Alison Ballance’s best seat has some stellar views

Alison with friend on Matiu Somes Island in Wellington Harbour.

Natural history ace and active relaxer Alison Ballance’s favourite seat is a non-stationary affair.

Words: Claire Finlayson

When precious leisure moments present themselves, Alison Ballance shuns cosy indoor chairs and makes haste to the padded seat of her trusty yellow sea kayak. So, it’s no surprise that the zoologist, writer of natural history books and former producer/presenter of Radio NZ’s science and environment programme, Our Changing World, prefers her sitting to be kinetic and nature-facing.


Alison purchased her rubber-ducky-yellow Penguin kayak 20 years ago. At the time, she was working as a producer and director of wildlife documentaries at Natural History New Zealand and living close to the fauna-rich end of the Otago Peninsula. Having been a serial kayak borrower for a while, she’d already attained the necessary ocean-goer’s swagger: she’d clip a pair of wheels onto the back of her five-metre-long pet Penguin and walk it along the peninsula’s main road to a good launching spot.

For edgier kayaking sessions, she drove to Weller’s Rock near the wilder end of the peninsula at Taiaroa Head. “I’d kayak out in the ocean, sit in the big swells and look back at the cliffs with the albatrosses flying above me. That was terrific — until the sea lions started getting a little bolshy. They tended to arrive in a rush without announcing themselves, so it was always a little startling.”

Does she meet this sort of sea lion belligerence with supreme natural-history-filmmaker nonchalance? “I try to. I remember going out to Taiaroa with my brother, and we got chased into shore by a sea lion. It sat between our two kayaks and wouldn’t let us return to get our gear out. I told my brother that we’d have to sit there and enjoy the sea lion’s company until he got bored — which he did after about 15 minutes.”

The Wairoa River, which runs into Westhaven Inlet, at the northwestern tip of Te Wai Pounamu.


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These days, Alison’s floating excursions are more refined affairs. She’s partial to a cuppa while she’s kayaking. Not just plain old gumboot brew either: the Ballance aquatic tea ceremony involves high-quality jasmine green tea, if you please. “If I’m going the whole hog, I might take a piece of baking out with me as well. It gives me an excuse to stop paddling, have a little break, look at the world, drink my tea and maybe eat my biscuit.”

Getting herself and her hot green tea into the kayak does require some gymnastic verve, and there has been spillage. “There’s a bit of an art to launching a narrow boat and getting into it while holding a cup of tea. I tried putting the keep cup in the holder and then climbing in around it, but that’s a bit dicey, and I’ve knocked over a few cups of tea doing that. If there are waves around, I don’t attempt to take my cup of tea with me — it requires a calm launch.”


This Penguin isn’t just a floating one-person café, though. It’s also a perfect disguise, allowing Alison to do one of her favourite things: birdwatching (she’s written books on kākapo and takahē — one, Takahē: Bird of Dreams, was published just this year — so she has high needs on this front). She now lives in Nelson with her partner Malcolm, and the Waimea Estuary fills her birding cup. At high tide, the wading and shore birds kindly arrange themselves on little islands for her viewing pleasure.

“Birds and animals aren’t afraid of me in the kayak as I don’t have legs. I can cruise gently alongside hundreds and sometimes thousands of roosting godwits or oystercatchers and a few spoonbills and terns. They’re all remarkably unconcerned about me because I don’t look like a person. I don’t think they know what I am. When I lived in Wellington, little penguins/kororā would cruise along with me in the harbour for a while and then duck away and do their thing.”

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This legless business has other benefits, too. “I love the down-low view of the world you get from a kayak. It gives you a different perspective. I tend to choose calmer days, so it’s very meditative and mindful paddling along and maybe drifting for a while or pulling the boat up to take a swim.”

Does she get a bit of a kayak itch on if she hasn’t been out for a while? “Yes. Malcolm and I are forever looking out the window and saying, ‘Look, it’s a kayak day!’”

Alison paid $2000 for her kayak — a sum that, at the time, made her wince. But given its two decades of service as a bird-spotting perch, an endorphin-nudger and a morning tea venue, she feels it’s more than earned its keep.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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