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NZ Travel Blog: Episode 1

In February, 2013, a friend and I traveled around the south island of New Zealand for two weeks in a basic campervan . Here’s the first of thirteen episodes of my travel blog. Get to know me as I describe the places we went, the things we did and the people we met.

Day 2 Sunday Swimming with the Dolphins

What an amazing day – Day 2 in NZ. Today we swam with the dolphins.

The day before, Colin and I had flown into Christchurch and picked up our campervan – a Toyota Hi Ace van, which ran on diesel, had a bubble fibreglass roof, a bed in the back and a basic kitchen. We’d bought supplies, picked up NZ simcards and settled into our home for the next two weeks.

Before we’d left home, I’d chosen a van park on the outskirts of Christchurch at Spencerville, near a beach, so we didn’t have far to go on our first night. I’d also booked a dolphin-watching cruise at Akaroa for the following day.

We drove from Spencerville out along Banks Peninsula, the road weaving around grassy mountainsides, until we came to stunning views of the harbour as we neared Akaroa. The town was teeming with tourists, and we had to park up the hill away from the main street, having just enough time to wander down and report for the cruise.

Colin was disappointed that I’d only booked a cruise, rather than the swim with the dolphins. We checked in, and asked if we could upgrade to swim with the dolphins. Yes! Colin raced back up the hill to get our swimmers and towels, while I paid the extra money. There were only two spaces left and it was nearing time to leave. I watched anxiously for Colin’s return.

Alas! Before he arrived, someone in the other office booked those last two spots just before us.

“What would you like to do?” the girl doing the booking asked me. “You can wait and go on the 3:30 swim with the dolphins if you like, or you can just do the one o’clock cruise.”  Knowing Colin had rushed up in the heat (it was a very warm day), I wasn’t sure what he’d want to do. He arrived, sweating and puffing, when I gave him the options. I had to wait a few breaths before he answered. “Go on the 3:30 one,” he managed to say between breaths.

So we wandered off the wharf, taking our time now, back along the main drag past crowded restaurants. Colin had ditched his shoes at the van, figuring he wouldn’t need them on the cruise. The footpath was searing his feet, so we went looking for a pair of thongs – jandels in kiwispeak – in the gift shops lining the roadways. There were steep, grassy hills behind the town, a flat strip two blocks wide along the water packed with cafes, eating houses, gift shops and people. A jetty reached out into the water, timber shops painted dark blue along its length. The water was Caribbean blue and it was a sparkling day. A cruise ship and a handful of sailing boats could be seen in the distance.

We tramped the length of town in the heat, looking for jandels big enough for Col’s feet. We found a bright torquoise pair in a surf shop for a ridiculous price but bought them anyway to save Col’s blistering soles.

The only piece of shade in town was under a tree next to the water. We sat in the gutter and ate ice creams. Across the road, his bottom half obscured by a car bonnet, I could see a young man, shirtless, juggling three balls. It was not a brilliant act – that’s about all he did. He didn’t have a big frame, but his abs rippled as he leant back and balanced the balls. Someone walked close by and bent down near him and he dropped a ball and ran after it. That’s when we realised he was busking, it was his act, not just something he was doing randomly amongst the crowds. I focused in on his chest and noticed he had quite a good six-pack, though he didn’t seem especially well built in other ways. We sat and watched him from a distance for so long that I felt obliged to dig out a coin. We crossed the road and I dropped two dollars on the cloth at his feet. True to form, he was so surprised he dropped the balls again and had to run after them as he called his thanks.

We found a larger patch of shade near the wharf and sprawled on the grass while I worked out how to get Col’s waterproof camera to take photos. I succeeded and showed him how to do it.

Finally it was time for our cruise. We went back to the wharf for a briefing. There were a bunch of older people with English accents joking amongst themselves. For the first time ever, I hauled on a wetsuit and rubber bootees. We were sweltering in the heat and the guy doing the briefing asked us to go outside once we were sorted so that he could work out who still needed help. Outside the sun was bearing down on the black rubber. One of the other guides looked at the older people struggling with the heat and told them to go back inside out of the sun.

When everyone was geared up, they took us outside again and split us into two groups. We just made it into the first group and boarded a flat-bottomed boat with clear plastic curtains down the sides. A tall healthy-looking man named Ross introduced himself as the skipper and went through safety procedures. He passed us over to Lyn, a girl with cornflower blue eyes, which lit up when she spoke about the dolphins. Lyn told us we only swim with the dolphins if the dolphins look as though they want to play. They are Hector dolphins, the smallest type, and are quite rare. Their fins are more rounded than most, like Mickey Mouse ears. We needed to watch out for them, to help them find them.

We zoomed across the harbour, bouncing over the waves, and passed two cruise ships. Other than that, there were just a few sailing boats on the water. It was relatively calm when we started out, and gradually became choppy. We were still sweltering in our wetsuits and I pulled mine back off my shoulders to cool down.

We saw a flock of birds on the water, and soon after the boat slowed up and slewed around. They had spotted some dolphins. We stopped near them and they shot past us, cut back and came past again. There were about three dolphins to begin with. We watched for a while, trying to take snapshots as they surfaced.

“OK, folks, it’s looking good. Let’s go over,” Lyn announced. Everyone hastened to put down cameras and zip up wetsuits. I got Colin to zip me and climbed down the steps, pushing off into the ocean before I realised I hadn’t reciprocated. I looked back to the boat to see Lyn zipping him up.

We were warned the water would be cold and I could feel it on my hands, but the rest of my body was warm. My bootees were loose and when I tried to swim normally my feet rose up behind me and I couldn’t kick, so I just waved my arms about to move, and kept treading water with my feet. There was no problem with buoyancy, we just floated. We saw some dolphins swimming past, keeping a distance, but checking us out. I tapped the snorkel and goggles with a repeated rhythm, as Lyn had suggested we do, and they seemed to come closer when I did. But it could be because of the other people, who were singing into their snorkels, as was also suggested. They nosed around us repeatedly, sometimes shooting past quite close. There were at least three pods of dolphins playing around us, with three to four dolphins in each pod. Two of the girls in the group squealed with delight as they came within about a metre of them.

I’d been worried I’d be scared out there, as I once had a premonition that I would meet my death by drowning. But it wasn’t frightening, it was exciting. The boat was nearby, other people were nearby, and the dolphins were so cute – a lovely soft grey, graceful and playful, teasing us by being daring and coming close, then dashing off. There were small waves blowing across the surface, as the wind whipped up. I was just entranced, not even aware of the cold.

After about 40 minutes we were called back to the boat. Waterlogged, I hauled myself up the steps, feeling like a clumsy seal on land, though I’m not sure that I was graceful in the water, either. Lyn handed us cups of hot chocolate – just what we needed. The boat skipped across the surface of the water back to the wharf, where we had quick hot communal showers and changed back into dry clothes.

Famished, we bought fish & chips, the best I can remember. Crisp battered blue-eyed cod and crunchy salty chips. Delish!

Just out of town and up the hill was the Top Ten caravan park with wonderful views over the bay. When we first arrived the park was dominated by people talking loudly in front of their cabin, which overlooked our campsite.

Now it’s dark and quiet, conversations distant, most people either in bed or setting up. The air is growing cooler and soon it’ll be too cold to sit out here any longer. There are a few stars overhead, and an occasional noisy sliding door grating and slamming. Must be time for a long hot shower and curl up into bed. Oh yeah, it’s ten o’clock.