Natural order

Louise Southerden swims with dolphins, snorkels with seals and watches whales in eco-friendly Kaikoura.

New Zealand is the kind of place that could turn anyone into an environmentalist. Despite its small population and minimal impact on global climate change (just 0.2 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide), this is a country committed to preserving its natural assets. So it makes sense that it's also where you'd find a place such as Kaikoura, a little town with big, environmentally responsible ideas.

On the east coast of the South Island, it was the first community in New Zealand, and only the second in the world, to be Green Globe benchmarked. In 2007, it became New Zealand's first plastic-bag-free district and the first community to introduce LoveNZ public recycling bins for glass, cans, paper, plastic and even food.

Kaikoura was eco-conscious before it became fashionable. In 1997, its council was the first in the country to employ an environment officer. In 1998, it became the second Zero Waste district in New Zealand, aiming for zero waste to landfill by 2015. So there's no kerbside rubbish collection in the town but there is a free weekly recycling pick-up, which includes kitchen scraps composted using council-supplied Bokashi buckets and a recycling depot that even processes electrical goods and wood.

There are biodiversity schemes, such as rates relief for landowners who have protected areas on their properties, and conservation projects. At the annual Trash-to-Fashion show locals transform everything from fishing buoys to toothbrushes into garments, which are displayed at the new Revamped museum in the main street.

And in March this year, during Earth Hour weekend, there was the inaugural Biodiversity Bonanza, showing projects as diverse as a Hutton's shearwater relocation scheme (which is establishing a new breeding colony for the endangered seabirds) and the Warm Up Kaikoura project (which insulates houses that were once holiday shacks).

What set Kaikoura on this eco-path in the first place, however, was its unique location. Not only is it flanked by the rugged Seaward Kaikoura mountain range but there is a deep underwater canyon less than one kilometre offshore, where plankton-rich water attracts marine creatures great and small from tiny krill to blue whales.

Even if you arrive knowing nothing about Kaikoura, it won't take long to figure out that the town's chief drawcard is its marine life. Down the main street you'll find the Albatross Backpackers, The Whaler hotel, Sealside Gallery or The Lazy Shag (another backpacker lodge). There are murals of people swimming with dolphins and signs on speed bumps saying "Slow Down, Sperm Whale". You might come face to whiskers with a basking New Zealand fur seal on the beach and in winter, it's not uncommon to spot sperm whales from the shore.

In fact, if you love the sea you'll love Kaikoura. Unfortunately, the sea isn't loving us back the day we arrive: a cold front arrives at the same time, postponing the marine activities we'd planned. That's part of being in a wild place, of course, and it is refreshing to let nature be the boss for a change. Besides, it gives us an excuse to settle into our accommodation.

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Could there be a more appropriate place to stay in an eco-town such as Kaikoura than in a designer treehouse? Everything about Hapuku Lodge & Treehouses sits well with Kaikoura's eco-reputation: from the 90-year-old kanuka trees surrounding each cedar treehouse (named after native birds such as kereru, tui and korimako) and the rainwater that gushes from open-ended downpipes onto mini-rainforests below, to its organic vegetable garden, the mountain bikes for guests to borrow and the fact that groundsman Ron Daley has personally overseen the planting of 11,500 native trees to offset guests' travel miles and encourage bird life.

Kaikoura, by the way, means "to eat crayfish" in the indigenous Ngai Tahu dialect. So, as part of our mission to "eat local" (and organic) on this trip, my partner and I set off to taste-test one of the town's classic crayfish experiences.

A few kilometres north of Hapuku along the coast road past Mangamaunu Bay, one of the South Island's best surf spots there are two roadside caravans: Cay's Crays and Nin's Bin, which we pick because it's the original, having sold freshly caught crayfish to travellers since 1977.

Opening a chilly bin (Kiwi for Esky), the woman behind the laminex counter tells us she sells up to 180 crays a day at Christmas (for up to $100 each). We choose a medium-size, pre-cooked one for $39, which she slices from head to tail and wraps in butcher's paper.

Then we take our cray and some fresh, crusty bread back to our treehouse, wrap ourselves in soft possum-merino blankets (possums are pests in NZ) and indulge in a deliciously cosy indoor picnic in front of our fuel-efficient fireplace, gazing out on grazing deer and the newly snow-dusted mountains.

The next day, still waiting for the sea to calm down, we sample one of Kaikoura's terrestrial trips: llama trekking. If you've travelled in South America you're probably familiar with the concept: llamas carry your supplies for treks of up to three days, in purpose-built pack-saddles, so you carry little more than a daypack. Our two-hour introductory walk is surprisingly relaxing; it is like walking two very large, very shaggy dogs. "One of the great things about llama trekking is that it's slow and casual so you enter the llama's world," says our guide, Kevin Cole, who moved to Kaikoura from Britain with his partner, Lynn Barrett, a year ago.

Not surprisingly, even llama trekking has an eco-angle in Kaikoura. The "dolphins of the land", as Cole calls them, are more eco-friendly than horses because their feet have soft pads that are gentler on the landscape than hooves, they can use narrow tracks with minimal disturbance to vegetation and the rumen in their stomach prevents viable seeds that might introduce foreign plant species from being excreted.

Lovable as llamas are, I am glad when the seas ease the following day and we finally get to swim with actual dolphins. I'd seen dolphins in the wild before, even surfed with them plenty of times along Australia's coast, but nothing prepared me for being in the water with 300 dusky dolphins swimming, somersaulting and speeding around me. There's nowhere else in the world you can swim with so many: there are 1000 dolphins in some pods. Dusky dolphins are also the most interactive, acrobatic and social of all dolphin species.

As Dolphin Encounter marketing manager Jo Thompson puts it: "They're the big tarts of the dolphin world."

But you have to earn their company by singing or laughing into your snorkel, diving underwater, swimming in circles. And the more you play, the longer they stay. It's surreal and exhilarating to swim in the open ocean surrounded by splashes and outnumbered by dorsal fins but I have to ask, after we haul ourselves out of the water and onto the boat's rear deck for the last time: what about sharks? Our guide has a ready answer: in 20 years of running dolphin swims, she assures me, no sharks have ever been sighted.

There are marine activities that don't involve getting wet, too: like albatross-spotting. Of the 14 species on the Kaikoura coast, we manage to see five, including the legendary wandering albatross, on our early morning Albatross Encounter. The sun is shining again, making the sea glitter as we motor away from port and as we near the edge of the Kaikoura Canyon, an airborne escort of albatross and petrels forms behind us.

It is the first time I have seen albatross in the wild and one of the unexpected highlights of our trip is simply watching these enormous birds, some with wingspans over three metres, skimming the crests of waves then putting down their landing gear great webbed feet as large as saucers and skidding to a halt beside us.

Back in our wetsuits the next day, we go swimming with fur seals. It is completely different to swimming with dolphins, partly because you stay close to shore, in shallow water, and partly because the seals don't need to be entertained in fact, they come to you.

As soon as our inflatable boat anchors near a rocky outcrop populated by sunbathing seals and nesting gannets, we slide over the side and spend a peaceful hour floating amidst ribbons of kelp, watching three-month-old pups playing on the rock barely a metre from our snorkels and hanging out with adult seals that torpedo into the water beside us then swivel every which way to make underwater eyes at us.

Seal-swimming tours were a first for New Zealand when they began in Kaikoura in 1987 but it is the whale-watching operation that really put this place on the tourism map.

Our Whale Watch tour, on our last day, begins at dawn with a Maori welcome. The guides usher us aboard boats called Paikea, from the Whale Rider story, and Aoraki. And when, after half an hour, we spot the first of four sperm whales we are to see that day, our captain recognises it at once as a resident male with a Maori name, Tutu.

There's no separating Whale Watch from its Maori origins. It was, after all, set up in 1987 to create employment for Kaikoura's Kati Kuri people, a Maori sub-tribe of the South Island's larger Ngai Tahu , who lost their jobs when New Zealand's railways were privatised. "We'd been living here for centuries," says Whale Watch's chief operating officer Kauahi Ngapora. "So our founding family members knew there were whales and vast marine life off this coast, because they'd been fishing out there all their lives and they thought: 'Man, you know, maybe people might pay to come and see the whales."'

But these aren't just any whales. This is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales come close to land, because the edge of the continental shelf, where they like to hang out, is just a few kilometres offshore. There's also plenty of giant squid for them to feed on in the Kaikoura Canyon, so they can be seen year-round (the best time is June-July).

The waters off Kaikoura are also frequented by migrating humpback whales, pilot whales, southern right whales, blue whales, even orcas.

Now a multiple award-winning ecotourism company, Whale Watch still sees itself as the whales' kaitiaki, or guardian. All the vessels are purpose-built for marine mammal watching, each trip ends with a conservation message and the company sponsors research on whales, seals and dolphins. Most importantly, the whales seem content, particularly the 20 or 30 that have been around since the early days.

Whale-watching may have started the ball rolling more than 20 years ago but Kaikoura's community has run with it, quietly evolving into one of the world's most authentic eco-destinations.

But the real beauty of Kaikoura, perhaps, is that it's not eco-evangelical. But if you happen to stumble on this little seaside town without knowing that it wears its green heart on its sleeve, chances are its treehouses, deep ocean canyon, committed citizens, snow-capped mountains and, above all, its wild marine creatures, may just convert you.

Take the green way

There are two eco-certification schemes, with matching logos, that travellers can use to find eco-friendly tourism operators and places to stay in New Zealand: Green Globe and Qualmark.

Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura is Green Globe certified, for example, whereas Whale Watch has Qualmark Enviro-Gold status.

Some operators have both.

Green Globe, also called Green Globe 21, is an international benchmarking and certification program developed for the travel industry in 1992.

It was the first accreditation system to take root in New Zealand and, in 2004, Kaikoura became the first community in the country - and only the second in the world - to be Green Globe benchmarked. See greenglobenz.com.

Qualmark is a quality assurance agency run by Tourism New Zealand, in partnership with New Zealand Automobile Association, to help travellers find quality places to stay, things to do and ways to get around in New Zealand.

Environmental content has been part of the assessment criteria since 2002. See responsibletourism.co.nz.

Sustainability by air

On December 30, 2008, Air New Zealand, in partnership with Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell, conducted the world's first commercial test flight powered by a sustainably farmed biofuel, made from jatropha seeds.

Other environmental initiatives taken by Air New Zealand recently include: plans to take 10 per cent of its fuel from environmentally sustainable sources by 2013; joining the Algal Biomass Organisation (to research algae-based biofuels); and the establishment of a carbon offset scheme and the Air New Zealand Environment Trust to fund conservation projects in New Zealand. Passengers can donate to the Environment Trust and offset flights online.

See airnewzealand.co.nz/environment.

Offsetting your travel

Trees For Travellers plants native trees in and around Kaikoura to help reforest the area and offset travellers' (and residents') carbon emissions from $NZ20 ($15.65) a tree. You'll be emailed GPS co-ordinates and told what type of tree was planted so you can return to visit it any time. See treesfortravellers.co.nz or offset your return flights to New Zealand with Australian company Climate Friendly (for $36.14), see climatefriendly.com.

CarboNZero has an online calculator to work out emissions not just for flights but for travel miles (by air, car, train, bus, etc), accommodation, restaurant meals and activities.

Offsetting four days in Kaikoura cost us $NZ67.50 and you can choose where your payment goes: wind farms, landfill gas projects or native forest regeneration. See carbonzero.co.nz.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Hapuku Lodge & Treehouses and Air New Zealand.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Kaikoura is on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, 184kilometres north of Christchurch. AirNZ charges $163 from Melbourne and $157 from Sydney while Qantas charges $168 from Sydney. Jetstar charges $138 from Melbourne. Fares are one way not including tax. Reduce your carbon emissions by taking the scenic TranzCoastal train from Christchurch. It takes three hours, departs Christchurch at 7am daily and costs $NZ63 ($49) one way. See tranzscenic.co.nz. There is a local shuttle bus in Kaikoura and bikes and scooters for hire. Most tourism operators and services are within easy walking distance so there's no need for a hire car.

Staying there

Hapuku Lodge & Treehouses (right), 12 kilometres north of Kaikoura, has five luxury architect-designed treehouses, each made of responsibly sourced timber and equipped with energy-efficient fireplaces, from $NZ440 a night (lodge rooms from $NZ360 a night). See hapukulodge.com. The eco-friendly YHA Kaikoura has million-dollar views across the bay to the Kaikoura's mountains. Double rooms from $NZ68 a night. See yha.org.nz.

Dining there

Fresh crays cost $39-$100 depending on size from Nin's Bin or Cay's Cray caravans. Kaikoura Seafood BBQ serves cooked crays and other seafood (mussels, whitebait, oysters, scallops, paua patties) at outdoor tables halfway between the old wharf and the seal colony ($42 for crayfish, salad and chips).

Green things to do Whalewatch (whalewatch.co.nz), walking (kaikourawilderness.co.nz), llama trekking (llamatrekking.co.nz), seabird-watching (encounterkaikoura.co.nz), swimming with dolphins (dolphin.co.nz), seal swims (sealswimkaikoura.co.nz) and kayaking (kaikourakayaks.co.nz).

More information

See kaikoura.co.nz.

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