I awoke before anyone else, early, around 5 AM or so, and decided to see what New Zealand sunrises looked like. There was just the slightest suggestion that dawn was coming as I wandered about the small town of Franz Josef. As the sky gradually lightened, invisible birds, and presumably other animals, began their morning symphony, quickly expanding from a few simple chirps to calls and shrieks I’ve never even heard recorded on a soundtrack before. It was the auditory equivalent of seeing a parrot for the first time, when one has only seen a dove.
I wandered around town until dawn broke and the calls began to quiet. It is still one of the most ethereal and memorable experiences of the trip for me.
The rest of the group is up shortly thereafter, as our plan is to drive back to Christchurch that day, and see if we have time to climb Cave Stream and do a ropes course before the day is out. Cave Stream is as it sounds: a 1km or so hike inside a cave with a stream. It’s pitch black and slow going, apparently. And, as we found out the day before from a local, much more dangerous than it appears. There’s no gates, locks, supervisions, waivers, etc — just a sign post warning you that it’s dangerous. As in, several people have died doing it within the last year. (This is one thing I love about New Zealand: you are responsible for your own stupidity.) The locals inform us it’s not difficult, but that it’s not just a walk through a cave: you’re bouldering up through water that’s between waist and neck deep depending on snowmelt, and the water is consistently quite cold. We agree we’ll at least check out the first part of it on the way back, even though we don’t have the gear for it. Perhaps we can get a little cave time in before it gets deep.
It’s a quiet ride on the way back; most of the car is asleep, and rain starts to spatter the windshield. The roads are slippery and winding. The scenery is blunted from the grayness of the clouds. The wisps and fingers of clouds begin to envelop us we rise into the mountains; we begin to weave in and out fog banks. At Otira, I pull over for some photos.
Once we get on the other side of Arthur’s Pass and begin to downhill grade, the car is beginning to wake up. We pull off at Cave Stream and hike down to one of the openings. About 10 feet inside the cave, the path drops about 6-8 feet down through a rushing, albeit small, waterfall. The water is quite chilly, and we definitely don’t have the gear for this. We fool around, exploring and taking photos, getting excited for the day. It’s still relatively early, and we’re halfway back to Christchurch. We trailrun back up the hill and down to the other end of the cave, but we can’t even see the entrance. We’d have to creek slosh for a ways just to get there. Sadly, we abandon Cave Stream and haul ass to Christchurch. I take to opportunity to relinquish the driver’s seat and pass out for an hour.
We arrive in the suburbs of Christchurch around 1 PM; I’m exciting by this because I’ve recharged my batteries, and there’s a ropes course Natalie had found that closes at 5 PM and is somewhere just northwest of the city. Normally, we’d have no problem going the remaining distance in an hour, but that’s before we realized that there are apparently no urban planners in the city. Street names changes every couple of blocks, seemingly arbitrarily. And not because you have transitioned between districts or suburbs (that we could tell). Without exaggerating: we would be on a street for three, perhaps five block, before we’d realize that it had changed names, and realized that the next turn we were looking for may or may not be called what the map claimed, since the map didn’t list every (or even most) name changes along the line designating the street. Seriously?
With some luck and a bit of backtracking, we make it to “Adrenaline Forest” a bit after 2 PM. I run up to check the hours, and they say we still have time even though we’re after their official “last start” time: most people take 2-3 hours to get through all the courses if they’re good, 4 hours if they’ve never worked on ropes before. Jordan, Nat, and I drop the $35 NZ each (about $27 US!), while Nae graciously offers to take photos of us. Once again I was impressed with the culture of personal responsibility in NZ: we didn’t have to sign a waiver, the training was quick and to the point (“here’s how to check your harness,” “always have at least one carabiner clipped at any given time”, etc), after which they let us have our run of the park. They don’t coddle us, guide us, or give advice unless asked. Awesome.
We finish all six courses in just over 2 hours; the sixth is by far the coolest. You end up about 20m (65 ft) in the trees, which is high enough that the platforms and ropes sway. My arms we’re definitely burnt after were finished — both from exercise and a bit of rope burn.
It’s about this time I realize that all I’ve had to eat all day is an energy bar, and that I’m not the only on that’s hungry. We’re staying at Hotel So, a JetBlue of hospitality: small, nicer and cheaper than a hostel, but every little thing costs extra. Want your room cleaned, sheets changed, or a fresh towel? All that’s extra. Since we had our own bathroom, though, we could do laundry at our leisure and ended up saving money.
Through the course of the day, we’d been asking locals for recommendations for dinner that night. Several suggested “Oxford on Avon,” which sounded like a nice splurge for our last group dinner. It turns out that “Oxford on Avon,” is a buffet, and a horrible one at that. Cold food, tasted horrible, and was way too expensive. So bad, in fact, we left our plates there and asked for our money back. I’ve never done that before (thankfully, Nat did it for us.)
Someone, I think Nae, consulted a guidebook and found a relatively cheap and highly recommended Burmese place called the “Bodhi Tree.” It took a bit of wandering to find (unsurprisingly, we had to ask for directions, and the girl working a local clothing store knew “Myanmar” but not “Burma” — am I that old?) This turned out to be absolutely incredible: small but packed, which extremely friendly servers with great recommendations, and the chef wandering about and saying hello. I’ve been looking for solid Burmese food ever since. If you make it there, try the Tea Party, the Blue Beans, the Mushrooms, and the beef dishes. Fantastic! In fact, so good, we would return again later in the trip — the only restaurant on the trip good enough to visit twice.
We finished with drinks across the street at Cafe Valentino and chatted with Tamara the Canadian bartender. She had great recommendations for food, some good local belgian-style micro-brews, as well as places to visit. As well as just being a damn cool person that filled us in on her perspective of of living in New Zealand as a non-native. A drink or two later, moving toward the hotel, we stop by Bourbon St to say hello to Matt. Ken from McMurdy is there again, completely hammered, so much so that he doesn’t remember us at all. After ordering another drink, Matt asks “have you checked your bank account lately?” Definitely not good when your bartending is asking you that.
Exhausted and full, we retire for the night. It already seems like the next day.