Christchurch still reels from the 2011 earthquakes which saw most of the CBD flattened. My family has roots in Canterbury, and I wanted to explore them. This entry covers the first leg; a couple of days pottering about our most English of cities.
I plonk myself in my airplane seat, next to the turboprop for the 50 minute trip to Christchurch. A man sits next to me. ‘Hi’ I say.
‘Good you’ he replies.
I pick up my bag and take a shuttle to my rental car; a little Demio for $30 a day. ‘Don’t worry about cleaning it’ the guy tells me – I don’t worry about making it amazingly filthy in five days.
Back in 2012 when I was last in Christchurch, the roads were a real mess. We bounced down the tortured roads like an old stagecoach on cobbles. Now, in 2017, it’s more like a major American city; terrible but ‘somewhat tended’.
I thought I’d pop in to the Canterbury museum to get some local context first, and head into the old centre. I drive next to the Avon river which winds through the city, past avenues of English trees dropping autumn leaves. The bridges are ‘Englishy’, it’s the Christchurch of my memories. But I find myself viewing it through a new lens, having spent time in England. It’s curious – matching the design to England is recent for me, but it’s the core and origin of Christchurch – the old and new, depending on where you’re looking from.
When the early British settlers arrived in Christchurch (1850ish), they quickly set about making a little Anglican Paradise. A little England here in New Zealand. In all the historic buildings I see the connections; they are inescapable. Hagley Park, Christchurch’s great city domain, is lined with avenues of northern hemisphere trees. They drop leaves like there’s no tomorrow. They intended the city to be based around the Cathedral and the college, and those smack of Oxford inspiration.
I pull into a park, and quickly find they’d like to charge me $18.50 for four hours of parking. I refuse to pay parking in Christchurch; half the CBD is gravel! A little googling and I pop over the Avon and park at the botanic gardens. I squelch through the mud and enjoy the autumn leaves, happy to be having a new adventure.
The botanic gardens are rather sparse, it being winter; but it’s a nice crisp walk. It’s a great central spot for gardens, and soon I am in that ‘old precinct’, with the great gothic stone buildings of Christchurch college, the museum and Art Centre.
I potter about, thinking about my Grandma; she probably enjoyed these gardens at some point. It’s a fairly daft thought – she probably enjoyed much of Wellington at some point too. But with the entire family having left the region, despite the people all around, there’s a deserted feeling in me. We used to be southerners, and now we’re not.
The museum is an eclectic collection, I enjoy wandering. There’s a bird hall, packed with stuffed birds; I see spot a few I recognise and learn their names – tits and boobs n that.
There’s a small section on the Moriori, a group of Maori who settled the Chatham Islands some 300 years or so before European contact with Aotearoa. It’s an interesting tale there; they quickly adjusted Maori culture to suit the Chathams, phasing violence out of their dispute handling. Their carving is strikingly different, opting to carve living trees (a small few of which remain). Their pacifist tendencies did them no favours when a Taranaki tribe yoinked an English ship, took a war party over and killed or enslaved the whole population. Their culture was completely destroyed. Interesting; and appropriate to be covered in Christchurch, as Christchurch serves as the ‘gateway to the southern oceans’ these days.
There’s a dated but enjoyable section on the ‘great’ Antarctic Expeditions; there’s a touristy Antarctic Centre in Christchurch too, but it’s a bit pricey and I’m a bit cheap.
The modern Canterbury section has me most interested; tales of irrigation and flax industries. There’s a grandfather with a child; grandad goes into this wind-tunnel thing, which turns on with a mighty roar. The toddler shrieks in fearful joy, running away laughing. This is repeated six times while I read; it’s an infectious enjoyment of being alive.
‘Paua house’ is advertised throughout the museum. I pop over, and there are two staff guards outside this fabricated 1960s bungalow, in a room of it’s own. It’s the Paua House from Bluff; the quirky couple who coated their home in Paua. What the hell is it doing in Christchurch? The guards are there to stop folks stealing shells. I get talking about cameras with one (he thought I knew what I was doing!) and I ask what it’s doing in Christchurch. ‘I don’t know’ he replies – good stuff. I still wonder why it’s in Canterbury; Bluff could probably use the tourists, and removing it from situ ruins the joy of it some. I guess at the time, the house in bluff was worth more to sell than keep for tourists – I wonder if the Southland council kicks itself now.
I decide to find my accomodation and head to Cashel street, part of the old guts of Christchurch. There’s not much left of it; Breakfree, my hotel, is one of the few buildings still standing. It’s in the centre of a maze of road cones, temporary fencing and high-vis vested blokes. Google’s navigation tips are worthless to me, and I am forced to quickly learn my way off the few remaining landmarks.
I check in and drop my pack in my room. I say it’s a room, but a box is more appropriate; there’s no window. But the coffee is good enough to steal each morning and there’s a little dial next to the bed which, when turned, changes the lights to ‘romance red’. I am only there to sleep and shower so it suits me fine; I would have preferred taking the tent but that’s not quite as simple without the car.
I pop out at dusk to look about. Strolling the destroyed and deserted streets, it’s a modern roman forum. At points in the rubble there are patches of tiles; old frontages of hotels, shops, what-have-you. Pillars of stone stand pointlessly in office basements with no ceilings. I understand it is is sad and I feel for the Cantabrians’ plight, but I am detached. With only a child’s memory of Christchurch in its prime I feel no loss – I don’t really know what it was.
I make it to the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial and it hits me. The curved wall names each of the victims and there’s calm to contemplate all that loss. I put the camera away, read the names I can bare and have a moment. It’s just bloody sad.
Wandering on my soul screams for some lift, and I am touched by little gestures of life, rebirth and renewal. Planter boxes on a temporary fence, amazing street art on the windowless sides of remaining buildings, sides which were never to see the sun. It’s all a bit ‘fuck you we’re still here’ from those still there, and I like that. Life goes on.
In the early days of ‘the rebuild’, a container mall was set up to house the retail of central Cashel street. It became something of a symbol. I wander by now, and it’s been partially shuttered and moved – the retailers are back on the main drag. The remaining containers are full of artistic tat and market goodies, it’s a neat continued use of them, and far more interesting than the boring-ass main drag they’ve re-created. I wonder if they’ll be able to hold onto any of this ‘natural soul’ that has blossomed as they rebuild with the sharp edged, cold glass of modern architecture.
On my way back I pop in to the Cardboard Cathedral; built with just that, intended to get the ball rolling on re-birth of the city and give the faithful somewhere to go. Inside there’s a bunch of boys singing a choir. I decide against lingering or taking a photo – choir boys and a bedraggled solo travelling man – na.
I chomp on a cheeseburger at the bar with a pint, watching the tourists arrive for their evening sleep. There’re no businesspeople in town – there’s not a lot of business in the CBD yet that I saw – I guess they’re still out in the suburbs.
In the morning I plug the little bar fridge back in, quaff a coffee and head out early. A little too early it seems; everything is still shut. And ‘Quake City’ telling the story of the quakes, closed last-week to move out of now prime (again) commercial real-estate – what to do? I wander to Hagley Park and along the Avon. Morning joggers run the dirt track next to the tended gravel path, dogs (and me) kick through autumn leaves. It’s so Britain!
I think how daft it is, for these people to come all this way and try and make it more of the same. And it’s criminal from an ecological sense (though I do so love squirrels). But it seems like they did a smashing job of it. And how it must have been for the early English settlers, who would never set foot back home again, to pop into the city and be home. It was a much bigger world then, and they didn’t come here to enjoy the nature. They sacrificed so much to come for the chance at building a better life, but their love or longing for their homeland is in every old building and daftly out of place tree. On the flip side of course, what an invasion it must have been for the Maori, to see these settlers sweep them aside and terraform their world. Of course it’s all a bit different now; I can’t think today’s Cantabrians ‘long for Britain’, but it’s an interesting piece of history.
Waiting for anything to open, I drop into a cafe, order a coffee and read The Press. I enjoy reading regional newspapers while travelling. It will be sad when I just have to read a different website I could access anywhere.
At ten I cross the road and enter the Art Gallery. Emblazoned along the side is a giant neon ‘everything will be OK’ – a classic Kiwi undersell I think, surely the art will be good. It’s not, it’s shit.
I lie to tell that joke of course, though I do find modern art 95% self-loving wank, and the enormous black plastic poo dumped in the middle of the gallery didn’t convince me otherwise.
There is a wee section of Canterbury paintings which I enjoy. My Grandfather whom I never got to meet painted many a Canterbury scene, some of which I see daily at home. It is nice to see other impressions of similar scenery. As I potter about, black-clad staff follow me about watching me not appreciate the art. Eventually I find this cat and mouse game more entertaining than the galleries. ‘What do you think about in this job?’ I ask one young guard.
‘I do this’ he replies, flipping his phone out. I appreciate his honesty.
As the city awakes I wander some more. As I move further from the centre it’s not so dire. Glimpses of growth sprout among the ruins.
Cathedral Square was the heart of Christchurch, and it’s still in a dire state. The Christchurch Cathedral partially collapsed in the quakes. Six years on the Anglican Church want to demolish it – times have changed and their funds could be better spent on people. But the Heritage folks won’t have it. So while they battle it out, the rest of Christchurch grows around it’s festering dead heart.
(before I got around to posting this they’ve decided to restore the Cathedral now, finally a decision.)
By 10:20 I am out of there, with everything I wanted to see in Christchurch seen or unavailable. I jump in the car and head to Sumner on the east coast.