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STORY POSTED: JULY 2011
It was a little over 20 years ago that my sister moved to Christchurch, when her husband was transferred with his work. They found a home, made friends, raised their children, and established a place in the community. A couple of years ago she was widowed, and shortly afterwards built a granny flat in the backyard and invited our 80-year-old mother to spend her twilight years in what was a particularly pensioner-friendly city.
With my mother having made the move south from the small town of Blenheim, my husband and I had even more reason to visit Christchurch. The city that was largely ‘the place where my sister lives’ had become more familiar, appealing, exciting even. Armed with grown-up enthusiasm for cultural attractions, we’d become regular visitors to the Art Gallery, Arts Centre, and Museum. We’d discovered the caffeinated charms of New Regent Street, and exploited the pleasures of the shopping precincts. A bit of loitering in the Square – home to the iconic Cathedral – had become obligatory, as had dinner at The Bicycle Thief and a nightcap at Fat Eddies bar. As we’d come into land from Wellington, I’d think ‘Hooray! We’re back in Christchurch!’
Three months after the February 22nd earthquake, we flew in once more. This time as we came in to land, I peered hard out of the window, straining to see evidence of damage down below. As I did so I had a bit of quiet sob.
I imagine there isn’t one New Zealander who doesn’t grieve for the devastation of the garden city. One hundred and eighty-one compatriots and visitors have died. The heart of the city is barely recognisable, while suburban areas have been ruptured, liquefied, and crumbled, particularly in the east. Many communities have been pushed to their limit of existence; some areas may not be rebuilt – many hope that green space will flourish in their place.
Life goes on, of course, as the silt and tears are swept aside. Christchurch’s residents are showing remarkable stoicism, good-humour and capacity for hard work. Not content to rebuild the city, there is clear intent to improve it. Not since the 1931 Napier Earthquake has a New Zealand city had a reason to transform itself into the truly modern.
All New Zealanders have a vested interest in this accomplishment. Not only do we want our friends, families and colleagues to live in a great city, but Christchurch is also a cornerstone of our economy and the biggest traveller gateway to the South Island.
Thankfully the gateway is open. Christchurch airport – New Zealand’s second-largest travel hub – recently opened its new check-in hall, featuring increased retail and eating options. (Nothing cheers me up quicker than the aroma of espresso and a sale rack of Icebreaker clothing.)
During our May visit, we collected a rental car before heading towards the opposite end of the city, taking our usual arterial route. Traffic flows were heavier, but no detours were required, and we quickly adapted to the lumpy road surfaces and potholes. There was some dishevelment along the way: make-do road works here, swept-up piles of sand there, cracks in the kerbing, and a veritable coven of road cones. None of this, however, stopped us getting from A to B in good time.
In fact in some places, with your perception turned down, you might even forget it had happened. In others it is an irresistible curiosity, and it’s hard not to be nosey in these circumstances. Cecile Dransart, who works for the local tourism office, agrees. ‘It’s natural to want to look around, and we don’t mind because if you see it, you can understand.’
Or at least try to. The extent of damage is hard to comprehend, especially as aftershocks mean the situation is somewhat fluid. As we write this, however, only a small part of the CBD – known as the Red Zone – is off limits, and thankfully you can still stroll along the Avon River. Many buildings have already been demolished, and it is expected that up to 1300 buildings will be lost in all, around 100 of which are heritage-listed. Beyond the cordon, an estimated 12,000 homes will be levelled.
While visitors to the city will undoubtedly be touched by the city’s tragedy, Christchurch is open for business and has always been. Almost all key attractions are open, including the casino, Antarctic Centre, Orana Wildlife Park, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and the Air Force Museum. On the edge of the CBD, a blooming Hagley Park will host the Rugby World Cup ‘Fanzone’ and festival. Popular summer events such as the New Zealand Horse Racing Cup and Show Week, World Buskers Festival, Burst Festival of Flowers, and Ellerslie Flower Show are all going ahead. The Canterbury Museum and Christchurch Art Gallery are closed, with the former likely to open before Rugby World Cup. The striking Art Gallery building has been repurposed as a Council earthquake recovery centre, but the pressure is on for it to be reclaimed for art’s sake. Watch this space.
Beyond the central city, Canterbury’s activities and attractions are as good as ever. There are 10 ski areas around two hours drive from the city. The region’s many golf courses are unaffected, as are wineries, en masse. And despite significant ground-shift, the region is still a mecca for cycling, both on-road and off.
Banks Peninsula boasts stunning landscapes and wildlife, with Akaroa still packed with culinary delights. Hanmer Springs alpine village is even better than before, the Thermal Pools and Spa complex having recently undergone a major revamp. Whales still breach at Kaikoura, New Zealand’s best eco-tourism destination. The world-famous TranzAlpine train continues its climb across the magnificent Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast. To the south, the vistas around Aoraki Mt Cook and the Mackenzie country remain breathtaking.
Half the city’s hotels are out of action, but motels and B&Bs are plentiful. Campervans are always popular, and will be in hot demand around the Rugby World Cup. Christchurch’s holiday parks are ship-shape, most situated within a short drive of the airport. All offer motel rooms and cabins for every budget.
For Christchurch, the Canterbury Region, for the country, and for the sake of my own family who just want to see things ‘back to normal’, my wish is that travellers will keep on coming. Not only will they play a part in the city’s reinvention, but they’ll also see for themselves that this city has got faith and hope in spades.
Official visitor information – including status updates, things to see & do, accommodation, and a useful guide to eating & drinking outside the cordon: www.christchurchnz.com
Holiday Parks Association of New Zealand–www.hapnz.co.nz
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