Life's a beach

Life's a beach
Life's a beach

Christchurch – catastrophe, containers, courage and cute

Lake Pukaki with Aoraki Mt Cook in the distance.
New Zealand is a country made for tourism, whether by nature or divine hand I leave to you to decide. I have visited no other country that leaves you almost suffering from scenic overload. Our descent from Omarama to Christchurch was no different, particularly around lakes Pukaki and Tekapo. Both were cut from the rock by glaciation and then filled with melt water at the end of the last ice age. Well, that's the science; the result was a series of stunning lakes right across NZ and these two did not disappoint. We lingered longest at Pukaki where the 70K distant Aoraki Mt Cook, at 3754 metres New Zealand's highest mountain, was framed at the end of the valley. Its peak was swathed in cotton-wool clouds, unfortunately, but it was still spectacular.

Christchurch Cathedral, propped up by containers until
the city, politicians and the Catholic church can agree
whether to demolish and rebuild or simply demolish and move on.

Our subsequent drive into Christchurch, although still scenic, was unremarkable until, that is, we entered the city and encountered wildly uneven road surfaces. These, we later learned, are remnants of the 6.3 magnitude quake that hit the city in February 2011. We later encountered much more severe damage but, for the moment, they were sufficient to create a bewildering maze of roadworks and road closures that left us and the sat nav utterly confused. At one point our route simply terminated at a barrier beside a river, the bridge having collapsed into the water.

Yours truly, Ashley and Fo. I leave it to you to
decide who is the cutest.
The people of Christchurch have lived with this chaos for three years now and they never know whether a road will be open from one hour to the next. It reminded me of those scenes in Aliens Vs Predators where the ancient temple, in which humans and monsters are trapped, re-configures itself every 10 minutes. Notwithstanding a few dead ends, an alien encounter or two and some choice language we eventually found our hosts, Wendy, Kelvin and Ashley. Wendy is daughter to our friends Julie and Bruce in Auckland and they kindly agreed to house a couple of complete strangers in their lovely house in the NE suburbs of the city. They're both busy working people with a young family so we weren't able to spend much time with them, unfortunately. We did enjoy a few cold ones and a good natter, however. If and when you get to the UK guys you're welcome to stay with us.

Yet another building propped up by
steel and indecision.
For our only full day in the city we took a 2 hour organised coach tour around the worst hit areas; after the previous day's road dramas we'd decided to leave our hire car behind. The tour was interesting and very moving. 185 people died during the Feb 2011 quake and 115 of these all perished in the Canterbury TV building. The death toll was high in this one building because surveyors and engineers had missed the fact that the 7.1m quake in September 2010 had left its structure dangerously compromised. It should have been marked for demolition.

185 empty, white chairs; a simple but
moving memorial to those that died.

Three years on, the inner city is still a huge construction site. Whole areas resembled nothing more than no-go ghost towns full of condemned buildings and sites left vacant through indecision and political wrangling. The city's unofficial memorial to those that died is 185 chairs, painted white and left empty in a demolition site.

Container Mall, fast becoming a permanent and trendy
open market area in the city centre. 
It would have been very easy to have become depressed by Christchurch and the constant reminders of destruction and death, but we were lifted by a visit to Container Mall. As the quake had flattened the original City Mall (a pedestrianised shopping area) the disaster response people got services up and running quickly by bringing in hundreds of huge containers and using them as temporary shops, banks and help-centres. The containers seemed pretty permanent to me and I would not be at all surprised if the city keeps them as a quirky reminder of the quake.

Until our visit to Christchurch I had given little thought to the fact that NZ sits on one of the most active volcanic areas of the planet. For Kiwis the threat of eruptions and quakes is ever present but they seem to take it in their stride and with good humour; extraordinary people in an extraordinary place.

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