Saturday, 8 December 2012

A Seaside Birthday

A week ago today, I celebrated my 22nd birthday in the seaside town of Kaikoura, about a two hour drive North of Christchurch. We arrived late Saturday afternoon, and checked into our room for the night, which came with an amazing view of the snow-capped mountains that border the town to the North. After a brief wander along the pebbly beach and a quick change into evening clothes, we went for a lovely seafood supper before enjoying a well deserved night in front of the telly.

As we drove into Kaikoura, we passed 'Kaikoura Airport', a long narrow field next to the road with a gravel run-way and a couple of small planes. Martin asked me - hypothetically of course- how I'd prefer to see whales: by boat or by air. I answered, 'Probably by boat. You get to see them really up close and even feel the spray of the sea from their blow hole. If you're in a plane, you might as well be watching it on the TV, you're that far away'. 'Is that really what you think?', he replied, looking slightly worried. I hadn't really thought too much about it before, I said. I've never really flown in a small plane before and therefore wasn't quite sure how I'd feel about it. 'Well start thinking about it', he laughed, 'because you're going to be 1000 feet in the air above a 20m long Sperm Whale tomorrow morning!' Well that stumped me! I don't think surprise birthday presents get much better than that!

The weather report on Saturday evening worried us, however. There was talk of gales and torrential rain. Not great conditions for a flight in a small aircraft. I woke up several times that night to the sound of heavy rain. But when I awoke on the morning of my birthday, the air was still and fresh and the cloud cover had definitely thinned. I had a couple of cards from home and a present from my parents which my brother had brought with him on his trip over in October. I opened it to reveal a beautiful fabric covered book on 'the art of home sewing' by the giants of the textiles world: Liberty. Thank you Ma & Pa!

As we approached the Wings Over Whales base, I began to feel quite nervous. I've never been one for heights and don't see myself as much of an adrenaline seeker. But by the time we'd had our safety briefing and learnt a little about the whales, I felt my excitement brewing. We felt very privileged to be the only passengers, and since Martin was nominated photographer, I got to sit in the co-pilot seat up front with our handsome kiwi pilot; another birthday treat!

My heart started to race again as we gathered speed travelling down the runway and leapt into my throat as I felt the wheels of the plane under my feet leave the ground. But once we were airborne, I discovered I felt completely relaxed and at ease in the air, drifting above the dramatic landscape of the sharp white mountains against a backdrop of stunningly blue sky. The flights are limited to 30 minutes and the chances of seeing a whale not guaranteed. A male whale spends most of its life hunting and eating, trying to get as big as possible as quickly as it can in order to impress the lady whales that live up the coast in warmer waters. They can stay underwater for close to 2.5 hours and only surface for around 10 minutes, to catch their breath and sometimes have a little doze. So in order to see a whale, the pilots and staff of Wings Over Whales note the location and time of the first sighting of the day in order to try and predict where and when the whale will surface during the course of your flight.

After we'd been in the air for what felt like around twenty minutes, I started to wonder whether we would get to see a whale during his brief breather. I asked myself how I would feel if we landed back on shore without a sighting, and realised I was enjoying the flight so much and felt so delighted at the discovery that I didn't mind flying, that I wouldn't feel too disappointed after all.

Just as I settled on this feeling, the pilot pointed to a patch of sea to our right and started to dip the wing in that direction. I strained my eyes to see where he'd been pointing, as I'd lost any sense of how high up we were and, therefore, the scale of the creature I'd be looking for. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted and I glimpsed a submarine shaped shadow beneath the surface of the glistening water, ringed by white surf and sending jets of water into the air from its blow hole. I was awe-struck. I gave the pilot a big thumbs up and turned to grin at Marts behind me, only to realise he'd gone a remarkable shade of green and was clutching a sick bag with his free hand. I kept shouting at him to 'focus on the whale!' but the circular motion of the plane as we dipped to get a good view of the whale was just not agreeing with him. I had expected it to be the other way round, but I felt fine! 

Ten minutes of circular flying later, the whale 'made his move', straightening himself out before pushing his head down for the dive. This is usually the moment in which you can get a great 'tail shot' as he dives. But our whale must have been feeling camera shy that day as he slipped beneath the waves without so much as a splash. 

After a surprisingly smooth landing (our pilot was clearly a pro), I drove a green-tinged Martin back into the town, plonked him on a chair outside a cafe and made him drink some English Breakfast Tea. Once he'd regained a slightly more natural hue, he agreed to head down the road to a quilting and patchwork shop we'd passed the previous evening on the way to our Motel. It was fabric lovers paradise and, since it was my birthday, Mr Bear let me browse to my heart's content and pick a lovely array of fabrics to add to my ever-growing stash.

For lunch we shared a very yummy 'Mike and the Mechanics' Pizza with a big bowl of Kiwi Fries and a refreshing cucumber and elderflower smoothie. Deeeelicious!

We spent the rest of the afternoon browsing a few more shops (where I picked up this quirky conical flask to use as a vase for some of the lovely roses that grow in our garden) and basked in the glorious sun for an hour on the black sand, digging for shiny rocks and tiny coloured shards of gem-stone.

We arrived back in the city around 6 pm, just in time to meet up with some friends of ours from home that had been travelling around the South Island as part of their epic honeymoon. It was lovely to see some familiar faces and hear the much missed accents of home. A great way to end an incredible day.

Oh and my incredible fiance also bought me this baby for the 22nd....

 I sure am one lucky girl :)

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