The seaside town of Kaikoura rests on a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. The core of the 4000-person settlement is a single high street, dotted with bars, chippies and ice-cream vendors as it stretches along the coastline, winding out of town towards the headland seal colony. A small stream of trout tries to follow the road, then changes its mind and escapes down to the sea, where the shingle bay soaks in the smell of salt and beady seagulls launch tactical incursions against your paper-wrapped fish.
The square, bland buildings are decked in corrugated iron, while weather-worn signs pretend they’re a day-time quiz, providing you with a smattering of letters and leaving you to fill in the blanks. There’s the distinct feeling that Kaikoura would have been consigned to a stretch-your-legs stop in a traveller’s Christchurch-bound itinerary had it not had the good fortune to find itself on the coast. It shares superficialities with British seaside towns, with its mismatched facades, quiet tourist bustle and ubiquitous salt air, along with its complete failure to be architecturally-aware of the ocean. There are differences too: sun and turquoise waters take the place of slot machines and that faint miasma of desperation. Unlike so many British coastal resorts, Kaikoura doesn’t feel like it’s dying.
I suppose it has mountains as well.
On a clear day, the Kaikoura ranges rise dramatically above the town, easily visible as you walk down the street or stand on the beach. It’s a joyous experience to gaze upon snow-brushed mountains as you swim in a glistening sea. Kaikoura is famed for its proliferation of wildlife: down at the seal colony, you can barely move for stepping on one of its grouchy, sunbathing inhabitants, while pods of dusky dolphins are often visible on the horizon. Just offshore, sub-marine canyons provide a home for sperm whales, with boat and plane tours making regular expeditions to find them.
I’m writing this on the balcony of my hostel, from which I can sit and admire the ocean beyond the car park and the mountains beyond the town. It’s 10AM and the dry heat will soon start to burn. This is a good place to reflect. Indeed, as Alain de Botton posits in The Art of Travel, beauty in nature inspires a particular state of mind, as if one’s brain mirrors the tranquil permanence of the rocks and the trees. Kaikoura teaches you to observe. Sit on a cliff and observe the seals or climb a mountain and observe the clouds. Take a trip to observe the dolphins or fish on a rock and observe the sea.
Some travellers call the place boring, seemingly without an understanding of what an incredible luxury it is to stand in a place as beautiful as this and not have anything to do. No stress, no schedule, no haste. Just sunlight retreating up the ranges in a cloud-streaked orange dusk.
Snapshots of NZ