Where the mountains meet the sea

The rugged coastline to Kaikoura is teeming with wildlife, writes Roy Sinclair.

Nowhere else in theworld, Wikipedia tells us, is such an abundance of wildlife found so close to land as along our South Island eastern seaboard. Fur seals basking on rocks are plentiful as is birdlife including 13 species of albatross, along with petrel and shearwater. Larger and less often seen are orca, the world’s largest dolphin, and huge sperm whales.

And, a giant squid is believed to lurk in the depths of the offshore Kaikoura Canyon.

In 1880, a 20-metre squid weighing a tonne washed ashore north of Kaikoura. It is said to have had eyes the size of a man’s head.

The best of it is that the traveller skirts 100 scenic kilometres of the eastern seaboard. Most journeys are taken on State Highway One, but a more relaxing experience is on the appropriately named Coastal Pacific, undoubtedly one of the world’s leading scenic train rides.

Large panoramic windows, licensed buffet, train manager’s commentary, and an open-sided viewing carriage popular with photographers, add to the train’s appeal.

The rail journey, mothballed for six months owing to plummeting tourist arrivals following the February earthquake, has been back on track and thriving since August 15. The Coastal Pacific was successfully re-launched during the most recent South Island snow, which grounded other transportation. It was a rare occasion when snow lay at the high tide line.

Newstalk ZB producer Lesley Murdoch was on the train sending radio reports, stating it was a ‘‘train journey all New Zealanders need to know about’’.

On December 15, 1945, the railway from Christchurch to Picton became the last main route completed in New Zealand.

It was compromised by difficult terrain where mountains descended into the ocean, indecisions re its route (should it go north via Waiau or Parnassus?), a world war and even doubts whether it was needed.

It was built through sparsely populated country when the idea of it becoming a popular route to Wellington was not even a dream. Years later, in 1962, when an inter-island rail ferry service was introduced between Picton and Wellington everything changed. These days KiwiRail’s Coastal Pacific and associated Interislander offer a scenic day journey between Christchurch and Wellington.

The train is also ideal for a day trip to Kaikoura. A longer stay-over will give time to join a Whale Watch tour. Whale Watch is set up in Kaikoura’s former railway station.

The seaside town and surrounds are internationally identified by magnificent photographs of huge whale flukes against a backdrop of the Seaward Kaikoura mountains.

Annually, 13 million people, globally, go whale watching, claims a 2009 study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Kaikoura’s Whale Watch is a cog in the global US$2.1 billion industry employing 13,000 people. Such number crunching fuels conservationists’ anti-whaling argument claiming live whales are worth more to economies.

There is much to mull over while gazing from a train carriage window. I have enjoyed many such occasions sharing a bottle of red wine with good friends while homeward bound. Mystery lies in the deep Kaikoura Canyon, which according to Maori legend is a system of offshore trenches dug by an apprentice to please his creator. Here, passing eras are not ruled by traditional timeframes, only the breeding cycles of, frequently colossal, wildlife.

Scientists say a giant squid may never have been seen alive, but they are known to have eight long arms and two long tentacles, suggesting awe and menace if Jules Verne’s famous story has an element of truth.

In 1997 an expedition partly funded by National Geographic magazine searched the Kaikoura Canyon. No definite conclusions were made.

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