The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand

Canterbury

  • Drive the stunning, rugged Kaikoura and Canterbury coast, and then savour the region's famous sea life from land, sea, air or restaurant.
  • Steam yourself in Hanmer's open-air hot springs - this is particularly special in the snow.
  • Christchurch is not known as the 'most English' or the 'garden' city for no reason. Take a long stroll through huge Hagley Park, visit its botanical gardens and the fascinating Canterbury Museum, and then collapse on the banks of the River Avon to have a picnic and watch the punts glide past.
  • In season (June - Sept) head to the snowy peaks of Mt Hutt (there are other fields but this is the closest) for a day of skiing or snowboarding. Crowds here are small and the location a stunner, looking out over the Southern Alps, Canterbury Plains and the Pacific coast.
  • Spend a few days away from the city in the pastures of the Banks Peninsula. The walking track here is superb and French-obsessed Akaroa is a fascinating, pretty little town.
  • Take to the water in Akaroa Harbour for a day spent sailing, or better swim with the adorable endemic Hector's dolphins that call it home.
  • Experience the high lands of Mackenzie country by foot or car, or take off from Mt Cook settlement and see the region's turquoise lakes and the country's highest peak Mt Aoraki/Cook from the air. To cruise over the South Island's snowy spine, the Southern Alps, is an unsurpassable adventure.

Hector Dolphins

Endemic to the coast of New Zealand, not only are these rounded little chaps the smallest sea-living dolphins in the world, but sadly they also happen to be the rarest of all oceanic species. Threatened by set nets and a low birth rate, there are only 2,000 - 2,500 individuals left, broken into two distinct populations off the South Island coast and another tiny group of 100 dolphins off North Island shores.

Much smaller than other species, Hector's dolphin adults grow to a length of 1.2m to 1.4m and their calves are like little sea-faring rugby balls at just 50 - 60cm at birth. With foreheads that curve down to the mouth's tip, small rounded dorsal fins and a well-defined colour scheme it is not just their petiteness that makes them distinctive. Their bellies are white, bodies grey, flippers, fins and tails black and they are all marked by a jazzy swoosh of white that extends from the belly along the flanks towards the tail.

Hector's dolphins are really sociable types and usually swim in groups of 2 to 12. They are particularly friendly towards humans and will often swim to investigate you, your kayak or your boat.

See Dolphin Experience.

Lake Tekapo

Whatever the weather, the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo are startling. Its remarkable blueness is caused by 'rock flour', which is made up of finely-ground rock particles held in suspension in melt water that is brought down from the glaciers at the head of the lake. It is worth stopping off at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a peaceful spot despite the tourists, and a lovely place to take a picture.

Kaikoura Seals

I was amazed by just how close you can get to these sleek critters at the Kaikoura seal colony. Just follow the signs from the town, wander out onto the rocks and you're there. Be aware, however, that the seals are also there and they have teeth. I almost tripped over a snoozing rock-shaped one. On account of my stealth, my nimbleness and the seal's forgiving nature, I narrowly avoided getting bitten - or was it just yawning?

Sperm Whales in Kaikoura

The nutrient-rich waters of Kaikoura are a thriving marine playground full of whales, dolphins and seals. In fact nearly half of the world's 76 species of whales and dolphins have been spotted frolicking offshore. Hector's and dusky dolphins are the most common to skim the water's surface while sperm whales haunt the depths, surfacing intermittently for air and to wave a friendly flipper or tail. Feeding on a seafood cocktail of groper, shark and squid, the sperm whale is the largest toothed creature in the sea (they are HUGE!) and a year-round feature in Kaikoura's waters.

Its unusual box-like head contains the largest brain in the world and accounts for over a third of its body weight.

They store a liquid called spermaceti in their heads which helps control their buoyancy - When the liquid cools it becomes denser and creates negative buoyancy allowing the whale to dive down and vice versa.

They can dive up to 2500m but only head to depths of 1000m in Kaikoura (still mighty impressive considering I laboured at 35m).

Their steel-grey skin is ribbed and shrivelled with white patches around the lips, tail and flank that grow, as they get older.

Their flippers are 1.5m long and are used for breaking and steering.

3 tonnes of blood pump through their massive veins.

Marine conservation is so strict in Kaikoura that only one company is permitted to run whale-watching tours and the numbers of boats are very limited. Due to this you should try and book up well in advance and perhaps allow a couple of days leeway in case your trip is cancelled due to bad weather. Call 03-319-6767 to book a boat trip or opt for a bird's-eye viewing from a helicopter or plane. If you're extra lucky you may very well catch a glimpse of the massive sea-dwellers from the shore. I was chuffed to catch a cheeky whale-burst plume of water through a pair of binos.

Kaikoura Crayfish

The Maori named Kai (to eat) Koura (crayfish) because its waters were filled with rock lobster that made for particularly good eating. Naturally, this crustaceous delicacy tastes just as good today and can be enjoyed from most eateries in Kaikoura. You'll find a few tiny establishments dotted along the coastal drive between Kaikoura and Kekerengu that literally cook crayfish fresh from the boat. Nin's Bin, a tiny takeaway, boil up these beauties in natural mineral water - no preservatives, additives or flavour enhancers, just fresh, organic crayfish.

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