We started our South Island adventure in Christchurch, the poor, shaky city. After watching media coverage of the earthquake that struck in February 2011 and the reports of constant aftershocks I was expecting to see it like a war zone. During the taxi ride from the airport it was a surprise to see no damage, just normal suburbia scenes getting on with life. The taxi driver said it was mainly the centre of the city and a few suburbs affected.
We were staying for 2 days with Mavis, a friend from college days in UK. We were the class of 1958 and when Mavis brought out her photos of that time it only seemed like yesterday as we reminisced and giggled like teenagers over remembered escapades and shared memories; how time flies, wow 54 years….
Next day we went down town. What a mass of contradictions. The central CBD area was cordoned off by a high wire mesh fence. The red no go zone. The Cathedral was in the centre of this area and the demolition was still going on. The plan to totally demolish the cathedral is very controversial with many people protesting the decision and wanting it to be repaired and to save what could be saved and built around. Many of the other heritage buildings are shored up, but work is in progress to repair them. Viewing the demolition has become a tourist attraction and tour buses pull up near the cordoned area to let the tourists out to take photos.
In contrast the beautiful heritage building that houses the museum was not damaged and, thankfully, all the historical artifacts are safe. One of the rooms showed a very moving display of the earthquake and its aftermath. Videos from security cameras captured the horrific moment and pure terror of the people as the buildings start to crumble around them. Then the search and rescue teams with the dogs climbing over the rubble. Just a simple thing brought a lump to my throat as I watched the handlers putting protective rubber booties on the dogs feet. Other videos interviewed survivors who told their stories of amazing escapes. Large information boards explained how and why earthquakes happen and what liquefaction is. We spent almost 3 hours going through that display and all the other historical exhibits.
The aftershocks are still happening and a local person told me that a pastime for many Christchurchians is to guess the magnitude of the quakes then look them up on the internet “Christchurch quake map”. Click on this link and you will be surprised how many quakes there are each day…
Next to the museum is the Botanical Gardens. To walk around here is soothing and calming, some of the mature trees from all around the world were just showing a hint of the autumn colouring that would transform them into a kaleidoscope of beauty in a few weeks time. The dahlias, a favourite flower of mine, were in full gorgeous bloom and over near the annual flower beds resplendent in reds, yellows and purples a young Japanese lady and her groom were having their wedding photos taken. Through the centre of the gardens winds the Avon River, the iconic heart of Christchurch.
The art gallery building is a work of art constructed of glass. It bends and curves and undulates, an amazing organic shape. What is even more amazing is that not one pane of glass was damaged and it is in the centre of the quake zone. In fact it was used as the control centre for the search and rescue people to work from.
Then we went to look around the “Restart Mall” this is an amazing tribute to the tenacity and ingenuity of the KIwi. Known for the ability to fix anything with the number 8 wire, they have stacked together shipping containers, two high, painted them in bright, cheerful colours and created a shopping mall in 9 months of 27 retail shops and a couple of cafes. The area is beautified with raised containers of bright, bedding annuals and hanging baskets. This is to help bring alive the CBD until the aftershocks are over and plans made to rebuild a more permanent centre.
Christchurch is still a beautiful and interesting city, and still deserves the title of “garden city” but the heart goes out to all the people who still have so much to do to plan and rebuild it.