We left Liz and Patrick’s place and headed along to the next stop on the cyclist’s circuit. The ride was lovely and we were feeling pretty good about having met some locals the day before and being invited into their home. That is what cycling trips are all about: seeing something that other travellers don’t get to see and having interactions that are not available to tourists isolated by big tour buses or even private camper vans. As soon as we left Liz and Patrick’s, though, we were back on the road with everybody else. We stopped in Waiarua at a little hostel that cleverly repurposed old train cars into dorms and private rooms. Even the kitchen was a refurbished train station. The owners were really pleasant and the price was the best we’ve come across so far ($15 to pitch our tent). Leaving Waiarua the next morning, we made it all the way to Christchurch and back to the hospitality of Liz and Patrick. They had still not made it home from their long weekend at the coast, but Liz’s daughter came over to let us into the yard to set up our tent. We spent an off day in town to check out the state of the city.
Resting on the side of the road; we are off-camera eating plums that R picked on the side of the road
The ‘hotel’ in Waiarua
Christchurch has been in the headlines too often in the past year or so because of a series of devastating earthquakes that struck the region since late 2010. A 6.3 earthquake on February 22 killed 185 people and demolished huge swaths of the city. Media attention in the US turned to the tsunami in Japan that came about 2 weeks after the earthquake, so we didn’t really understand the full force of what had happened here, but the effects are still very present. Another ‘aftershock’ of the quake occurred just two days before we flew into Auckland on December 23rd prompting us to question our plan to visit Christchurch at all. We had received conflicting advice about visiting the city. Some people warned us to keep away due to the danger of staying in a city where quakes are a part of daily life. Others told us that ‘disaster tourism’ is demoralizing for residents who may have lost property or loved ones in the earthquakes. Still others encouraged us to go, to see what happened there, and to bring tourist presence (and dollars) back to a town that is accustomed to it. Being invited to stay in a private home by people who lived through the toughest times relieved our anxiety about coming. With a safe place to stay, we were able to explore the city a bit and get a sense of what happened and why it was such a cool city to visit in the first place.
Ghostown in Christchurch’s CBD
Sign of the times
The destruction of the CBD was jarring; whole blocks are still cordoned off and rubble was visible- it is unclear whether this has been preserved since February or if ongoing quakes are still tearing these buildings apart. Either way, we get the sense that a lot more planning has to happen before the area will be cleaned up and rebuilt. I almost got the sense that the city is waiting until the ‘aftershocks’ stop to rebuild, although it’s anyone’s guess when this will be considered over. There were some signs of life amidst the destruction, however. The locally famous ‘container mall’ looks permanent now. It was set up as a temporary way for businesses to reopen and get the local economy back up and running. Dozens of shops, cafes, and even banks are now housed in shipping containers. Permanent-looking additions like glass-paned windows and artfully stacked ‘second floors’ make it seem like the whole place was intentionally designed to be this way. I had expected rows of worn-down railroad cars stuffed with cardboard boxes and makeshift displays. What is actually there is perhaps less romantic, but well thought out and an indicator that whoever is in charge here knows what they’re doing. A good sign for the future of the city, romance aside.
Since we’re writing this well after our visit, I am not sure what the current state of affairs is, but I would highly encourage any tourists to New Zealand who are avoiding Christchurch to reconsider and go for a visit. It’s still as expensive as any other New Zealand town to stay, but seeing the scale of destruction helps to understand a disaster that has affected the whole South Island (many people were displaced or voluntarily relocated to other areas in the South Island).
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