Kaikoura: Uplifting and shocking

Evidence of the forces of nature are countered by the restoration efforts of man, writes Nicola McCloy.

Barely had we left Christchurch’s outer suburbs before we found ourselves in Amberley, the town that is the gateway to the Waipara wine region. It is home also to the excellent Brew Moon Brewing Company, who not only make great beers but also sling cracking pizzas.

About 10 minutes up the road is Waipara Springs vineyard. There is a plethora of vineyards with excellent cellar-door offerings in the Waipara region, but this place has been a long-time favourite of mine. There are several reasons: it’s a lovely spot, the place has a really relaxed atmosphere, it’s one of the oldest vineyards in the region, and because they have a focus on serving local produce (some of which they grow themselves). Their platters are a great way to taste a variety of Waipara goodies accompanied by a glass of wine or — for the driver — a good cup of coffee.

Replenished, we continue north. Being on State Highway 1 provides a bit of a unique challenge on this stretch as there isn’t much to do or see as you make your way through the Greta Valley and up to Cheviot. We decide to blow away a few cobwebs with a walk by the sea at Gore Bay, a 10-minute detour. Just before you arrive, the spectacular Cathedral Cliffs tower above the bay. These eroded clay cliffs are strangely reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals. When the light hits them at certain times of day, it’s hard not to think of the majestic frontage of Westminster Abbey.

The beach at Gore Bay is beautiful — a long stretch, where you can swim or surf. The Gore Bay Camp Grounds have two sites if you want to extend your stay and really explore the coastline and maybe do a bit of fishing. Drag your tent out of the boot and park up for a night or two.

Back on the main road heading north, the landscape remains decidedly rural while the place names become ever more intriguing in the form of Parnassus and Hundalee. Parnassus was bestowed its name by a local landowner who decided that a hill in the vicinity bore a likeness to Mt Parnassus in Greece, the home of the god Apollo. The source of Hundalee’s name is a little more prosaic in that it’s named after the Hundalee just south of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders.

From Hundalee, the road winds through the hills towards the coast. We were soon heading down towards the water at Ōaro, 23km south of Kaikōura. It wasn’t until we reached the coast that we gained any kind of perspective as to the extent of the damage that had been done to the road and railway by the 2016 Kaikōura quake and its aftershocks.

All the way from Ōaro to Peketa, which sits on open land to the north, the road has been significantly cleared and rebuilt, having suffered from collapse and massive rock falls as it snakes along the water’s edge, tucked beneath precarious cliffs. We took this part of the road quite slowly, which gave us a chance to fully appreciate the effort that has gone into making this road passable again.

Before Kaikōura itself we decided to go and check out the changes we’d heard about at South Bay.

This settlement sits on the southern side of the Kaikōura Peninsula and is home to most of the boats that take visitors out to see the incredible marine mammals and birdlife that inhabit the area around the huge underwater Hikurangi Trench.

One of the things I find most weird about the impact of this earthquake and the earlier Canterbury ones is that it’s hard to remember what massively altered places looked like before. Here, however, we could clearly see where the seabed had been pushed up out of the water. There are now swathes of pale rocks where there used to be sea. The uplift at South Bay was so big that the entire harbour had to be dredged and the marina altered so the boats could access the water. I felt shocked at the realisation of the power that would have been behind the earthquake.

South Bay is home to Kaikoura’s boats that take tourists out to watch whales, swim with dolphins and have close encounters with a stunning array of sea birds, including albatrosses. Take your pick of these excellent adventures — but make sure you pack your sea legs.

We drove out to the end of the Esplanade and the rather grand Pier Hotel, so we could take in the view back across the town. This has to be one of my favourite views in the South Island, especially when there’s a bit of snow on the Kaikōura Ranges. The combination of the town, the coast, the fishing boats and the mountains in one scene is magical.

It was something of a relief to find ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the main street of town after seeing evidence of so much destruction. Despite what the region has been through, Kaikōura is still thriving. The whole place was humming, largely with international visitors. I wanted to check out a couple of my favourite shops, the first of them being the Kaikōura Cheese and Localvore Store. The Kaikōura Cheese company is run by the Jenkins family, who have been making excellent cheese from both goats and cows milk since 2011. Ironically, they moved north to Kaikōura following the Christchurch earthquakes. They milk daily and have a strong focus on sustainable farming. I’ve been obsessed with their Tenara ash-coated goat’s cheese since first taste, so never miss the chance to try their goods. They also sell a great range of other local artisan deliciousness so it’s the perfect spot to pick up supplies for a picnic.

My other Kaikōura favourite is Wildflower Botanicals. Walking in the door, the first thing you notice is the sense of calm, and then the delightful scents strike you. This is a little oasis of botanical elixirs, teas, herbal blends, essential oils and other delightful products mostly made on site by Megan Sheppard. Next to Wildflower Botanicals is a cracking little cafe called Slam Club. Their speciality is sandwiches — or should I say “slam-wiches” — that are filled with fresh local produce. They also make a mean cup of coffee and often open at night to host gigs and quizzes. If you’re in the vicinity, make sure you check out what’s happening, as it’s a great spot to meet locals and have a good night out.



Kaikōura is a 2hr, 35, drive north of Christchurch.

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