Kaikoura is becoming the place to visit in New Zealand for marine wildlife encounters. The town is situated at the base of the Kaikoura Peninsula, with its scalloped limestone coastline providing breeding grounds for the New Zealand fur seal as well as sea birds, while the rich waters of the Hikurangi Trench just offshore draw the larger predators.
A million tourists visit the town of just a few thousand residents every year to swim with the dolphins, or encounter sharks, whales, seals, and seabirds. The undersea Kaikoura Canyon just off the coast is even home to the elusive giant squid.
Inland from the peninsula an alluvial plain just a few kilometres across reaches down from the steep slopes of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Nearest is Mount Fyffe, a long crescent that stands in front of the main ridge of the Kaikouras, obscuring the higher peaks.
Short walks explore the peninsula as well as the slopes of Mount Fyffe. There is an interesting symmetry here. You can stand on the beach or the peninsula in the morning with an excellent view of Mount Fyffe. By afternoon, you can be standing on Mount Fyffe, which affords you the reverse view of the peninsula.
Longer walks in the area include the Kowhai-Hapuku Circuit, a 2-3 day route that follows two river valleys behind Mount Fyffe, or the easier, private Kaikoura Coast Track further south.
On foot, it is less than an hour’s walk from Kaikoura to the Peninsula Walkway. The Mount Fyffe tracks are too far to walk to, although a shuttle bus currently provides transport.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway: 1½-3½ hours, easy
This track forms a figure-eight loop along the cliff tops and shoreline at the end of the peninsula, so you can walk one long loop or either of two shorter loops. The shoreline section is only accessible between half and low tide — check at the Information Centre for tide times. The track provides access to an important breeding area for New Zealand fur seals, and is consequently becoming very popular. Please don’t disturb them as they must cope with a constant stream of visitors, and they are potentially dangerous.
The northern end of the track begins at the Point Kean car park at the eastern tip of the peninsula. Road access from Kaikoura is by following the coastline along the Esplanade. The road becomes Avoca Street and then Fyffe Quay as it passes the historic Fyffe House and an abandoned whaling station. Single male seals use the flat land around the car park area as a winter haulout. At low tide, a large and fascinating tidal flat appears beyond the car park.
The cliff top walk climbs above the car park and crosses farmland on top of the peninsula, with views down to the jagged coastline, and inland to the Kaikouras. At Whalers Bay, a track descends the cliff to allow you to return to Point Kean along the shoreline. Walking time for this loop is about 1½ hours, but allow time to explore the rock pools, platforms, cliffs, and wildlife.
From Whalers Bay, the cliff top track cuts inland to South Bay (½ hour), returning along a dramatic section of coastline, past the rock stacks and sea caves of Atia Point (1½ hours). The loop from Point Kean takes 1½ hours walking, while the loop from South Bay takes 2 hours. Allow 3½ hours walking time for the entire track from Point Kean to South Bay and return.
By road, South Bay is accessed by driving south out of Kaikoura and turning left onto South Bay Parade at the foot of the hill where the road meets the coastline. Follow the Parade to a picnic area and car park. On foot, a 45 minute track crosses the peninsula from Torquay Street in Kaikoura to South Bay Parade, providing a quicker and safer alternative than the highway.
Maori Leap Cave: 45 minutes, easy
This sea cave discovered at a limestone quarry in 1958 is located near the Caves Restaurant (despite the name there’s only one cave) just south of Kaikoura. The entrance is locked, but guided tours run hourly during the day. If you manage to avoid a crowd, the tour is very good value. Inside the cave are stalactites, stalagmites, straws, flowstone and cave coral, collectively known as speleothems, from Greek: “spelaion” (cave) + “thema” (deposit). Also interesting are the dark bands of flint (also known as chert) that have formed in the limestone beds. While the limestone beds are formed from the lime (calcium carbonate) of shelled animals, flint is formed as silicaceous creatures such as tiny diatoms and radiolarians are trapped in the sediment. The silica dissolves and reforms as nodules and layers of flint. These hard flints weather out of the limestone, and are found as dark, slightly translucent pebbles on the local beaches.
Fyffe-Palmer Track: 1½ hours, easy
The Fyffe-Palmer Track is a pleasant bush walk on the slopes of Mount Fyffe. The track is easy to find. The car park is located at the very end of Mount Fyffe Road beneath Mount Fyffe. Take SH1 north out of Kaikoura and turn left at Mill, Schoolhouse, or Postmans Road. At the next intersection turn right and you’ll be on Mount Fyffe Road. Follow it to the car park.
From the car park, the track enters a section of revegetation plantings before sidling along the edge of bush rich in tree ferns and the red-barked kotukutuku (tree fuchsia). Nearby, the track branches. Take the right branch up to a grassy picnic area, with a limited view back to the peninsula. Looking across the small valley several impressive podocarps are visible poking through the forest canopy.
Beyond here, the track crosses a creek and enters the tall forest of podocarps (matai, totara and rimu) visible from the picnic area. The track drops easily through this forest back to the junction near the bottom.
Mt Fyffe: 7 hours, medium
A 4WD track (usually closed to vehicles) climbs all the way to the summit of Mount Fyffe (1602 metres), making for a wide smooth track of a consistent grade. The trudge up the mountain rewards with excellent views to the southeast of the Kaikoura plains and peninsula, and to the northwest of the Seaward Kaikouras and the deep void to the Kowhai River below. A hut is located two thirds of the way up, so you can break the uphill climb into two sections. The hut is well located, with panoramic views of mountains and sea, but is popular, so consider carrying a tent in summer.
Walking times are 4 hours to the summit (2½ hours to Mount Fyffe Hut and 1½ hours the remainder of the journey) and around 3 hours back down to the car park. In winter there may be snow on the track from around the level of the hut.
From SH1 north of Kaikoura, turn left onto Postmans Road and follow it westward toward the Kowhai River. Follow the signs along a narrow shingle road to the car park at the western foot of Mount Fyffe.
From here, the 4WD track maintains a persistent grade, zigzagging up a spur onto the ridge of the mountain. The track is open to the sun, with only low forest at either side. Much of the walk is simply a matter of covering ground, or rather, gaining altitude, and there are encouraging altitude markers (and seats!) placed at regular intervals.
The cute Mount Fyffe Hut is located at 1103m. This is a small but modern hut with a toilet, water supply and wood burner. Behind the hut, you can pick out the peaks of the Kaikouras. The sharp point of Snowflake (1870m) is to the left, while the long Snowflake Spur is directly opposite, rising alongside a tributary of the Kowhai River far below. To the right is the flattish top of Mount Saunders (2146m), and far to the right the high peak of Manakau (2608m).
Beyond here, the track climbs through low pine and birch forest, apparently planted by DOC to aid land stability. The trees are an ugly blot on the landscape, and spoil much of the walk to the summit.
At the summit another seat faces the void to the southeast, with the whale-tail peninsula in the distance. To the northwest, it is 2km across and 1140m down to the Kowhai Hut on the valley floor. There are also good views along the coast as far as the North Island and Banks Peninsula.
Hinau Track: 45 minutes, easy
Starting from the Mount Fyffe Track car park, the Hinau Track is a short loop through a forest featuring hinau trees. Hinau trees are identified by their long thin leaves, small white flowers, and purple fruit or drupes. The track also provides views of the Kowhai River, which changed course in 1993, flooding directly through central Kaikoura.
Tony R I recently walked around the Hinau Track. The visitor's centre brouchure and DOC sign says 45 minutes. However, it took us 17 minutes and other people coming off the track, who were clearly not tramping types, were complaining that it took them only 20 minutes.
4 December 2004