Christchurch, Akaroa, and, sadly, goodbye to New Zealand!
My trip across the country and visits to Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier were a bit of a bust as it poured buckets my entire stay. When I mentioned the weather to a clerk at the general store at Fox, his apt response was, “What do you expect; It’s the rain forest.” Holed up at the Holiday Park resort in a small cabin for two days, I looked at the bright side and decided it was a good time to read and quietly reflect! Still raining as I headed north to Greymouth for two additional days, I looked forward to the scenic and relaxing ride on the TransAlpine Train back east to Christchurch.
Christchurch was not a much anticipated city to visit on my itinerary of what to see in the South Island. It was simply a destination because it was where I would fly out of NZ to Sydney, Australia. To confirm this indifference, I had met a couple of travelers who had recently been there, and they kind of made a face and shrugged it off as being still in ruins and still very much under construction. And then I met Ashley who showed me the real Christchurch and the strong and hopeful people who call it home.
I was ready for a little company, and since I had such great experiences with the “Broads Abroad” friends I had made in Wellington, I contacted Ashley–who had recently relocated to her home town– and requested a stay. She readily agreed and mentioned that the next day was the fifth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, and would I like to go with her to the River of Flowers memorial where she would be speaking, one of many memorials being held in different parts of the city. Indeed, I would.
On February 22, 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred on a fault line that was shallow and close to the city of Christchurch killing 182 people, 115 of whom died when the six story Canterbury Television (CTV) building collapsed. It was particularly devastating because it happened at 12:55 PM while people were still at work and children were at school. As a result of the quake, 7000 people lost their homes and many still have unresolved insurance claims. More than half of the buildings in the central business district have since had to be demolished.
Ashley was kind enough to meet me at the train station(we were an hour late!), and then took me on a tour of the city. It was immediately evident that this vibrant person loved her city, was very civic minded, and was committed to seeing it restored to its former glory. My first impression was that this city was one big construction zone with many buildings left standing in the same condition since the quake. It will take years to completely restore the city’s electricity and water networks to pre earthquake standards. Huge cranes fill the sky, street access changes daily, and what was unsettling was the fact that the city had just experienced a 4.5 quake the week before! This shook up quite a few people.
At the River of Flowers memorial the next day, people gathered for a moment of silence at 12:51. Ashley said a few words and then invited people to toss flowers into the river and write small notes of hope and remembrance. It was moving to listen to first hand accounts of that day from several local residents. Across the street was a former neighborhood, now empty land designated as the red zone. There are several of these “red zones” throughout the city, and the council has yet to figure out what to do with these large tracks of land.
I spent the next two days exploring the CBD (central business district), a nice 25 minute walk or short bus ride from Ashley’s home. The city gets an A+ for resilience: Amidst the rebuilding, life goes on. Who would have thought to construct a new retail section called The Re:Start Mall out of colorful shipping containers?
There is plenty of work available in Christchurch. Approximately 1,100 commercial buildings were lost in the quake. If the number of cranes is any indication, New Zealand’s second largest city has lots of employment opportunities and has drawn workers from other countries. As an interesting aside, an article in the local paper caught my eye: ” Late-Night Crane Climbers Putting Themselves at Risk.” It seems that all those cranes at all those construction sites inspire selfies. Alcohol is usually involved. Isn’t is comforting to know that we are just one big human family. To quote Maya Angelou: “…we are more alike than we are unalike.”
Christchurch can still be called the Garden City of New Zealand. Hagley Park, roughly 400 acres, is home to the Botanical Gardens left seemingly untouched by the damage. At the edge of the park is the Canterbury Museum, a good place to explore the country’s cultural and natural heritage. It’s also a good place for school kids to hang out. While I was there, a group of boys from Christ’s College were running about in their distinctive uniforms (all school children wear uniforms). Coupled with the building’s Gothic Revival character, it felt like scene out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Right in the same neighborhood I was lucky find the newly reopened public Christchurch Art Gallery. The gallery became the Civil Defense headquarters for seven months after the earthquake and then needed extensive work. Housing one of the largest art collections in New Zealand, it has everything from contemporary sculptures to twentieth century Canterbury landscape paintings. Just as impressive and a work of art is the building itself, a massive metal and glass structure with front courtyard.
What a difference it made seeing this bustling city with Ashley. She provided me with a more intricate and personal perspective and shared interesting anecdotes like the one that pulled at my lapsed- Catholic heart strings. Legend has it that the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, also severely damaged by the earthquake, had a statue of the Blessed Virgin in front of the middle window on the second floor, facing into the church with outstretched arms. After the quake, she, remarkably, was completely turned around–undamaged–facing out leading people to believe she now protects the city!
I had a few more days in NZ before leaving for Sydney, so I opted to go back to Akaroa and the Banks peninsula for four days, one of my favorite places. Just an hour and a half south of Christchurch, Akaroa is a historic French settlement and a weekend getaway for many in Christchurch. It’s an enchanting place, and I was able to rent the same second story, self contained unit with French doors that open up to a private little balcony in the turret. Akaroa has a scenic harbor and beach, and the village has a lovely harbor promenade with cafes, boutiques, and galleries that showcase local arts and crafts. It even has its own cooking school in town.
There’s plenty to do including harbor cruises to see dolphins, great walking tracks, a movie theater and library. I would have been happy to stay another week, but it was time to head back to Christchurch.
Ashley was kind enough to have me back for another night in Christchurch, so I could get my flight to Sydney the next day. How incredibly lucky to have met such an intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished woman. How incredibly lucky to now call her my friend.
Although I was excited…and a little anxious…. to be flying to the big city of Sydney (4.2 million people), it was with sadness that I was leaving this tiny country with the big heart I have come to know and love. This quote by Lawrence Durrell says it best:
“It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. ‘I am watching you — are you watching yourself in me?’ Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly — but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling…you can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle, you’ll be there.”
― Lawrence Durrell,
New Zealand is a magical place. I will be back.