I’m staying in a tree house. Above the kanuka branches I’m assured of a great sleep surrounded by deer, an olive grove, and nestled between the Kaikoura Seaward Mountains and the famed Mangamaunu Bay, Hapuku Lodge has it all.
Kaikoura, number one of New Zealand’s eco-marine activities has many attractions – best of all, it’s on my doorstep. Only two hours north of Christchurch, I’ve stayed here numerous times in tents, motels, hostels, hotels and caravans: but never before in a 5-star Qualmark tree house.
The award-wining café at this contemporary country inn is a winner with me too. I’m told “Our kitchen’s focus is on fresh, flavourful food, sourced whenever possible from local people and organic growers. We specialise in seafood straight from the Pacific, venison, and vegetarian dishes and make great coffee. We also offer the widest selection of South Island-brewed beers in the world.”
New Zealand Geographic called Kaikoura “A maritime Serengeti” and is world famous not only for whale watching, but giant albatross encounters and swimming with Dusky dolphins. Other options include winery tours, horseback riding, kayaking, and surfing. We decide on a flight to spot whales and the Maori culture tour and after breakfast we head south into Kaikoura – our plane is waiting.
I’ve been whale watching by boat but never by air so I’m looking forward to Wings over Whales despite the frisson of fear I have with small planes. ‘We have a 100% safety record,’ a staff member tells me so decide to relax as we climb onboard the 7-seater plane. Each seat has a window so I’m hoping for great photos.
“We have a passing parade of different whales here,’ Monique our pilot says in my earphones, ‘and today we are most likely to see sperm whales.”
The very blue sea looks as if it has a frill of white lace where it meets the land and when we’re told a whale has broken the surface a little further north we press our faces against the windows, trying to be the first to see our prey. ‘There it is’ someone calls as the pilot turns the plane – she too has seen it. I’m frustrated as I can hear cameras clicking as we circle the giant mammal but shortly we circle in the opposite direction so I too can start photographing. I’m feeling a little nauseous but am too excited to be sick. The peninsula is fabulous from up here and I understand why there are plans for a luxury hotel on the top of it.
Before long, and after seeing three of the whales that ensure visitors flock to this area, we fly over the town, then the braided river as we come in to land – the 30-minutes have gone too quickly and I vow to do this flight again.
A Maori Tours van is waiting at the visitors centre and Maurice Manawatu introduces himself and his niece: our guides for this boutique tour.
On top of the Kaikoura peninsula, at the old pa site of Nga Niho, built in the 1700s, we again have sweeping views of the Pacific coastline, the rich whale-feeding grounds, and the mountains which seem to rise from the sea and through stories, Maurice introduces his ancestors: he is a direct descendant of Maru Kaitatea – the common ancestor of all Ngati Kuri (the local tribe).
Later, driving into the Puhi Puhi Valley we’re shown how to identify trees and shrubs and hear about their medicinal use. As well as cures for toothache or dysentery, I learn that if I start to bald, the juice from the rimu is good for hair growth, while oil from the plum-like fruit of the miro tree was used to counteract fever. I need neither today.
After years in local tourism Maurice and his wife, Heather, started Maori Tours for a lifestyle change and to create a future for their children. ‘We are people people’ Heather told me when our tour finishes at their home and over coffee and picklets we meet the rest of the whanau – from brothers-in-law to children, and of course, the guitar comes out.
That evening as I lie in my spa bath surrounded by candles, I realise I have been given a new look at this old-favourite region. Revisiting places such as the historic Fife House, reminds me I need to think more like a tourist in my own country, so tomorrow I’m going quad-bike riding!