A baby seal hops up onto a rock to take a break from diving for leaves and playing with a hundred other seal pups in a waterfall-fed pond. Nearby, another seal pup allows a few human pups to get within touching distance and barks at them. The kids run, shouting with happiness, back to their parents. Yet the baby seals’ parents are nowhere to be seen. In this country of no predators, the adult seals can relax on the beach while their pups explore the waterfall.
These fearless pups will get very close to tourists, even playfully biting their shoes and posing for photos. Anywhere but New Zealand, this attraction would be heavily publicized, charge admission, and only let visitors see the seals from afar. The locals, as casual as most Kiwis, give the Ohau seal stream a passing mention that belies how incredible it truly is.
From the Ohau Stream, it’s a 20-minute drive to Kaikoura, a small town on the coast. Kaikoura lies on a particularly scenic section of New Zealand State Highway 1 that hugs the shoreline for an hour’s drive. It goes through spectacular tunnels cut from basalt ridges and visits some great beaches. Around each corner opens a new vista with the same theme: snow-capped peaks rising up improbably straight from the sea. Amongst all this beauty, it would be easy to drive right past the small town of Kaikoura. Yet for lucky tourists who can linger and for the 2,000-odd residents, the town has much to offer.
Kaikoura is purely New Zealand – the complete Kiwi experience in one place.
Don’t travel to New Zealand for the cities. Instead, plan on enjoying nature’s beauty and living on the rough side. One excellent way to experience the South Island is in a small camper van, which allows for a flexible itinerary. In winter, most of Kaikoura is shut down, waiting for the larger tourist crowds in summer. The surf shops, whale tours, and restaurants are mostly closed. A small shack outside town sells fresh caught native saltwater crayfish and whitebait fritters.
Drive Down Fyffe Quay and Park by the Sea.
The tidal flats are a great half-day activity. Walk out over the shelf of rock at low tide and explore the tidal pools full of life. There are sea urchins and starfish, some fossilized into the rocks. There are red octopi that are extremely shy, but curious. Thousands of sea birds fish from the ocean and search the tide pools for snacks. Sometimes seals, whales, and dolphins visit the peninsula. Further out, the waves crash onto the rocks and soak photographers who get too close. From the rocks, there is also a trail that climbs onto tall bluffs with a view down to pristine beaches. A couple hours of hiking along a grassy footpath is enough to see the whole peninsula.
Explore the Maori Leap Cave.
Barry, a spritely 75-year-old, begins the tour by handing out hard hats and getting an oversized flashlight that looks like an antique. He unlocks a small wooden door in a hillside and ushers visitors inside. Stalagmites and stalactites are everywhere, slimy and tan from centuries of dripping water. Barry explains that the cave was formed by the ocean long ago, but not discovered until the 1950s when a stray cow fell through the roof. Barry begins describing the formations inside like his old friends. Shrek the Sheep – arguably the most famous sheep in the world, George Washington, and Queen Victoria are among countless features in the cave. Barry plays his light over each feature, making them stand out until they almost seem real. A leisurely 45 minutes and many photos later, the tour is done.