Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tahiti, Cook Islands, Dad, Dolphins and Wine

Through Tahiti
So it's good bye to Easter Island and hello Tahiti. Just for a night though, from 11:30pm to 7am at the delightful Faa'a Airport [GPS: 17.55434S, 149.60759W], "sleeping" on the floor. It rained incessantly all night, but sunrise looked pretty. Soon we'll fly across the date line, and it will be tomorrow! I shall chew on the "what happened to Thursday?" question on the flight there, another 7 or 8 hours to Auckland. Interestingly there seem to be no international flights out of Tahiti during the day - after my 7am flight, the next one is 10pm. I wonder why.

The flight stops off at Rarotonga, the capital island of the Cook Islands, and we get to disembark for an hour whilst the plane is refueled, so I can honestly claim to have visited the Cooks! From the air the place looks great - another island on the list to return to. Apparently the Cook Islands have approximately the land mass of the UK Channel Islands, spread over the geographical area of Western Europe!

I change planes at Auckland, and a immigration person grills me on drugs in South America, trying to lead me into it in such a ridiculous way: "So did you try anything there? No? But you were staying in hostels, everyone else was doing them, how much were they paying for them?" etc. You're asking the wrong person, I have no idea! I can tell you how much Tahitian lager costs on Easter Island though - too bloody much!!

Into Christchurch and I'm liking New Zealand already. Everything works and is well thought out - free showers at airports, information everywhere. I buy yet another adapter for the plug sockets here - they look a bit like US/Japanese but with the pins twisted slightly. Why oh why?!

Shuttle to the hostel, the Jailhouse, which is a converted jail with original metal doors, staircases and railings etc - a very interesting place. No Dad. Hmmm. He's supposed to be here. I can only assume he's missed his connection in Sydney or has balked at the idea of staying in a hostel and has gone elsewhere! By now I'm so incredibly tired that I can't think straight to work out what to do, so I slee, hoping he'll turn up at some point.

Which he does, at about 11pm. A late BA flight meant a missed connection, then his bags never made it out of London. Rather inconvenient.

Dad sleeping in a hostel bunk bed!

The jailhouse is actually a nice hostel, clean and very quiet, and so we sleep for a few hours until 6am, when we need to head for the station for the train up the coast to Kaikoura, which means "Crayfish food" and is a pretty coastal town with about 4,000 inhabitants. The train is primarily for tourists, with a conductor who points things out to us as we run along the coast, with the Southern Alps on out left and the Pacific on the right.

In Kaikoura we find that all accommodation seems to be booked up so we end up having to take a "luxury twin" somewhere on the sea front with spa bath and a nice view. Oh well, someone had to take it. Then it's time to head out to our Dolphin Encounter!

Dolphin Encounter
This is something I had booked in advance, where one has the chance to swim with wild dolphins, as all the books rave about it so it's very popular. I don't tell Dad until it's too late that this is something one can spectate as well as participate in.

Yes, you could have just watched, but it's too late now!

We are kitted out in wetsuits, masks, flippers etc, then shown a information video, which explains safety procedures and strongly makes the point that the dolphins we will swim with are completely wild, and therefore we should not be disappointed if they don't "play ball" (or decide to murder us, I read as the unspoken other message). The onus is on us to entertain them and interest them, not the other way around. The video also talks about the other wildlife which is abundant here, including albatrosses and the occasional orca or even sperm whale!

On the boat, we head out to where the dolphins were last spotted, about 45 minutes South along the coast. The weather looked bad earlier, and strong winds were forecast, but as it turns out was remarkably good the whole afternoon.

Dolphins, you say. Not sharks. You're quite sure?

The reason why Kaikoura is so interesting in terms of wildlife is that there is a deep oceanic canyon on the seabed, bringing water from the Antarctic, which is cold but nutrient rich, and mixing it with water from the north, which is warm and therefore sends the nutrients to the surface, providing the source for a big food chain unusually close to shore. Close by to where we are in our boat the water is apparently a mile deep, even though we are only a few hundred yards out from the beach.

We find a dolphin pod of about 150 dusky dophins. These are slightly smaller than other species of dolphin, but still about 6' fully grown, and are known as the "acrobats of the sea". This pod has a mixture of adults and younger calves, who are about half the size.

OAPs were provided with additional assistance

With a blast of the boat's horn, we head into the water, gently so as not to scare the dolphins off.

Immediately there are dolphins all around us, mostly underwater, but one can see fins everywhere. These dolphins typically breathe every 2-5 minutes, and apparently are conscious breathers, i.e. they think about each breath, and even when sleeping, half of their brain is always active, to ensure they don't drown.

Soon they lose interest in us and swim off. At this point the horn goes on the boat, we all jump back on, catch them up and jump back in. This happens several times. Sometimes they are interested in us and linger, sometimes not. The water is warm, at about 18C - as good as it gets according to the guide. The company operates all year round, and in winter it falls to 9C or so and the coast is covered in snow! Brrrr!

To keep the dolphins interested we have been given various tips - firstly to behave like a dolphin in the way we swim - diving down underwater, circling, and most amusingly, singing to them, or at least making funny noises. Also keeps the spectators entertained on the boat. We're not supposed to touch the dolphins, though I don't know whether they're told the same about us. I find myself that swimming in a circle seems to keep them most entertained - they seem to view it as a race with you, and frequently I had several dolphins all whizzing round with me, until I ran out of breath!

I also tried a few times to keep up with them swimming, but this was futile, especially when trying to sing to them at the same time. They can burst at up to 30 km/hr underwater, keeping up with our boat, so me trying to swim with them was never going to work. The thing I found interesting is how easily they zip along - even at pace, it doesn't look like they're wiggling their tails madly, they just gracefully whizz along seemingly without effort.

Out of the water for the last time, we enjoy a warm shower by shoving the shower into our wetsuits, then are provided with hot chocolate and ginger biscuits as the boat circles the dolphins for photo opportunities, and boy are these dolphins photogenic - they take this chance to get especially acrobatic, flipping all over the place, sometimes a pair doing an aerial flip simultaneously. Our guide explains lots about them to us, with only occasional interjections from Dad:

You say that, but…

There is some reason to some of these displays. In addition to being fun for them, they use them to scare or shepherd fish into an area so the group can feed. On the way back we encounter a seal flopping about, who dives as soon as we get near him. The chop is also picking up slightly now, and the boat bounces along in the sunshine as we near shore.

A happy boy

Well-earned muffin and a cup of tea to celebrate

To Blenheim, Marlborough, and the Montana Winery
Next morning, it's raining, and we cab to the station just in time to catch the train up to Blenheim, the wine-capital town in the Marlborough region and sunshine capital of New Zealand, which is famous for Sauvignon Blancs in particular.

Pretty Blenheim

After a spot of lunch at one of the few places that seemed to be open on Sunday, we cabbed it out to the Montana's Brancott Winery. Montana itself is one of the most famous labels from New Zealand - and they also own Stonebridge, plus the renowned Cloudy Bay Winery is nearby.

Navigating like a woman

The winery is about a 10 minute drive back out of town, the road following the railway we had come in on, in Riverlands. The area is very dry, apart from the lush greens of the irrigated vines, is very flat, but has dusty looking hills of sandstone (called greywacke) behind. Inside, we buy tickets (NZ$10, or about £3) then wait in the shop for the tour to start. Dad looks very at home in front of a large rack of Montana wine!

Where do I start?

The tour is fairly informative, but quite fast, and disappointingly we don't get to see lots because of work going on.

30 million litres of wine apparently

Would they miss one? Could he carry it?

The tour ends with a tutored tasting of a few of Montana's wines, including a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Late Harvest dessert wine.

Tasting happiness

Finally we pay an extra $5 to try some other wines in the shop - 5 different Sauvignon Blancs, though the lady who pours them out talks so much that we end up having to drink the five glasses in about a minute because our taxi is waiting! An enjoyable afternoon, and back to the hotel for a siesta methinks! Tomorrow… wine tours by bicycle!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Want my money back. Whats the SLA??