Sunday, April 30, 2006

Day 10 - Flipper meets his match

4:15 am. The alarm goes off. I get out of bed only to discover that once again there is no breakfast. At this time in the morning that's the least any guy can expect. I did find some hotel "biscuits" however, so those would have to do... for the time being at least.

We had an early call this morning of 5:15 for a trip we'd had booked for a very long time and we didn't want to miss it, even though it was only a five minute drive down the road. Neither of us had slept a wink for fear of not hearing the alarm and missing such an important event.

Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura was our destination at this un-godly hour, a long established excursion company whose trips allow you to swim with the dolphins, should you wish it.

We arrived at the HQ ahead of time and even then there were other bleary-eyed people hanging around for the place to open.

Before long there was sign of life, the doors swung open and we were herded in like sheep. We had a brief introduction and register taking before those who would be swimming on today's tour were invited to go through to the changing rooms to be kitted up. At this point I should explain that on every Dolphin tour there are a restricted number of swimmers who will enter the water with the Dolphins. Children and those who cannot swim would remain as watchers on the boat. I fell into the latter category along with only one other lady and we were left alone in the cafeteria.

Being the only two people left there we soon began to chat and started finding out a bit more about why we were both here at this un-earthly time of day. Her name was Helen, she was an American and as it turned out she was a regular visitor to both NZ and the Dolphin Encounter as she owned a holiday home just down the road from there (lucky thing!). She was so dedicated to the cause that she had even been on the tour the day before to do the swim but today her plan was to stay on the boat and take pictures (the other love in her life besides her husband and NZ). With our common interest being the same she soon declared it her task to look after me and help me to get the best photos, particularly as it was my first experience of trying to photograph such things.

Whilst I was making a new friend, Kate was having her own pre-dolphin "experience". What follows is Kate's own take on what was happening.

"I queued nervously waiting to be handed my wetsuit, flippers, snorkel and mask by a man that would look you up and down and apparently instantly know your intimate measurements and foot size. I think perhaps he was a little out with my wetsuit size as although I appreciate that it was meant to be tight it was however like squeezing an oversized sardine into a small tin! Nevertheless I did what was necessary and was reunited with Shaune for our full briefing. At the start of this we were warned "This is not a Flipper like experience" You will not go riding on their backs or sail through the water holding onto their fins -these were wild dusky dolphins who would be more likely to bite you if you held out your hand. As they rightly point out we are there for the dolphins entertainment and not the other way round. During the remainder of the session we learnt the basic snorkelling and safety requirements - i.e. the hand signals to suggest that you are in distress or the ones to say that all is well. I hoped that Shaune was paying full attention to these as my life was in his hands while I was in the water. Being not a strong swimmer I expected him to watch me as much as any dolphin activity that we might come across."

So immediately after Kate's "quart into a pint pot" experience we were shepherded all onto a minibus with what could only be described as a laminated inside. Everything was plasticised so that any extraneous salty water on people's bodies after the experience would run immediately off into the gutters which ran the length of the bus.

It was still dark outside and we were starting to wonder if our first meeting with the dolphins would be under the cover of darkness.

It was a short 5 minute bus trip which took us to where the boats were moored up that would ultimately take us out to sea. There were two boats and as we'd left the briefing we had been split up into two parties, luckily we were put in the smaller of the 2 teams.

Obviously this isn't a picture of the boat in the dark as it was too dark at that time of day to take any photos.

As we got onto the boat we were warned that due to yesterday's high winds that there was a moderate swell and were advised to take precautions - we had already come prepared with seasickness tablets after being warned by a friend of ours back home that her entire trip consisted of her head in a bucket and thank goodness we did otherwise goodness knows how bad we might have felt. The swell of the ocean wasn't agressive but it was constant and it was this unrelenting action which ultimately caused a couple of people to be ill.

It took about 40 minutes before we reached our first pod of dolphins and suddenly our crew were hurriedly trying to get everybody into the water, shoving them off the edge of the boat like lemmings off a cliff. The sun was just cresting on the horizon, but it was still quite dim lighting conditions. As I scrambled around to get Kate's digial SLR ready, she was preparing herself for the water. Over to Kate again.

"I was the last one off the boat - scared for my life and dreading the coldness of the water. However the water whilst cold did not dampen the experience - but almost as soon as I was in the water we were called back onto the boat as the pod were moving too far away from us so we would have to catch them up. Before long I was clinging to the back of the boat as we speed through the waves tracking the dolphins. About 5 minutes later we stopped and we all jumped in once more to be surrounded by numerous Flippers and what an experience that was!"

The sun was now rising fast, filling the sky with glorious colours and tones. What a dilema, there was suddenly almost too many things to take pictures of. On top of this Kate was expecting me to point her in the direction of the dolphins.

Meanwhile back in the drink...

"It is very difficult to describe the experience. First there is sheer panic caused by a mixture of initial fear of the dolphins as they swim under you and even occasionally knock into you and then there is the fear of being kicked in the face by flippers of other excited swimmers all eager to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.

"I actually found it a much more rewarding to swim away from the crowds and head around the other side of the boat, usually following Shaune's directions as to the movement of the dolphins and found it an altogether more serene experience which you could truly appreciate. Here you could just float while sometimes 5 or more dolphins swim under and around you.

"This continued for a good hour while Shaune took photographs and observed from the deck. Eventually we were called back to the boat where we had a chance to shower, change and have hot chocolate and cookies to warm us. All three activities were a disaster!"

Actually I think the biscuits were ginger nuts, the purpose of which is to calm unsettled stomachs down before the trip back home. Anyway Kate's on a rant and I'd be a fool to delay that any longer.

"The brochure reads "All vessels are fitted with hot showers and toilets for passenger comfort". Do not be deceived. It is a small boat with a toilet the size of a plane toilet (hey it's better than going in your wetsuit, surely! - Shaune), and the showers consist of three hoses that you put down your wetsuit that provide moderately warm water. There are no changing facilities. Instead you struggle to maintain your decency whilst removing a tight wetsuit, drying yourself and re-dressing on a boat that is swaying precariously from side to side. By this stage you feel so seasick that the mere mention of hot chocolate and cookies create spasms in your stomach. However, it is most definitely worth it. At this point the boat races over the open water with the dolphins frolicking alongside, jumping and somersaulting in the air - everyone scrambling to take photographs, including us".

At this point Kate took over the operations of her camera and I moved back to my own and squirted off a couple of minutes of video.

For the journey home Kate sat motionless in the cabin feeling very green about the gills at this stage. I on the other hand tried to fake the fact I wasn't feeling sea-sick when really I was struggling inside to keep the raging volcano in my stomach from erupting. If I'd been sick, Kate would've followed suit. Luckily we both survived, but it was probably one of the longest, most unpleasant journeys back to dry land we've ever experienced even though it only took 45 minutes.

It was 9am by the time we stepped off the boat. At the beginning of our excursion we had talked about going whale watching in the afternoon but feeling like we did that idea was well and truly out the window. The weather also appeared to be making a change for the worse too. At this point in time we just felt incredibly lucky that not only had the weather been fantastic, but the dusky dolphins had chosen to make an appearance as well, both of which cannot be guaranteed.

So we headed back to the Bed and Breakfast and had a well earned sleep for an hour or so. The rest of the morning we pretty much spent recovering, but we decided to take this opportunity to do some necessary laundry (very expensive but convenient). It was not till lunchtime that we ventured out again.

Lunch was a modest affair today as we had big plans for a decent meal that evening. I'd promised Kate the local delicacy of crayfish/rock lobster as she'd been so brave, so lunch would have to be small. We found a small, but popular self-service cafe, sat ourselves outside in the courtyard and enjoyed a slice of pizza and a steak sandwich.

We'd taken so many photos this morning that we'd used up most of our supply of memory cards, so without too much on the agenda it seemed like a good time to get some of them transfered onto CD. There were a couple of shops in town that offered this facility and we chose one which claimed they could do it in less than 2 hours, which meant we could wander around the town and browse the shops before going back to collect our discs. It wasn't the cheapest place but it did offer a PC on which to check the transfered pics.

Getting back into our vehicle we toured around a few of the recommended eateries with a plan to book one for the evening (we're not always thinking about food, honest), before finally settling on the restaurant formally known, and still registered in many of the travel guides as Mussel Boys (which wasn't as camp as it sounded). It is now an establishment called "Pipi's".

With the evening food sorted we went to visit the seals on the peninsula. We were able to get really close...too close really. One silly girl got too close and while posing with her back to the seals was chased for a short distance by one particular restless and agitated creature. Amusing for those who were watching. All the signs warn tourists about pissing the seals off, and this was yet further proof that tourists just don't listen. Seals are big, vicious, yet harmless almost placid looking creatures, it's easy to see why people take their chances.

Next we headed to a picturesque viewpoint (recommended by the owners of Lemon Tree Lodge), where you get glorious 360 degree views of Kaikoura and it's surrounding area. It's a quiet spot too, a little off the beaten track for most tourists particularly if they have no form of transport. I tested my camera's panoramic landscape feature out here for the first time this holiday, it really was the only way to capture such a wonderful view.

Our final destination for the day was the Kaikoura Winery. Billed as the most scenic of all the wineraries in NZ with stunning views of the ocean, the Kaikoura Winery sits atop a magnificent hill overlooking the ocean.

We decided that we didn't really have an interest in doing a tour of the winery and underground cellars but instead headed straight for the shop where we had a couple of free tasters and choose a bottle of wine for Kate's dad. In the shop there was a massive picture window with amazing views of the coastline.

Outside is a lovely seating area for customers to sit and enjoy their purchases with a bunch of cheese and biscuits, it's really very civilized. Unfortunately it's a little way out from the township and really the only way of getting there is by car and seeing as wine and driving don't really mix it was with great heartache that I couldn't enjoy this place exactly as it was intended.

There is a viewing platform however and the lady from the shop kindly lent us her binoculars and with promises of seeing dolphins and possibly even whales from this vantage point, in fact she claimed she had seen a couple of whales already this day. We weren't quite as lucky and saw nothing but the weather was glorious and the views fabulous so we didn't feel too let down.

The evening soon came and we found ourselves in Pipi's before we knew it. As a name for an eating establishment I'm not sure what is actually worse, Mussel Boys or Pipi's. Both seem just as bad as each other and neither really set the scene for a classic culiary experience. Luckily the place goes above and beyond the imagery its current and former names conjour up.

Pipi's is really more of a cafe than a restaurant, and passing trade could be put off by its long benched tables, smaller tables with plastic chairs and its brightly coloured decor. To those people I say they should look beyond its outer coat and give it a go as they really wouldn't know what they'd be missing out on.

Pipi's delivers fantastic simple food in a simple surroundings, plus it's a lot cheaper than some of the places directly in the heart of Kaikoura.

I had a fisherman's basket and Kate had a Seafood Platter (with the rock lobster as promised), which as you can see was truly amazing.

The meal was topped off with Kiwi Pie. This was a very simple desert made all the more complicated and confusing by the waitresses disclaimer when I ordered it. She made a point of telling us that it did not contain Kiwi - neither bird nor fruit varieties and this was a common misconception by people who ordered the pie. Yet it arrived with Kiwis on top (again not the bird) so we were even more confused. Still it tasted good and that was all that mattered.

The evening was finished off by another trip back to the viewpoint above the peninsula to watch the sun setting.


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