A year ago the ground under Kaikoura decided it had had enough and threw a major tantrum. One of the many results of this was that the Coast Highway from Christchurch to Blenheim, through Kaikoura, was closed in numerous spots, isolating the locals from the rest of NZ for some time. Now, the coast road to Kaikoura from Christchurch is only open from Friday to Monday – and even then with lots of Stop/Go points – but from Kaikoura onwards the road remains closed. Word is that it will open on the 15th December, but no one is holding their breath.
Luckily for us, it is Monday, so it’s up the coast we head. Lucky not only because it is a lovely drive but also lucky as it takes us past Black Estate Winery, which I have earmarked as the perfect lunch spot thanks to Jeremy & Clare’s recommendation. I’m not sure why it is called Black Estate but they have adopted the colour with gusto – from the cellar door and restaurant to the labels.
We do a spot of tasting first, purely to decide on what wine to have with lunch of course. The wines are proudly organic, and are quite delicious I must say. Pete & I have never been one for Pinot Noir but since coming to NZ we have changed our mind (Daryl Morris are you listening!), and the Black Estate pinots reinforce this. And their Chardonnay and Reisling are also excellent. What to choose??
Settling back at our table we drink in the view across the vineyards to the rolling green patchwork hills beyond. And the food proves to be as delicious as their wine (although I am slightly miffed to find that when I ask for a bit more bread to finish off my duck parfait that I am charged $12 for a serve of ciabatta bread – not a generous act).
Back into the car well fed and wined, and ready to tackle the road. I can tell you that the two manufacturing businesses to be involved with in NZ are making orange road cones, and, Hi Vis vests. The cones are constant along all the roads we have travelled on – I suspect they are breeding. And Hi Vis vests have become the fashion de jour, thanks to all the road workers. The occupations for your sons and daughters to be in are engineering, construction, surveying, and road building. The employment levels must be 100% judging by the number of men and women working on road reconstruction alone.
We are stopped so many times on our journey that we have ample time to chat to the Stop/Go people. One was a young engineering student from India, who seemed somewhat nonplussed to find himself standing in the scorching sun turning a sign backwards and forwards – or, was he confused by the crazy woman chatting to him from the stopped vehicle?! And I don’t know whether it is part of the customer service, boredom or simple friendliness but all of them give a wave as you pass by. Our hands are quite tired by the time we finally reach Kaikoura; I know just how the Queen must feel.
But, lightheartedness aside, the devastation wrought by the earthquake is still so very apparent, and so very frustrating for the locals, especially those who rely on the tourist dollar. The scenery surrounding Kaikoura is simply stunning, but the township itself wears a mixed mantle. Some places are up and running. Some businesses and homes are proudly displaying their brand spanking new premises, but others sit forlornly lopsided, crumbled, and empty. Surrounded by fencing and branded with stickers that say Restricted or No Access. What you want is a Can Be Used sticker.
Susan, our Airbnb host, tells us a little about the night. The earthquake struck on the night of a super moon, and was fierce from the beginning. They had a guest staying – fortunately she sat up in bed as the large painting above the bed fell off the wall and smashed. Susan was upstairs, her husband downstairs. The house swayed and shook wildly. Bill downstairs watched the massive oven shake violently from side to side as paintings smashed to the floor. Susan clung to the side of the bed as was shaken from side to side. She said she stayed in the same clothes for 3 days because she was too frightened to return upstairs. When she finally changed out of her clothes she discovered her whole left side was black and blue from being buffeted against the side of the bed. They fled from the house into the car. The directive is that you have 3 minutes to get to higher ground in case of a tsunami, so it is go, go, go. Of course, everyone is doing the same thing so the roads are gridlocked. Susan says she still does not feel comfortable sitting in their enclosed verandah upstairs. Perhaps she never will.
But, her B & B is lovely. A charming old weatherboard house set in a beautiful garden. Called Blue Heron House. No herons to be seen but it is a blue colour. The front of the house is devoted to guests. There are 2 bedrooms, with a guest sitting room. Both bedrooms open via French doors onto a wide verandah. And the house is full of beautiful artefacts and textiles gathered over the course of their well travelled lives.
The coastline of Kaikoura is stunning. Blue waters against the backdrop of steep snow capped mountains. Glorious. The beach doesn’t invite us, thanks to the black sand and rocks. But, the water is a beautiful blue, and since the earthquake the seabed is now a meter higher so it is a gentle slope, and warmer due to shallower water.
We dine at the Pier Hotel, one of the town’s orgininal establishments (although in a different spot to the original – when they moved the pier they also moved the pub!). Nothing to write home about. Half the tables are reserved for the NCITR. We spend the night trying to guess what it stands for. The local paper provides the answer – North Canterbury Infrastructure and Transport Recovery. And NCITR workers are everywhere. The accommodation and food businesses that survived the earthquake are certainly reaping the benefits of reconstruction – almost all the motels are full, and all the restaurants are on the roster to provide the evening meals. It is wall to wall Hi Vis vests. It is ironic that business is booming for some.
The beautiful weather continues so our walk around the peninsula the next day is under blazing blue skies. But of course we have to have a coffee first. The café recommended in Lonely Planet, a coffee roaster, is no more. Another casualty of the earthquake. Apparently the building’s owner expected them to organise and pay for repairs. So, we settle for Cafe Encounter instead, where a very cheeky sparrow steals my complimentary piece of fudge that was served with the coffee!
Our walk is about 10km in all and allows us to admire the views both up and down the coast. We also get to watch the seals sun themselves on the rocks, play in the water and get out of the way of the stupid tourists, both in the water and on the rocks. Taking tourists to swim with the seals and dolphins is big business here, and some obviously don’t get the Don’t approach, let them come to you message. There is also a big whale watching business,and there was much relief in town when both the whales and seals returned after the earthquake. We decide watching it all from atop the cliff face is enough for us.
Descending from the cliff top we come across the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stall, and we are starving so we put in our order for the seafood platter for 2 and take a seat, not before warned to be VERY mindful of the thieving seagulls. And how right they were, the rats of the air were like stealth bombers. Pete was ready to punch them in the beak.
The platter was bountiful – whitebait fritter, cray fritter (the Kiwis are fond of fritters), mussels, scallops, prawns and grilled fish. The only problem was that they had cooked the fish to an inch of its life. But, never mind, it was fresh, and beside the waterside, in the sun. So, not to worry.
Then keep walking back into town and a wander around the little village of Kaikoura before having a glass of bubbles at the recently repaired and reopened Kaikoura Boutique Hotel (where the only choice by the glass is Mumm, wankers!), and returning to our delightful B&B for rest and recuperation.
We decide on the local Thai for dinner, despite Susan and Bill’s hesitation in recommending it, and are pleasantly surprised. Whilst not what we would class as great, it was flavoursome and the heat level was pretty good. The place was packed with Hi Vis vests, and the sole waitress was skipping around the tables doing her best to charm and placate everyone. And, she succeeded. We bumped into her the next day and she thanked us for our patience, bless her.
Next day we wave Susan & Bill goodbye (not before Bill has a chance to tell Pete about a 3 month ride he should do from Canada to Mexico!!!) and tackle the inland route to Murchison, stopping at Hamner Springs for lunch.
It turns out to be a slow and nail biting journey due to the constant roadworks. Closer to Kaikoura this can be explained by the earthquake, but further away it would seem the damage to the road is being done by the significantly increased traffic. Since the closure of the coast road from Blenheim to Christchurch all cars and trucks have to come via the inland route. Apparently the road was not made for this level, and weight of traffic. So, there is a never ending job of filling holes and resurfacing, resulting in almost constant loose gravel covering the newly sealed road surfaces. But, this does not slow the trucks down, and our hire car is continually sprayed with gravel. How we managed to get the car back to Picton with an intact windscreen is a minor miracle.
We spend the night in Murchison, at the Murchison Lodge, which a week ago was taken over by its eager young owners, Phillip and Daphne. Phillip is from Switzerland, Daphne from Germany and owning and running this B & B is their next big adventure in life. They have quite a task in front of them as there are 5 rooms and large grounds, and they are doing it all themselves – cleaning, gardening, making breakfast, welcoming guests. Good luck to them.
We dine at the Lazy Cow pizza joint behind the Backpackers Hostel, where you can design your own pizza and bring in your own alcohol from the pub over the road. Everyone is sitting out in the garden as it’s 26 degrees at 7pm, amazing. We get chatting to the other tables and end up having a very social evening. A charming way to end our road tour.