A Guide to Backpacking in Kaikoura
The adventure in Kaikoura extends from the inland and Seaward Kaikoura Ranges all the way out into the Pacific Ocean. One day, you could be hiking on top of the beautiful Mt Fyffe, overlooking the town and the peninsula. The next day, you could be out at sea swimming with dusky dolphins in their natural habitat. Kaikoura really is one of those unique places!
The marine life has been a huge attraction for Kaikoura since the first human discovery by the Maori between 800 and 1,000 years ago. European whalers settled here between 1842 and 1922. Today, people come here to appreciate whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds living it up thanks to the nutrients provided by the Kaikoura Canyon deep underwater. Learn more about planning a trip of a lifetime to this seaside town in this guide to backpacking Kaikoura.
Before we dive in, be sure to bookmark The Travel Guide to Kaikoura on a Budget too.
Things You Can’t Miss in Kaikoura
- Watch the impressive sperm whales emerge from the ocean with Whale Watch Kaikoura, Wings Over Whales or Air Kaikoura
- See seals for free on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
- Swim with dusky dolphins through Dolphin Encounter
- Kayak alongside seals and dolphins with Seal Kayak Kaikoura or Kaikoura Kayaks
- Spend an obscene amount of money on crayfish at seafood spots like Nin’s Bin, Karaka Lobster and Kaikoura Seafood BBQ
- Get on some South Island surf at Mangamaunu Beach
- Hike to the summit of Mt Fyffe for the best views in Kaikoura!
For more experiences worth trying, check out the 20 Best Things to Do in Kaikoura.
Wildlife Experiences in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is renowned for its abundance of sealife so close to shore, but why does Kaikoura attract so much wildlife? Well, it starts just 500 m (547 yards) off the coast of Kaikoura at the Kaikoura Canyon.
This continental shelf holds a deepwater habitat that plunges to more than 2 km (1.2 mi). The muddy and murky depths hold creatures like bristle worms, heart urchins, spoon worms and sea cucumbers a great feast for fish. All these nutrients are brought to the water’s surface with the cold currents off the South Island and combine with warmer currents from the North. In turn, this attracts all the marine life we are so eager to see, such as whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds. Amazing!
All year round you can see the world’s largest toothed whales: giant sperm whales! You can either have a close encounter by taking a boat tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura (more info on Viator and Klook) or see the whole body of the whales from the sky by plane with Wings Over Whales (on Viator and Klook) or Air Kaikoura. The latter is surprisingly good value for money, so don’t rule it out of your backpacker budget. Either way, the sperm whales rarely let viewers down, as they are around all day, every day. Make sure to book your whale watching tour early, especially in summer.
The sperm whale is just the highlight of these whale watching tours, as what else you encounter can change from time to time. Between December and March, you are more likely to see orcas. You are also likely to see pilot whales, seal colonies, pods of dolphins, and a variety of seabirds like the huge royal albatross.
Watching wildlife is great and all, but actually going into their natural habitat and pretty much acting like a dolphin is something else!
The most common dolphin in Kaikoura is the small dusky dolphin, which is often intrigued by humans as much as we are intrigued by them. Expect them to dive under you as you squeal like a dolphin to get their attention really, this is what the tour guides advise you to do. They may even do some acrobatics for you. Tours are available with Dolphin Encounter.
Try your chances at a super-close wildlife encounter, while enjoying the interesting coastal scenery, with one of Kaikoura’s kayaking tours. Choose to either peddle or paddle with Seal Kayak Kaikoura or jump into a sea kayak with Kaikoura Kayaks (more info on Viator and Klook). Either way, you’ll enjoy an easy-going paddling tour as one of the cheaper wildlife tours in Kaikoura. There’s a high likelihood of encountering seals, penguins and maybe even dolphins.
Check out the highlights in the 5 Top Wildlife Activities in Kaikoura, or simply continue scrolling!
Kaikoura Seal Colony Locations
The best things in life are free and there are several locations to watch the seals either sunbathing or the seal pups playing in the summer months… for free! Although you can get really close to the seals, it is advised to keep 20 m (65 ft) away from them.
Point Kean Car Park
At the end of Fyffe Quay along the Kaikoura Peninsula, you’ll reach the Point Kean car park where you’ll notice the seal colony almost instantly. They may even be in the car park waiting for you! This is one of the best places to see seals in Kaikoura for free so close to town.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
Along State Highway 1 some 30 minutes north of Kaikoura is a safe stopping area and lookout with a very close view of a lively seal colony at Ohau Point. Pin it on the GPS on your way in or out of Kaikoura!
Hikurangi Marine Reserve
Finally, around 10 km (6 mi) south of Kaikoura is the Hikurangi Marine Reserve near Goose Bay. Another safe parking area alongside State Highway 1 gives you access to the coast where several seals can usually be spotted.
Ohau Stream [CLOSED]
Note that the once-famous Ohau Stream seal colony is no longer available due to the 2016 earthquake in the area.
Crayfish and Seafood in Kaikoura
People have been “cray cray” for crayfish for hundreds of years, as the name Kaikoura actually means “meal of crayfish” in Maori. You can’t miss the huge crayfish sculptures attached to Karaka Lobster before reaching Kaikoura or The Lobster Inn as you drive through town. Although crayfish remains dominant on the Kaikoura menus, it is a bit pricey. You have to “shell” out about NZ$30-$50 for half a crayfish or “fish” out around NZ$100 for a full one! Not great for the backpacker budget, but if you are a diehard seafood fan, then it’s probably worth it.
Where to Try Seafood and Crayfish in Kaikoura
Be sure to try fresh crayfish at Karaka Lobster (State Highway 1) or Nin’s Bin (State Highway 1), both located 30-35 minutes north of Kaikoura. Otherwise, dine at the casual Kaikoura Seafood BBQ (55 Fyffe Quay), which also serves mouthwatering crayfish meals.
As seafood is king in Kaikoura, get your fix of Kiwi fish and chips, kumara chips or paua fritters at the likes of Cods & Crayfish (81 Beach Road) or Coopers Catch (9 West End). Continental Seafoods (47 Beach Road) is also affordable but the excessive use of plastic packaging is a bit of a downer unless you dine in.
Surfing in Kaikoura
Like most places in New Zealand: if there’s surf, there are surf lessons and hire to accommodate your needs. Due to the Hikurangi Trench, there are swells coming straight out of deep water, which can create big powerful hollow waves. This is more consistent in the winter than summer, but you’ll need a full wetsuit all year round in these chilly southern waters.
There are two main surf spots in Kaikoura: Kahutara and Mangamaunu. If you need some lessons, there’s a surf school teaching both surfing and stand-up paddleboarding located at Hapuku, Kiwi Surf Experience.
Find out more about surfing in the area in the 10 Best Places to Surf in the South Island.
Hiking in Kaikoura
With so much happening in the water, it can be pretty easy to forget about the offerings on land! Kaikoura is sandwiched between two excellent hiking locations, the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Ranges and the Kaikoura Peninsula. Here are the three top walks and hikes in the area to satisfy the backpacker within.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
Walk around the perimeter of the Kaikoura Peninsula, stopping at various vantage points for seal, red-billed seagull and shearwater bird colonies. The 3-hour loop Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway starts and ends at the Point Kean car park.
Get the best views in Kaikoura on a clear day from the top of the 1,602 m (5,256 ft) high Mt Fyffe. The start of the track is 15 km (9.3 mi) from town via Ludstone, Swamp and Postmans Roads. The hike is 8 hours return to the summit or 5 hours return to the hut, which also has good views. Mountain bikers can also take their bike up there but need to be experienced to handle the ascent and descent.
This walk is named after the stands of hinau trees featured along the trail. The Hinau Track is a stunning bush walk with varied vegetation: mahoe, putaputaweta, broadleaf, fuschia, pigeonwood and kanuka can all be seen here. This walk starts from the Mt Fyffe car park.
Find out more about these walks and more in the 5 Best Walks in Kaikoura.
If You Have More Time in Kaikoura…
- Go on a half-day scuba diving tour to find more marine life and rocky formations with Dave’s Diving Kaikoura
- See the world’s largest seabirds with Albatross Encounter
- During the winter season, take a trip to Mt Lyford Ski Field, just an hour drive away from Kaikoura
- See a piece of Kaikoura history at Fyffe House, the only surviving building from the town’s whaling era
- Visit the Puhi Puhi Scenic Reserve 17 km (11 mi) north of Kaikoura to find walking tracks and native birdlife
- Stroll around the Garden of Memories in town to see whalebone arches…
… See more things to do in the 20 Best Things to Do in Kaikoura.
More About Backpacking Kaikoura
That’s it for our guide to backpacking Kaikoura, but not the end of our Kaikoura advice! Check out these other guides that might not necessarily fall under the “backpacker” category, but are still pretty useful:
- 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Kaikoura
- 20 Best Things to Do in Kaikoura
- The Complete Travel Guide to Kaikoura
Finally, plan the rest of your travels around the South Island in the South Island Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: Two Weeks.