Tuesday 5 July 2016

Hanmer Springs to Kaikoura


We pulled over at the Hanmer Springs NZMCA Park on the way out of town, we've stayed here a few times but because it is about 8kms from the village, it's sometimes easier to stay in town at a campground or a POP (park over property). Back in March there was a major scrub fire on the hill behind the site. It was quite frightening to see how close it got to the houses. Luckily there's a road and a river between the hill and the Park, I know the motorhomers that were on site were woken and warned to be prepared to evacuate. Talk about front row seats!

The fire did jump the road further around the hill and closed the only road in and out of Hanmer Springs. It also threatened the historic Waiau River Bridge which crosses the gorge. If that had been destroyed Hanmer would have been isolated for months.

We took the Inland Route heading for Kaikoura on the coast, stopping at Rotherham so I could take photos of the church and the historic cob Watters Cottage.

Click photo to read.
We've driven the Inland Route in the past, so this time we decided to turn off at Waiau and take the more direct Leader Road to the coast.  The road passes through a number of large sheep stations, following the Waiau River for a time and then climbing a little into the hills. There was very little traffic other than a few farm tractors moving between paddocks.

We were climbing steadily up one of the hills when I let out a yell (to my ever patient husband) to stop, after I spotted a church down in a dip and surrounded by farm buildings. My first thoughts were that it was an odd place to have a church and then, perhaps it was a family church on a farm station. But I think it's a decommissioned church from somewhere near and it's been shifted there. Now I need to do some research to check it's history.

Leader Road exits onto SH1 just north of Parnassus, we thought about stopping at the NZMCA Park there, but decided to press on to Kaikoura even though the weather was deteriorating somewhat. I always unconsciously hold my breath as we pass through the Parititahi Tunnels- they never look large enough, no matter how many times you pass through them. Some idiot drove the wrong way through the right hand tunnel heading north just the other day and was chased (at low speed) by a police car for something like 80kms before being pulled over.

Usually we stay at the Kaikoura NZMCA Park in South Bay but this time we decided to check out a POP we'd heard a bit about- Donegal House. Mr TomTom lead us out the back of the Kaikoura township through dairy country, along a straight, narrow and very undulating road; a few items in the van moved shelves in protest. 

I've dubbed Donegal House the 'pub in a paddock'. It's a few kilometres north of Kaikoura and a couple of kilometres off the main highway, if you choose to ignore Mr TomTom like we should have. It is a most unusual place to have a Irish hotel, restaurant, function centre and accommodation lodge along with a large campervan park. But it works.

And much of it has been here for over 20 years. The campervan park was new last year, each parking position is marked out like horse stalls (the farm has a horse stud) with an Irish name on each section. Powered sites are likely to be available later this year. For now you must be self-contained, it's $10 per night although free if you're a NZMCA member. Of course they're looking for your likely custom in the hotel and I can report the Lamb Shanks were an excellent choice!

There's a large garden, pathways and footbridges over a pond and waterway along the front of the hotel but unfortunately with the drought that North Canterbury has been suffering for the last few years, and no recent rainfall, the pond level has dropped considerably. 

There's also a large farm pond alongside the park which attracts an amazing amount and variety of birds. Not only were there the usual mix of ducks; mallards and paradise, there were pukekos, swallows, plovers, stilts, herons and a couple of hawks. 

A large flock of swallows hovered over the pond for hours, catching insects on the wing. They'd slowly make their way up the pond, the front ones peeling off as they reached the edge, then flying to the back of the flock to start again. What incredibly hardworking little birds they are and I'm amazed they eat enough to balance the energy they use. Although they do take time out, I found this little guy resting on our shower dome one morning.

Each evening a large flock of White-faced Herons/Matuku flew in, circling for a short time before landing on the opposite pond bank. Then after a little bit of squabbling and shuffling back and forward they evenly spaced themselves out for the night. I counted 28 birds one evening including one uncommon white Cattle Egret. Unfortunately they arrived on dusk (this photo has been lightened a lot) and they left before sunrise so I couldn't shoot the egret. 

But the biggest spectacle of all were the mass arrival of starlings who roosted in the gum trees that lined the drive on the way in. Half a dozen flocks would fly around and around, ducking and diving, rising and falling, as they circled the trees, faster and faster as they swooped down and around; the flocks growing as they passed through each other. 

What an incredible sight and sound as they swept past time and time again in a loud swoosh, before eventually disappearing at a fast pace directly into the trees, sounding like they crash landed in the leaves as they landed. Silent other than the wing sound while they were flying they now set up a short burst of chatter announcing their arrival and saying hello to their neighbours before settling down for the night. Until someone who shall remain nameless started up the generator. The closest birds shot out of the trees like bullets squawking in surprise as they did a couple of circuits before resettling again. 

In a smaller pond near the driveway I found another rare bird, and a first for me, the introduced Mute Swan. Wild Mute Swan populations are only found in Canterbury (approx 80 birds) and Hawkes Bay (20 birds). There are also odd semi-feral birds elsewhere around the country on ornamental ponds and reserves. This poor fellow is all on his lonesome and has apparently been here for many years.

He was very pleased to see me and propelled himself across the pond at a fast rate of knots everytime I passed. I climbed over the fence to get some close up photos and he obliged by swimming back and forward and around displaying his magnificent and beautiful wings and cocking his head as he went. Living on a muddy farm pond may provide you with tasty dinners but it does nothing for your neck feathers!

No matter the length of stay in Kaikoura, a visit to Kean Point and the seal colony is always on my must do list. I never tire of watching seals go about their 'busy' daily schedule of lazing about, looking like giant fat slugs amongst the seaweed and sunning themselves on the rocks.

But the real reason to visit at this time of the year is too see the seal pups that have been left to their own devices while mum is out feeding, for sometimes up to 3 days at a time. There weren't so many pups about (compared with a previous July visit) and the fresh water pool that they were frolicking in back then, was a swampy puddle with very little water- another sign of the drought. The water level came to the top of all the dark brown grass(which has since grown) before.

There were still half a dozen pups lounging on the low branches and hiding underneath a large tree but none swimming in the pool. You can see the same tree and pups swimming in the pool on this blog, from 2 years ago.

I did find this gorgeous wee guy drying himself off on a grassy patch beside the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.

I wanted to reach out and rub that cute little flipper as he was scratching himself. Of course I didn't. 
I know that look of pure bliss when your scratch reaches the spot very well, little fellow.

He barked a warning each time David walked past, we think he thought David was a large seal because he was wearing black jacket and pants. Whatever it was, little seal pup didn't like him approaching at all.

We found this 'luxury resort' on a back road, on the way home.

Complete with information centre nearby! Don't you love some people's sense of humour. Although I'm not so sure the neighbours would agree.


  1. Usually I read your posts with wonder at the differences between the UK and beautiful NZ (those adorable seals for example!), but those starlings remind me of a terrific stay at a holiday cottage in Ireland where there must have been thousands of them. We call those giant evening homings of starlings a "murmeration", isn't that a beautiful word?

    1. Thankyou for your comments and I'm glad you are enjoying the blog. Murmeration is a cool word, and suits the noise the flock makes really well! I've seen photos of very large flocks of starlings overseas; an incredible sight. They're not so large in NZ, although the ones at Kaikoura were smaller than others I've seen in NZ.

  2. Excellent work Shellie. Nicely laid out; you could make your blogs into a beautiful table top book.

    1. Thankyou John for your kind words. One day, when I have more time, I might just do that.


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