Journal Entry, January 24, 2013. Christchurch, New Zealand:
This is wonderful. I’ve been looking forward to this for days. We arrived
yesterday, and it just feels comfortable…like coming home. This is the first
time since leaving England four months ago that I’ve been someplace
I’d been before. With all the excitement of discovering new places, I hadn’t
realized how much I’d been missing the welcome embrace of familiarity!
Our journey to New Zealand was—as journeys to New Zealand always are—very, very long. New Zealand is simply very far from everywhere, and starting from Bangkok didn’t help all that much. The trip took a taxi, 3 airplanes, a rental car, and 24 hours…but we made it, arriving at our motel just outside Christchurch’s central business district (CBD, to the locals) in time for a trip to the local market to stock the kitchenette in our 2-bedroom unit (Allison’s dad and stepmother would be joining us the following day) before we all crashed into bed for the night.
I was glad I’d ventured out to the market, for it reintroduced me to the friendly, chatty, positive New Zealand personality. Little things, like hearing the barista say “Sweet as!” (the Kiwi version of “Cool!” or “Ok!”) to acknowledge my coffee order, or hearing the cashiers’ motherly advice about road maps, SIM cards, or wine choices in the bookshop, post office, or grocery store were a pleasure. They welcomed us, asked our plans, and offered advice for our stay. When I returned to the post office a day or two later to use their Postbank to send money to someone we were renting a “bach” (vacation house) from, a woman who worked there recognized me from my earlier visit and started with “Oh, it’s you! Good! I was telling my husband about you last night, and while you’re here we think you really shouldn’t miss seeing…” The whole place is like one small town. Simply wonderful.
I first saw New Zealand in 1995, when I arrived to spend a year living, working, and exploring. I stayed mostly on South Island, and was glad I did. While North Island is a fine place and has plenty to attract the visitor—the volcanic thermal area around Rotorua, the series of subtropical bays at the top (home to fantastic sailing), the cultural tradition of the Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian people), and the pretty capital of Wellington, to name just a few—I personally find South Island just a little more special. Part of it is the smaller population; although the land area is 33% larger than North Island, it has only about a quarter of the nation’s population. There are so few people, that South Island hosts about 20 times as many sheep as people! You can drive for hours only occasionally passing another car. There are glaciers, mountains, rainforests, beaches, and fiords. South Island is a big, beautiful, quiet island, filled with nature that amazes and delights.
For this trip, we would be in New Zealand for exactly a month. And we would spend every moment of it with our rental car exploring South Island. My hopes were high for a wonderful and nostalgic visit.
A city destroyed, a city reborn:
Christchurch is a lovely town. Called, depending on one’s fondness for the place, “the most English city outside of England” or “like England from 50 years ago,” it is full of flowering gardens, a flowing river (called “Avon”, of course), fish & chips, and architecture that would fit just as well along the original Avon river. It’s a little more than halfway up the east coast of South Island, making the climate similar to that in much of England. Christchurch is where I’d lived for my year in the country.
It was also in a state of recovery. I’d heard about the series of earthquakes that had struck Christchurch from 2010-2012, of course. In fact, we’d arrived in the country two years and a day after the most damaging quake—while the 6.3 magnitude quake of February 22, 2011, was not the most powerful to hit during those years, it was both very near to the earth’s surface and very near to the city…and it was utterly devastating.
185 people died from that one earthquake. Financial losses were north of 30 billion US dollars. The photos of the aftermath were shocking; the Canterbury Television building in the middle of the city (also containing a medical clinic and a school) collapsed and caught fire, a bus was crushed by falling masonry, and two shopping malls collapsed, or “pancaked” in the evocative and terrible parlance of urban destruction. Symbolically, the worst loss was the tower (and spire) of the historic Christchurch cathedral, which were thrown off and landed in the big public square. The rest of the cathedral was too badly damaged to be repaired. It had to be knocked down.
I had been struck by those images when they appeared, but I had, naively, assumed that the city would have recovered, rebuilt, and moved on in the intervening two years. I was wrong.
Christchurch was still recovering. There was a lot of destruction that was still visible. Buildings were missing walls and houses had huge red “UNSAFE” notices affixed to them with chains across the doors. Perhaps the most glaring example was the central business district—the downtown, the economic and retail center of the city, a mere two blocks from our motel that I was looking forward to revisiting—it was still closed. Think about that; downtown was literally closed. There was a big fence around the entire thing, containing half-destroyed buildings and piles and piles of rubble. We weren’t allowed to enter the center of the city. Two years after the damage. What must it have looked like in the initial days and weeks?
I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared to see what happens to a modern major city when nature shows who’s the boss. I had the same feeling when I first saw New Orleans a year or two after Hurricane Katrina, but I’d only ever been to New Orleans as a visitor; Christchurch had been my home for a year. It was…very hard to see.
Initially I was angry. Why, two years later, was it still like this? Why were there piles of rubble still littering the place? How could it not have been fixed up by now? How could it still be chaos?
But then somewhere I saw a sign detailing the 1600 buildings belonging to the Christchurch City Council had been damaged during the earthquake and I started doing the math. 1600 buildings that had to be inspected to see if they were habitable or would need to be destroyed. And it had been 2 years…104 weeks…730 days. That would be about 16 buildings a week, or more than 3 a day. Not counting planning time and rebuilding time. It’s a big job. And that 1600 includes only the city council buildings. It doesn’t include privately-owned buildings—houses, apartment buildings, businesses, non-profits, etc. In that context, two years isn’t such a long time after all.
It wasn’t entirely bad news. Despite the destruction, Christchurch felt vibrant. In the wake of the destruction, an influx of human energy had arrived in the city. Young people—artists, chefs, architects, designers of all sorts, the so-called “creative class”—had descended and were throwing themselves into the rebirth. A massive “Cardboard Cathedral” was being built as a temporary replacement for the lost cathedral, and has since opened, holding an hardly-believable 700 people. Part of the reason the restoration was taking so long was that people realized the unique situation they were in: how many times in modern history does a city have the chance to reinvent itself? It should certainly be a “green” city, but what form should that take? Would it be car-, bike-, rail-, or pedestrian-centric? Would the businesses by concentrated away from the houses, or would they be interspersed? The energy generated by these discussions was palpable and felt very, very, exciting.
The dominant architectural feature at the time that we visited was the shipping container. Thousands of these things (invented, incidentally, by a man from fewer than 100 miles away from our home in North Carolina) arrived in the aftermath of the disaster, filled with clothes, food, building supplies, and whatever else people needed. In classic Kiwi can-do fashion, these containers were painted, decorated, repurposed and reused in all sorts of ways. We enjoyed coffee from “Upshot”, a shipping container-based café mere blocks from the location of my first NZ rental house in the adorable little Heathcote valley. We visited “Re:start”, a new shopping mall near the central business district constructed entirely of shipping containers. It was a place for the downtown businesses to operate during the long reconstruction. We saw walls of containers 5 stories tall and reinforced with steel beams, stacked along the sidewalks to protect passersby from the dangers of weakened buildings collapsing, and lining roads near the cliffs leading to Sumner beach. Those containers symbolized the great Kiwi trait of resourcefulness, and would, I was sure, ultimately symbolize Christchurch’s rebirth.
But while much had changed, there was much that I recognized, and for that I was grateful.
On our first day in town, I was able to find two of the three houses I’d rented; one of them only a short stroll down from the base station of the Christchurch Gondola. Sadly, the gondola hadn’t yet been put back in working order after the earthquake, so I wasn’t able to introduce my family to the beautiful vista at the top—the site of the first shooting star I ever saw. But I was able to introduce them to another of my favorites—the gorgeous little seaside town of Sumner, a short drive from Christchurch around the Port Hills. Sadly, many of the outstanding cliffside walks I remember from near Sumner remain closed due to cliff instability, but those that were open remained every bit as beautiful as I’d remembered.
After our stroll along the cliffs, it was time to head to the airport to pick up Allison’s dad (Joe) and stepmother (Marilyn), who had flown out from the US. Having not seen them in seven months, we were all three buoyed by their arrival, and had much to talk about that evening when we went out for burgers and beers. Later, Orion took advantage of doting grandparents who’d brought Christmas presents for an evening in the motel, while Allison and I took advantage of the childcare and headed out to a nightclub to enjoy some of the live music that has accompanied all that youthful energy of the city.
The highlight the following day was our trip to the Christchurch Antarctic Centre. Christchurch is the closest city in the world to Antarctica. Sure, the tip of South America is closer, but there’s nothing very far south there that could be called a city. Because of this, several countries (including the US) use Christchurch as a base for their Antarctic operations. The airport always has a few giant military-drab-green US cargo planes parked while waiting their next supply run to the southern continent.
Anyway, the Christchurch Antarctic Centre is an awesome museum. It’s packed full of interesting exhibits, including lots of cool technical stuff (how they developed airplanes that can withstand the Antarctic climate, how they drill down for core samples, etc.), but the best bit for the kid within is the climate controlled room, where you don big parkas and go into a very cold room! If you stay in the room for a while, you can experience the periodic simulated Antarctic storms, where they turn the lights down low to simulate Antarctic winter, and the entire room is filled with snow and 40kph wind as the wind chill drops to -20°C. (For those of you who don’t speak metric, that’s damn cold!) It’s very dramatic…and unbelievably cold. It was quite an experience, and Orion and I quickly decided that the next time we go there we will wear something more substantial than shorts under the loaner parkas they provide.
After three nights in Christchurch, it was time to move on. A month on South Island sounds like a lot of time, but Joe and Marilyn would only be with us for a week and there was an awful lot we wanted to do with them, so it was time to start our South Island road trip.