they were willing to play.

For the better part of the next hour and a half, I swam, rolled, jumped and generally frolicked in the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean with the seals. Some of them were extremely inquisitive, and would swim all around me, showing off their moves. The best thing to do is mimic the seal, but these guys were just too good for me. That and the fact that I had so much buoyancy that is was nearly impossible to go to any depth in the water. I also had a slight problem due to my beard. It was impossible to get a full seal on my mask. I kept having to purge it and remove it as it would fill up with water. However, I didn’t let that reduce my enjoyment in the least. As you might have guessed, I really enjoyed this. It’s amazing just how graceful these fellas were in the water. On land, they’re awkward blobs hopping on the rocks, barking like dogs, but in the water, they are completely effortless. I also got to watch them playing and fighting with each other. They really were like dogs, barking and nipping at one another. Nothing really violent, just having fun it seemed. However, it was clear I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of a seal.

Once done with the swim, it was back on the boat, and back to the offices for a shower, and to return all the gear. Once changed, I walked back to the hostel to see what was up there. I could finally get into my room, and it was time for a proper shower. They also have a pool and spa for free at the hostel, so I figured I’d make use of those facilities. I made a quick trip to the grocery store as well to pick up a bit of suds to enjoy while I relaxed in the hostel. There was little else to do in Kaikoura, so I decided to have a lazy rest of day. I tried out the hot tub, which had some insanely crazy ‘jets’, which were more like little volcanoes in the middle of it. After another shower, I headed to the attached Thai Restaurant to have some supper. Thai Green Curry and an order of Spring rolls. It was extremely tasty, and while I was waiting for it, I joined a group of other people to sit and drink with them. Tony and Paula from Ireland, and Adele from Holland. As we were sitting there, we were also joined by a couple of Kiwi surfers, one of whom had been repairing a board for Tony.

The evening wore on, and we carried on drinking. At one point, a decision was made that we should head to Meatworks rather than a bar in town. What is meatworks? Well, it’s a beach that the local surfers know. It’s called that because of what happens to you when you fall off into the awaiting rocks. Anyway, the plan was now to call some people to join us and drive us out to the beach for a late-night party with bonfire on the beach. Sounded like a pretty good plan to me. A kiwi beach party was something I hadn’t experienced yet. So, off to the late night off-licence to pick up some wine, and then to the beach, a 15 minute drive out of town. The rest, as they say, is somewhat history. There was lots of foolishness, as often there is. We were an international group of Canadians, Americans, Israeli, Dutch, Germans, Kiwis and Australians. Plenty of story telling and a big roaring fire. At one point, Paula also pulled out her flaming poi to do some fire dancing for us. That was pretty cool. Of course, I had to try my luck as well, and got a lot of laughs when I repeatedly hit myself in the arms, back and chest with the flaming orbs. Luckily, they don’t burn too hot, and I wasn’t injured in any way, so don’t worry 🙂

The only downside of this party was that in the end, sometime around 4am, there was no way back to the hostel, so we all just crashed in various vehicles. I slept in a front seat of a van for a couple hours. When I awoke, I realized I’d have to get back to the hostel, but wasn’t sure how I’d do that. The rest of the crew were all asleep, and Tony wasn’t about to get up and drive me either, since it was his day off. Eventually, a local fellow was getting up, and planned to head home, halfway between the beach and the hostel. I convinced him to give me a lift, as I had to catch my train, and he obliged. Thanks dude! I got back to the hostel just as others were waking up in my room. Oh well, looks like I paid 20 for a room to store my bag overnight. Ha ha. I don’t regret a thing, as it was a pretty awesome night, apart from the rather nasty little hangover I now had. Beer then wine, never a good idea. I grabbed my shower, and went into town for breakfast at the bakery, before loading up for the next leg of my trip, Kaikoura to Blenheim.

Sadly, I must confess that I didn’t see a lot on this part of the train trip other than the seat cushion beneath my head. I started out being awake, and trying to work on the computer, but I was just too beat to keep up the charade. I had moved to the back of my rail car again, where I had a whole section of 4 seats to myself, so that was pretty conducive to sleeping. Although not totally asleep, I was not really watching too much. I did pop up like a groundhog on a few occasions when the commentary mentioned interesting things, such as for the Salt Works, where they have these huge flat beds where they evaporate salt water to create salt crystals which are then processed for use elsewhere. That was pretty neat. The trouble is, now that I don’t have the GPS, I don’t feel obliged to snap a lot of pictures, since they can’t be put on my cool maps anymore. Oh well. At least you know why there aren’t many pictures of that rail trip.

Oops, I just realized I’m telling you about the next day, aren’t I. I’ll sign off now, and let you move on to the next post, which will pick up where I left off. See you in a week folks!

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