I might have an IQ of 142, but my name is James and I am spatially challenged. There, I said it. Every intelligence test I’ve ever taken where I needed to predict how a piece of paper would look after it’s been folded, I’ve basically guessed at. Now, give me a map and an address, and I’m there. But ask me how I got there or where I’ve been, and all you’ll get is a blank, slightly confused stare in return. So last December, when I saw an amazing sale for flights to New Zealand from Phnom Penh, I jumped on it. New Zealand is somewhere around Australia, right? And they have sheep. And kiwis. Wait. Is that (a) a fruit, (b) a bird, (c) something you call a New Zealander or (d) all of the above? If you can answer that, you know more than I do about New Zealand. Oh and wasn’t Lord of the Rings filmed here? What kind of weather does New Zealand have? When’s the best time to visit? What’s there to see? Sad to say, I didn’t know the answer to ANY of those questions. I just knew that I really really wanted to go there. I simply picked some dates around public holidays I’d have off and clicked “buy”. And at USD 425 return, taxes in, I couldn’t really think of a reason not to go. That was a full 9 months ago. I really didn’t think much more of it until about a month ago when I started planning. I found out that New Zealand has two islands, conveniently named the North and South Island. And it’s is far. Like hecka far. Like 10 hours on a plane far. Who knew? (I TOLD you I was spatially challenged!)
Luckily, I had my trusty dusty flight strategy. Just as it looked like the plane doors were about to close, I quickly shifted my stuff over to a free row of 3 seats nearby. Gold, baby, gold! Maybe 10 hours wouldn’t be so bad after all. Until about 2 hours into the flight, a bald jerky French guy asked to sit in my row! Excusez-moi? Who asks to sit by a stranger on a plane? He looked at me in wide-eyed disbelief when I told him “no”. “You are very selfish”, he retorted. Ouch. But really now. Finding three unoccupied seats on a long-haul flight is akin to winning the lottery. You wouldn’t ask a complete stranger to share their lottery winnings with you, would you? Apparently, mon ami never got the memo. Was I really selfish to say “no”? Probably. But it was worth it as I was able to sprawl out and sleep for half the flight.
A 2 ½ hour bus trip north from Christchurch brought me to Kaikoura (Maori for “eat crayfish”, the New Zealand version of lobster, minus the big claws). Kaikoura is blessed with a 1 km deep canyon just off its coastline. The result is a rich marine ecosystem and year-round animals including albatross (they’re freakishly huge!), seals, whales and dolphins. This is also the site for swimming with wild dolphins, sometimes in huge pods numbering into the hundreds or even more than a thousand. What could be more magical than swimming with dolphins, our brain-equals of the sea? Mammals who sport a cute smile, understand sign language and occasionally save the drowning swimmer or save people from sharks? What’s not to like? I could already hear the theme song to “Flipper” in my head. Whoa! Not so fast. Apparently, someone died last year doing it, right here in Kaikoura. And someone else got bitten by a shark while swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. Darn you, Google!
Shark bites and unexplained deaths aside, I decided to go for it. After donning our wet suits, complete with hood and socks, we were soon on our way out of the harbor. In case you’re wondering, the wet suit look, how shall I say, is uncomplimentary. Unless you have muscles. Like lots and lots of muscles. Which I don’t. Hardly any, to be frank. Wet suits basically accentuate every bad part of your body. Not that I really have any “good” parts, but still. Plus, swimming in them is really hard. Just saying. And there may have been a teensy weensy bit of hyperventilating going on as we lined up in the back of the boat once we spotted a pod of dolphins.
Dusky dolphins are not very big, maxing out at 2 meters in length. They’re among the most acrobatic of all dolphins and we’re told they respond well to (1) people diving down, (2) singing or (3) in some way acting like a dolphin. Grrrreat. I wonder what songs dolphins like. “Sea of Love”? “Born Free”? Maybe something from Little Mermaid? Once we got in the water, the dolphins immediately came over. Seeing them swimming freely, navigating smoothly between us swimmers was simply amazing. In just a little bit, I had 7 dolphins all swimming in a tight circle around me, literally an arm’s length away. I looked up and saw a New Zealand fur seal just beyond them. Bonus! One of the dolphins leapt clear out of the water and landed just meters away. Then I tried to sing. Some of you will attest that in the best of situations (aka dark karaoke room with the reverb on high), I am not a good singer, to put it mildly. To compound the problem, I couldn’t think of a single song. It must have been the 11 degree water that sloshed around in my suit every time I moved. So I’m claiming brain freeze which made me alternate between Cee Lo’s “Forget You”, Frere Jacques, and an assortment of Whitney Houston songs. (What does that SAY about me!??!) But apparently dolphins love bad karaoke because they followed me when I swam away from the group. One of them swam directly to me and looked me straight in the eye. I think he was also sorry that I didn’t have a Ferrari. Or maybe they liked the sign language I threw in for good measure.
Kaikoura itself is a stunningly scenic town. The majestic Kaikoura Ranges form the perfect backdrop, this time of the year, still sporting a dusting of winter’s snow. That along with the ice blue water pounding the black sand (volcanic) beaches make it extremely photogenic. The town’s one main street logically runs along the coastline and in the evening, transformed into a makeshift night market. Congenial grannies brought out their homemade chutneys and jams, next to tables laden with meringue baked into the shape of little animals. Teens strummed guitars on street corners, busking for loose change. For dinner, I had the biggest portion of fish and chips I’ve ever seen. All that fried goodness actually left me a bit woozy for the 2 km hike back (all uphill!) to where I was staying. All in all, a good day.
Travel tips: (1) While US-based airlines have caught on to pricing prime seats, most international airlines haven’t. So when traveling abroad, remember to ask for an exit row (preferably window) the next time you fly. You’ll be rewarded with lots more legroom. The tradeoff is you won’t be able to store anything under the seat in front of you. Try bringing a spare tote bag to hold your essentials while stowing your backpack in the overhead compartment. (2) Seatguru is a great site for figuring out which seats on the plane are either very good or very bad. In my case, it was worth the extra USD 28 to pre-book a seat to avoid 10 hours stuck in a cramped middle seat. (3) If you’re traveling in a group of two or more people, try booking the aisle and window seats only. Chances are, the airlines won’t assign anyone the middle seat, giving you a bit of space. If the flight is full, you can always ask that person to switch with another member of your party, which they’ll do because that means they’ll now have an aisle or window seat.