By: Christopher Cookson
In the old days, an unpretentious brown sign announced “Welcome to Marlborough”, just north of the Conway River. Back then, petrol was full of lead and cost less than a dollar a litre, which was good price-wise if not health-wise, because you'd need at least a full tank just to get from Blenheim to Christchuch. Kaikōura had not yet become renowned for whale voyeurism, nor had cafe or wine culture been discovered. Back then, I remember many a school holidays stopping for an ice-cream or other snack at the Caves Tearooms. Some people might argue I shouldn't be writing about Kaikōura on a site about Marlborough, but that 'Welcome to Marlborough' sign at the Conway River is burnt into my childhood memories, so that's good enough for me, and also perhaps one of the reasons Kaikōura isn't part of the Malborough District, might be that some of us northerners didn't pay enough attention to the southern part of our region. Geology works a bit differently to bureaucrats and parochial locals, and as the Kaikōura earthquake indicated, we're connected, whether we like it or not.
Many of the icons of my childhood along State Highway One are long gone; with improving vehicle efficiencies and re-routing of sections of the road, service stations have closed, most railway stations are long gone in the era of individual car ownership, and cafes and tearooms have come and gone or changed ownership and names. Even icons like Nins Bin, though still there, are overshadowed by road construction machinery for now.
The Caves Tearooms is a survivor, like the limestone built from marine fossils that gives rise to the eponymous caves, it is almost a living fossil, surviving from before cafe culture was a thing, and Kaikōura was a sleepy fishing village. Located about two kilometres south of the town, along a long straight before you hit the mountain hugging curves of the south Kaikōura coast, the Caves has long been a haven for hungry travellers, and it seems some things haven't changed much.
It's been years since I've stopped in at the Caves, as I've been caught up in taking advantage of the multitude of eateries that Kaikōura now offers, so I rely mostly on childhood memories of the concrete tower, with all the appearance of a medieval castle adorned in a giant Coca-cola sign a few hundred metres to the south announcing the Caves, the path to a doorway in the limestone hillside that looks very much like a hobbit hole, which is presumably the entrance to the caves themselves, although I've never ventured in as my parents always thought it was expensive, or it was the wrong time for cave tours when we were passing. I don't do bucket lists, but sometime I really do hope to experience what must be some of the most accessible limestone caves in the South Island. Memories of ice-cream tend to persist though, as they are a critical part of any young traveller's experience.
Today, on the last day of the school holidays, I'm travelling with my own young daughter, and she's insisted since Amberley that she wants an ice-cream, no matter that it's a miserable autumn day. We try to placate her at Cheviot with a muffin, but to no avail, and after negotiating the flood and earthquake stricken highway north of the Conway River, perhaps for once the absence of that old “Welcome to Marlborough” sign being a good thing, we reach first the concrete tower proclaiming the Caves tearooms, then the tearooms themselves, open for the first time I've seen in a while, with cheery ice cream signs out inviting travellers in from the grey dismal day, right in time for lunch.
The place has undergone quite a refurbishment since I remember, now being in a fashionable but dull black on the outside, contrasting with a bright and airy white inside, whereas if my probably lead-damaged childhood memories serve, it was some kind of pink colour, with gaudy 70s interior decor.
Ice cream is definitely on one person's menu, but we adults want something more substantial, and perhaps a little warmer. My wife is feeling like a good roast to supplement our Sunday drive, and the lamburger on the promotions of the day catches my eye. I'm generally not a huge fan of fast food, but as a good kiwi, I'm sure that a 'proper' hamburger should be done with our national meat, so I'm prepared to give it a go.
As we wait for our food, I look around, and notice that the establishment seems to be as popular with hungry travellers as I can remember, with plenty of truckies, in their brilliant fluoro vests dropping in for a feed. A few of them seem to be built like their trucks – big, and when my burger arrives, I wonder if I might be joining their ranks. This is no budget burger, and size wise it's probably equivalent to a double quarter pounder from that famous American brand. It's definitely real lamb, with the slightly sweet taste advantage that lamb has over beef, complimented as it should be with mint sauce, and a helping of chips that would almost count as a family meal in some places.
My wife is happy with her Sunday roast, while our daughter feeds herself on chips drowned in tomato sauce while she waits for us to finish so that we can purchase the much anticipated ice cream.
When she's finally given the option of choosing an ice cream, after perusing the vast assortment of flavours and styles, she settles on an L&P ice-block.
As we hit the road again in the family station wagon, I consider our day so far, and in spite of the vast changes in my lifetime, from the administrative separation of Kaikōura from Marlborough, to the development of local tourism centred around whale watching , to the dramatic changes along the Kaikōura coast wrought by the earthquake, for me what is so special is not so much what has changed, but that with my family, I can enjoy a day that's just about the stereotypical image of what it is to be kiwi. With all the worries about earthquake damage, climate change, house prices, and so much more, it's nice for a few hours at least, to enjoy stereotypical New Zealand traditions as reality, and not just a dream.