Hanmer Springs was a 1.5 hour drive from Kaikoura, and it wasn't long before we'd tracked down Paul and Fi waiting in their distinctive green and purple Jucy van, complete with DVD player and TV! A reunion lunch saw us watching the DVD of their shark dive in Fiji, which we immediately marked down as something we had to do when we visited there after NZ.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from the spa, but it was a lot busier than the many, many leaflets advertising the place around the South Island. It wasn't by any means a disaster, though. There were more than enough pools for us to soak, steam and generally laze around in. The mineral pools were suitably smelly and some of the thermal spring pools got up to temperatures of around 42 C which was almost unbearably hot...until you jumped into a pool at a mere 37 C and felt like you were going to freeze to death, especially since the pools were all outdoor and it was heading towards zero once you stepped out of the pools.
A good three hours later, and we were shrivelled up. The weather was turning miserable and icy rain was battering us (not so nice outside of the pools!), so we decided to call it a day and courtesy of the super Jucy TV with integrated USB port, introduced Paul and Fi to the joys of Community - one of the funniest shows ever made. Fact.
Our plan was to go whale-watching in Kaikoura the next day, but the rain and wind had other plans and the company didn't fancy overturning its boat, so we decided to try again a couple of days later and took a trip to town instead. Luckily we weren't on an agenda, as we came across a slight roadblock:
I have no idea where they were going, and the farmer on the quad bike with two collies was taking his sweet time moving things along. Sheep being what they are though, driving slowly up to them and honking worked a treat - they got the message.
New Zealand has relatively few people, considering its size. There are barely any cars on the road at any given time (it's telling that the only time we got slowed down was by a flock of sheep and a snowstorm). As such, you'd think that the traffic police wouldn't be as prevalent. You'd think that, but I somehow managed to find the only on-duty officer on the roads who clocked me doing 66 in a 50 zone. Typical: 13 years on the UK's roads without a single ticket and I get caught in the back of beyond with nary another vehicle in sight. I can't complain, it was a fair cop. Luckily, the guy had a daughter in the south of England and after we chatted a bit, he decided to drop the speed from 66 to 64, and therefore the fine went down from $120 to $80. Which, as potential fines go, was the best I could have hoped for.
It was paid off at a post office an hour later in town, where Fi and Paul went electronics shopping and we picked up some groceries and moved to a different, better campsite in Blenheim, whose marketing gimmick was being next to a river full of eels which appeared to be conjoined like some Gigeresque monster.
It didn't put us off our food; in true Milton style, it didn't take the four of us long to whip up a curry.
Since the whales weren't an option, we decided to take our fellow travellers on a Bubbly Grape wine tour, since we'd enjoyed the first one so much. Along with Bouldevines, we visited 3 more wineries with Paul and Fi - thankfully none of the same ones we'd been to on our previous tour: Hunter's, Giesen and Drylands (which incorporates Selak, Kim Crawford and Nobilo).
As with the previous wineries, the wines were all fairly decent but the ones that stood out were the Selaks Reserve chardonnay which I can honestly say was the nicest of that grape type I've ever had, and the Giesen merlot which was very soft. There were some blips: sauvignon blanc was surprisingly bad and Giesen's late harvest (i.e sweet) sauvignon blanc tasted almost exactly like Um Bongo. Riesling was definitely growing on me, despite the natural smell of petrol the grape gives off in the wine; Gilly loved it (the wine, not the smell).
The Hunter's lady told us a couple of tricks to put the wine snobs in their place. If someone starts banging on about the complexity and taste of a wine, you simply swill it around the glass, smell it, and say "good nose". Apparently "bouquet" is the wrong word. If they still keep on about it, give it another swill, hold it up to the light and say "good legs". This latter term is used for wines with higher alcohol content. Apparently, this will silence all but the most obnoxious wannabe wine critic. I have my doubts.
Nothing tops off a wine tasting like a brandy, and although we couldn't track any down I did find a glass I'd love to have brought home as it was the perfect size.
Keeping our fingers crossed and nursing slight hangovers, we found ourselves at the Kaikoura whale watching hut the following day. We were in luck - the boat was heading out and we were ready to see some whales.
Out on the sea, we saw some seagulls following a trawler, probably because they thought that fish were going to be thrown into the sea.
It wasn't long before we spotted our first whale. Sperm whales are the main species in the waters there, but it's been known for humpbacks, orcas and even blue whales to be spotted. We only saw sperm whales on our trip, but it didn't lessen the experience at all.
It can take 40-50 minutes for a whale to surface from its initial descent, as they have incredible bodies which allow them to collapse their internal organs in order to withstand pressure. "Spotting" them is an art, and relies on old-fashioned sonar device which the captain lowers into the water and listens to in order to gauge the direction of any whales in the area before steering the boat that way. Sometimes it takes a couple of attempts to pinpoint the position.
An unexpected bonus on the trip was running into a huge pod of dusky dolphins - around 400 of them, leaping and playing alongside the boat as well as in the distance. Watching the beautiful creatures showing off, performing reverse somersaults and synchronised leaps, was simply incredible. We came to see whales, but I think this may have trumped it.
We saw 3 whales in all on the voyage, and one which descended just as we all rushed outside to see it. Whilst humpbacks sometimes breach and put on a show when they descend, sperm whales appear to be a little more restrained and graceful:
Whale watching isn't a cheap activity by any means, and if you head up to Monterey on the west coast of the US, you'll likely get a better deal. But you'd be hard pushed to quibble when you're surrounded by beautiful scenery and seeing massive tails disappearing through the water.
It was our last day on the South Island, and we'd ruled out the ferry between the islands in favour of a flight. It was quicker, more budget-friendly and by all accounts a much smoother ride. Since we had a flight later the next day we took a trip back to Christchurch and found a holiday park there in order to be closer to the airport. After another fine (and final) meal together with Paul and Fi, we knew it really was going to be our last rendezvous on our trip, so we bid a sad farewell the next morning. Whilst we were off to the North Island then Fiji and North America, they were going the other way and jetting off to South America.