One of the coffee shops in Christchurch sells a poster of the city map with “there is nothing to see here” emblazoned across it in red. This reflects the general sentiment of travellers heading away from the city. Not me!
As a result of the 2011 earthquakes, I was forewarned of tangled roadworks, a perpetual ivy of scaffolding and blocks of barren properties. Which there was. But also a lot more besides.
The staggering destruction is morbidly fascinating in itself. The majority of buildings in the central business district remain boarded up or partially collapsed. There is a new abundance of debris strewn common land and car parks where buildings have been demolished. Looking through the windows of abandoned shops, ceiling tiles and light fixtures are on the floor, along with fallen clothes racks and their loads. Where one roof has collapsed you can see exposed rows of seating in what used to be a theatre.
The original stone Cathedral collapsed, leading to the construction of Christchurch’s Cardboard Cathedral. The council worked with a Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, who specialises in quick, temporary structures following natural disasters. With a lifespan of only 50 years, a campaign is now alive to ensure its permanency.
Just opposite is ‘185 Empty Chairs’ a temporary memorial to those who died. Each chair is hand painted white and nearby are the names and ages of those they represent. I notice there are 3 victims under 1 year old. Looking back at the chairs I spot a pram and two highchairs. It’s quite choking.
Despite the solemnity which hangs over the city, there are playful and pragmatic steps forward. The high street, banks and all, have relocated into a number of brightly painted shipping containers and loud murals can be found on newly exposed walls. One shop is selling wooden jewellery made from the salvaged timbers of broken homes.
Within Christchurch Museum is a photographic display of the earthquake aftermath. The exhibition is described as ‘temporary – as is life’.
The next exhibition displays native animals – the sadness does not subside…when laying an egg the hips of the female kiwi break. Consequently, the males undertake the care-taking whilst the ladies settle nearby to recover.
It’s takes the Paua House to raise spirits. This is a re-creation of Bluff residents, Fred & Myrtle’s front room which was lavishly decorated with the petrol slick patterned paua shells. Before they passed away, visitors from around the globe would meet the elderly couple to enjoy the eccentricity.
In a Maori exhibition the displays show how settlers used to store cooked wood pigeon in seaweed pouches, preserved by their own run off fats. These packages were stored in raised huts, the stilts of which had indents which were smeared with fat to prevent rats climbing up.
Christchurch also has a wizard. This is an old man in a long black gown and towering pointed hat. He sits in the city centre and lectures on his outlandish views. I spot him having coffee with a similarly dressed youngster. Maybe he has an apprentice. Or an overenthusiastic /sarcastic traveller cling-on.
After bumping into a French girl I met in Colombia 5 months ago (!!) a group of us head to a local pub for overpriced beers and free pool games.
The following day I take the TranzAlpine train through Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps and into Greymouth. The views are meant to be stunningly good, but are smothered by fog and rainstorms. Rainbows and milky green rivers make it partially worth the effort.
A commentary reveals the corrupt ways of the Bealey Hotel, located by a river crossing mid way through the mountains. Back in the days of arduous foot passage over the countries spine, the hotel owner dug pits in the river crossing causing people to be saturated and in need of an immediate bolt hole for drying off.
Connecting onto a coach down the coast to Franz Josef, we stop in Hokitika. Unfortunately, their Sock Machine Museum is closed. And they offered free entry. God knows why…
Back on the bus I meet Matt and Tom from West Yorkshire. Both have lost their passports. Tom’s got an emergency one issued which has a white external cover and is very thin. Not dissimilar to its owner.
Franz Josef is lashed by storms over the following two days. I spend the first trekking to the glacier. I walk with the clouds along the River Waiho, Maori for “steamy water”, an effect created from the glacier water meeting the relatively warm air. Three hours later, ferocious winds and driving rain have left me sodden and shivering. I hitch back to town and defrost in the hot tub.
The following day I catch the 8 hour bus to Queenstown. We stop for breakfast at an isolated Salmon Farm in the ar*e end of nowhere (Paringa). Considering we are likely to be their only (involuntary) custom for the day, the staff are grumpy and borderline racist to an Indian family. And the food is overpriced as our bus driver is served up a free feast for his favours. Four hours later we learn that the Haast Pass to Queenstown in closed for the day. We head back, via the same Salmon Farm for lunch…
One duvet, several movies and a weetabix later, we are back on the bus for attempt number two. The same bus driver, George, trots out the same running commentary of our drive. For breakfast we stop at…the salmon farm!
I hate salmon.
I do, however, like apples. Especially 70 for only $10. Our last stop before Queenstown was a fruit farm. I’ve been handing apples out to anyone and everyone since. Apples have even been used in exchange for free wifi. Yay for apples!
Queenstown perches on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, nestled between snow capped mountains. The city has the look and feel of a ski resort, which it effectively becomes for several months of the year.
There is a small collective who have bundled into Queenstown after encounters further north. We head out into the ice cold night. Max is a German guy taking a break from his job as a skydiving cameraman. He talks about how he has a ‘tongue trigger’ to take photos. The tandem masters also get paid extra when jumping with overweight customers. This is due to the added strain on their back. There was also quite a moving story about his mother doing a skydive on her 60th birthday. Quite a leap (pun intended) from previously begging him to find a safer profession.
The following day brings an epic journey to Milford Sound. Actually a fjord as caused by glaciers rather than rivers…who knew…? I want to say it was breathtaking, moved me to tears etc etc, but, it wasn’t and it didn’t. Stops at the Mirror Lake and native temperate rainforest were markedly more memorable.
I’ve been suffering since. Sore throat, runny nose and a head full of cotton wool. On my last morning in Queenstown I haul my wheezing self up to a viewpoint over the city. Also located at the top is a luge racing track where the energy needed to beat Max is duly summoned. One Fergburger later and I’m on a flight to Auckland.
I’d experimentally booked the cheapest hostel in Auckland. It’s a good walk from the city centre (especially with 26kg of accessories), next door to a homeless shelter and drunk men decorate the streets. The receptionist looks 12 and barely speaks English. People in the common area look the same as those lingering outside. I decide to forgo the deposit and find a hostel with better street lighting. Auckland feels quite different!