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Saturday 28th October: Christchurch to Kaikoura - THE MUTTONBIRDS "Dominion Road"

To break a habit of the holiday, we woke fairly late; just about in time to have breakfast with Chantal and Pete, before Pete headed out to play cricket.

We soon bade them farewell and hit the road again, taking a while to find state highway one before ploughing North through Christchurch's satellite towns - Belfast, Kaiapoi, Woodend. The traffic was probably the busiest that we'd seen on our holiday, yet it was still free flowing and trouble free all the way to our exit at the town of Waipara.

We continued then up state highway 7 towards the spa town of Hanmer Springs. At Waikari, we passed a steam train belting out smoke whilst sitting at the terminus of the Weka Pass Railway. We continued on over wide rivers and even wider plains before reaching Hanmer Springs at around lunchtime.

Hanmer Springs is an interesting town. A haven for alpine pursuits in the winter, even though the main ski field of the area is over an hour away. It also succeeds in maintaining a healthy tourist population throughout the whole year thanks mainly to the unusual mix of warm temperatures, stunning alpine backdrops and most importantly, the hot, natural geothermal mineral spas.

What better way to round off a holiday than a relaxing dip in warm spa water? We changed into swimming gear, paid our money and slipped into the pools. Like most of these places, the main problem was the number of children. Thankfully, they were not as badly controlled as at Ocean Spa in Napier where they were seemingly allowed to run around screaming without so any complaint. At least here, staff patrolled the park to ensure their safety and our sanity.

We started off in the cooler pools - 35 degrees Celsius first, gradually working our way up to the hotter pools. At first, the sun was in so we didn't bother with sun cream, but pretty soon the sun was belting out and threatening to cook us. To keep us from shrivelling up, some of the pools had umbrella canopies that we could hide under away from the harmful UV radiation. The next problem soon became apparent at the hot Sulphur pools. These were heated to 41 degrees, but surrounded by vast numbers of honey bees. After noticing this, it became clear that they were actually all over the park, but mostly concentrated around the Sulphur pools. Not being able to relax back in the Sulphur pools, we slipped into the next hottest pools, the large 39-degree pools. Here, we really kicked back and relaxed.

After a while, the combination of sun and heat got a little too much, so we chilled back in the 35-degree pool again. Very relaxing indeed. Especially as it seemed a little quieter, probably due to it being about lunch time. Still, the fact that we were slowly roasting in the sun hadn't escaped us and we soon decided to get out of the water. A quick shower later and our spa time was over.

Back in the quiet little town of Hanmer Springs, we crossed over to a little deli-cum-cafe where we had lunch served by a large, grumpy curly haired woman. Despite her grumpy demeanor, the lunch was pretty tasty and helped to stave off our hunger. We followed lunch up with the customary walk around town, taking in galleries, souvenir shops and purveyors of general tat. On our mooch, we found an infuriating little mini-golf course that we played with some relish. It had some bizarre ramps made of corkscrew type mechanisms as the highlight. Thanks to two disastrous holes for me, and a solid all round performance from herself, Jenny walked away victorious. After that, we continued walking around, but there was precious little else to see. To coin an oft quoted phrase within these pages, we were soon back on the road and off; this time towards Kaikoura.

To avoid having to retrace our steps too much, we took a rather scenic short cut. This was one of those short cuts where after five minutes we wonder if you've taken the right road and after ten minutes you begin to get very worried. After fifteen minutes, we hit gravel track and would have panicked if the map had shown any other left hand turns on the section of road that we'd turned off of, and so it was that after a very worrying half an hour or so, we emerged onto the Pacific Triangle Route. We then headed past the Mount Lyford ski fields en route to Kaikoura.

Like many other South Island roads we had negotiated, the road twisted and turned around towering mountain peaks and across massive bridge spans over expansive and barren flood plains. At one point, we were stuck behind a very erratic car driver who seemed to enjoy driving over the top of the centre line. I think he may have been drunk. Ignoring the drivers, the most impressive sight on the route was the section of road that curved down towards the wide Conway River, went down one side of the river valley, crossed the river and curved back up the other side affording some breath taking views of the river valley.

From left to right: Two views on the scenic drive to Kaikoura. Firstly, the Conway River and valley stretches away to the hills and secondly the hills rise up towards the distant Kaikoura Ranges.

After a surprisingly long and tiring drive, the sea came into view from over the horizon and we descended into Kaikoura; famous for its whales, dolphins and albatross. Despite the proliferation of tourist activities, the town itself was a little bit drab and dowdy and didn't really seem to have much to offer us as we pulled in at the last holiday camp on our tour.

We played a short game of catch over a few bottles of Speight’s lager before walking into town for dinner. Whilst getting ready for dinner in the camper van, a pair of daring ducks tried invading the camper van to get at the various crumbs deposited on the van floor.

Kaikoura by evening proved to be just as drab as during the day time, but there did seem a good range of restaurants from which to select. The place we chose was called the Olive Branch. Like most places in Kaikoura, it offered the local delicacy of Crayfish that I gamely ordered. Surprisingly, I found that it tasted quite different to lobster (or so I remember, having only had lobster once and not for several years) which looks very similar. I was feeling rather civilised to have indulged in a spa and to be eating crayfish at a rather posh restaurant. We then added to this fallacy by quaffing some of the local Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc alongside our meals. We even indulged in a couple of their rich desserts. We sat and reflected and reminisced over the events of the past fortnight. Disembarking at Picton seemed so long ago, but we were soon to be back there and returning to Wellington.

After a while, we chose to slowly slope back to the holiday park, stopping only to pick up a pint of milk from the local 24 hour Night and Day store. A coffee/tea back at the camper was nursed slowly before getting ready for the last night in our camper. Freight trains plying the nearby railway chugged noisily past the holiday park whilst we prepared for bed, but we managed to sleep undisturbed.

The camper van and Jenny. Not the best of photos due to the horrible beige piece of crap in the background.

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