Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Morning

Sunday morning, or rather afternoon, we woke up at 1. We had leftover gibanica for breakfast, and the four of us left around 3 or 4 to go caving at a place called Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, about an hour outside of Christchurch. The area around the cave was up in the hills West of town, and there seemed to be few other people around. The weather all day had been cloudy with occasional rain, so we were concerned about the water level in the cave rising quickly. The stream was relatively low, though, so Buda, Ljuba, and I donned our headlamps and slogged into the waist-deep water flowing from the mouth of the cave.

Buda struck on ahead, but Ljuba and I took our time picking our way over the rocks strewn across the floor of the tunnel. The average height of the cave ranged from around 8 to 30 feet, and the walls were mostly limestone which had been worn smooth by millennia (?) of rushing water. The stream wasn’t that cold, and beyond the entrance it seldom grew deeper than our knees. We had a wonderful time forging through the pitch dark, our small LED headlamps offering narrow beams of illumination. Occasional side tunnels branched off from the main course, but it was always easy to find our way back to the rushing waters of the main cavern.

We’d allotted 90 minutes or so to complete our expedition, but it ended up only taking 60. We met Nada at the other end of the cave and climbed back up to the parking lot to enjoy the sunshine and a simple meal of strawberries and bread with homemade hummus.

A short drive back down the mountain brought us to Castle Hill. A quarter-mile off the road the grass starts to rise upward until grotesque limestone formations poke out of the earth like broken bones. They were monumental and somber in the cool light of evening. I tried to climb a smooth rock face, but turned back after a few meters. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing to grip or step up on, and it was frankly terrifying to feel so out of my element.

We spent an hour or two wandering the narrow paths amidst the stone giants, exploring fantastic weather-wrought formations. I didn’t want to leave.

Monday morning we were up at 6:30; we had a date with dolphins at 9. Turns out New Zealand is the one and only home of the Hector’s Dolphin, the world’s smallest oceangoing cetacean, and we’d booked a boat ride out to swim with them. We got to Akaroa around 8. The town is situated on an oblong bay which is actually a flooded volcanic caldera.

After signing in at the tour office and changing into some really very fetching wetsuits we joined our small group of 6 and rode out into the bay. Twenty minutes later at the mouth of the harbor, on the edge of the Tasman Sea, we spotted our first Hector's.

They’re dusky gray, measuring only 1.4 meters, with a rounded dorsal fin. We climbed in the water, and our guide told us to make a lot of noise to attract their interest. I was a bit self-conscious at first, but the thought of missing out on the attention of tiny adorable dolphins soon helped me get over it. I began squealing into my snorkel as high as I could manage, trying my best to sound like something a dolphin might consider worth investigating.

Almost immediately we spotted fins cresting the waves, curious Hectors strafing and circling within a few feet of us. There must have been twenty of them! It was a wonderful experience, and I hooted and squeaked into my snorkel until I was hoarse. Eventually the pod tired of our antics and moved on. We caught up with them down the shore and swam again. Ljuba and I both got a little seasick, but we definitely got more from this tour than I’d hoped for.

We were back in Christchurch around 1. Not surprisingly, Nada had prepared a delicious lunch for us, which we ate while looking at family photo albums. After lunch, we drove 10 minutes to Christchurch International to drop off our bags. Once they were on their way we went back and spent another hour snacking and photo-perusing. At about 3:55 we left the house, and were at the gate in time for boarding at 4:20. The convenience and good nature of Kiwi airport security really makes me rue US air travel.

I'm now writing from the USA, a fact about which I wish I were happier. We’re sitting at our gate in LAX, waiting on the last leg of our journey. US customs and security was an unpleasant dose of reality after the colorful and polite Kiwi airports from which we departed. I’m by no means new to this system, but I guess I lost my immunity to the drab callousness of the American homeland security machine. It doesn’t help that I’m tired and cranky from a sweltering 12-hour flight across the Pacific. They took my carrots.

But hey! It’s not all bad. I’m looking forward to a little consistency and downtime once we’re back by the bay.

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