Deliberately we had planned our last stop in New Zealand to be Christchurch. For many, many years I have wanted to see the city. Ever since I was a boy I have been fascinated by the south pole and polar expeditions. Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and of course the norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who eventually ended up being the first man to reach the south pole. The two brits, Scott and Shackleton, both embarked from Christchurch about a century ago and since then the city has been the international center for scientific expeditions to Antarctica and the south pole. Hence my interest in visiting the city.
When flipping through guidebooks and brochures printed before 2011 you will see a Christchurch that is really, really beautiful, with plenty of old stone buildings, built in gothic- and many other classical styles. Many stunning churches, not to mention the cathedral - the old city landmark. Numerous green parks and gardens along the Avon river, that curls its way through the city and the surrounding areas. Incredibly beautiful, and definitely a tourist attraction in itself, if there ever was one.
But on the 4th of September 2010 the first of two seriously damaging earthquakes happened. Initially it was not as bad though. Although many buildings and roads were damaged it was estimated that it would be rather easy and quick to repair and get the city back to normal again. And just as work had begun, the second and much more damaging earthquake happened. On the 22nd of February 2011 the central part of Christchurch collapsed and was literally leveled. To the ground. Ironically this second earthquake was not as strong as the first one back in September, but it hit in a very damaging way (I will spare you for the longer, technical explanation which I do not even understand myself!) and the epicenter was located much closer to the city. Furthermore, many buildings were still severely damaged from the first incident and could not stand any more shaking. 185 people died that day.
Of the 185 casualties, 115 died in just one collapsed building. Another 18 died in another office building in the central business district. Both buildings were built in concrete and glass and could not stand the shakings. The vast part of the private homes in New Zealand has been built in wood, which makes them much more resistant to earthquakes. And there are many earthquakes! Since the two big ones there has been thousands of minor aftershocks. It is absolutely normal in this part of the world and the locals do not even think about it. Commercial buildings and other larger estates cannot be built in wood in the same way as smaller buildings, but a lot is being done to make all buildings as resistant to earthquakes as possible regardless of the building materials. It was a devastating combination of circumstances that ended up killing 185 people. And had the earthquake happened during nighttime, when the office buildings would have been empty, it would not have cost as many lives as it did.185 casualties sounds like a lot. And it is a tragedy for the dead and their loved ones. But in a city with over 400.000 inhabitants it is actually remarkably few.
I have never experienced any wars or devastation at close hand. All of my life I have been living and staying in safe and protected areas of the world. I know nothing else, apart from what I have seen in the medias. And I do remember the 22nd of February 2011 when I saw the footage of the collapsed cathedral in Christchurch on TV. But it is one thing to see such things on TV in the safety of your own home. It is something else to actually stand there. In the middle of it all.
Being quite naive, I actually thought that almost 3 years after the catastrophe they would have cleaned everything up and have rebuilt Christchurch almost to the same level as before. So I was somewhat surprised when we met people all around New Zealand, and started talking to them about our travel plans and about Christchurch. They all told us that we would most likely not be able to spend more than a few days in Christchurch to see everything worth seeing. Right now there simply isn’t much to look at. Initially we had planned to stay for about a week. And our plan was to fly out of New Zealand from Christchurch. We wanted to stay in one place and relax a bit, whilst exploring the city in our own tempo. But as we got closer to our departure from New Zealand, we cut our stay down to just 3 nights. It turned out to be just right.
We returned our campervan by the airport and took a shuttle bus right to the front door of our hostel in one of the historic precincts near the city center. A residential area consisting mainly of wooden houses from the beginning of the 20th century. Even though many of these buildings were also damaged during the earthquake, it was mostly cosmetic damages or damages so small that the houses were still habitable. Our hostel was a house built in 1903 and it was beautiful!
After almost 3 months in a campervan it was great to once again sleep in a proper bed. Even though we have occasionally stayed in other hostels and cabins along the way, the body does not easily forget a long time of neglect on thin mattresses. As we got near to our departure, we felt the protests from our bruised bodies and we looked forward to the day when our life as campers would be over. We have thoroughly enjoyed it while it lasted, but now it is time for other ways of traveling.
We spent our days in Christchurch walking through the streets observing how the city is slowly recovering. But there is still a long way to go!
In the area just around our hostel we did not really see many visible signs of the earthquake. But as we walked a bit further down the same street, towards the city center, it occurred to us that there is no city center left at all. Instinctively we expected the busy city life with offices, shops and cafés to come right around the next corner. But all we saw was open areas with rubbles and gravel. Where the tall buildings once stood there is just bare grounds by now. Occasionally we saw the remains from concrete foundations where they had not yet been completely removed. Many buildings still stand with large cracks in the walls, shattered windows and big holes in the roofs. Those places where you are not allowed to enter, a surrounding fence has been placed to keep people away. On every front door a certificate has been placed to inform you whether it is safe to enter or not. We saw shopping malls, whole streets of shops and even large public buildings, like the public library, all abandoned and surrounded by fences. Just left behind, standing there like sad monuments awaiting their destiny. Reparation or demolition. Most of them will be demolished. The central, pedestrian shopping street is completely gone. Instead they have set up shipping containers, now housing cafés and shops. The Re:Start Mall. Actually a very, very good idea! One of the most important things in order to get the city back on track is to get shops up and running and make it attractive for people to visit Christchurch. This absolutely works 100%! As we strolled down through the Re:Start Mall we completely forgot all about the other areas of the city. Right here, Christchurch seemed like any other thriving city. Some of the first buildings to either be repaired or rebuilt are the hotels. And a few of the larger banks.
A very smart move was made amidst all the sadness. The city council got the locals actively involved in the rebuilding of the city. True to democracy everyone was asked to submit their visions for the future Christchurch. One example is that the citizens do not want the central business district to be as concentrated as it once was. They want more residential buildings to be mixed in there as well. And much more green areas. So in the new city center there will be a better mix. But in other areas of the city they want things to be more in categorized precincts. Health clinics and “similar professions” will be located near the hospital (which by the way was not so severely damaged). Cinemas, Theaters and other entertainment businesses will be put together in one area. Supermarkets and malls as well. There will be a completely different infrastructure in the future, now that everything has to be built up from the ground anyway. Only time will tell if this is all really working out as intended.
In spite of the fact that the city is as destroyed as it actually is, I find it has a certain “sympathetic” feel. The citizens are determined to get Christchurch back on its feet again as soon as possible. And they are determined to do this the right way. However, insurance companies are dragging their feet, arguing with both private families, commercial enterprises and the public earthquake committee over who should pay and to what extent. Many families are now financially ruined. After 3 years the rebuilding of the city is only just slowly getting started. Many locals are angry that hotels, theaters and other cultural institutions are favoured over private residencies. I understand this and I would most likely feel the same way. On the other hand it is very important to get the commercial businesses back on their feet, so that the local economy can recover. Then everything will follow.
One of the most devastating losses is without any doubt the cathedral. At first it was not so severely damaged and plans were quickly made for the repairs. But the many aftershocks destroyed the whole building so severely, that it has now been decided to demolish it, and build a new and more contemporary, earthquake resistant cathedral on the same site. THAT is sad! But it would simply be far too expensive to rebuild the old cathedral the way it was, and make it earthquake resistant at the same time.
Meanwhile another, temporary “cathedral” has been built elsewhere in the city. The “Cardboard Cathedral” is a really beautiful monument and a reminder that even though the city is severely damaged, life goes on. And of course the local citizens need a place to go with their grief and their memories. The cathedral opened up just a few months ago and has very quickly become a massive attraction. It is built on a steel frame, but with heavy cardboard tubes covering it, so that it looks like the cardboard is holding the entire roof together. It has already been decided that the building will be preserved and used as a church after the new cathedral has eventually been built, where the old one once stood. I am rather old-fashioned when it comes to churches. I prefer the more traditional architecture. But the Cardboard Cathedral was surprisingly nice to stay in, and we just sat for a while in quietness and took it all in.
As already written, Christchurch has a sympathetic feel. In spite of this we all felt an ever increasing sadness creeping in. It is really hard to explain. It just came as we walked through the streets, looking at all the shattered buildings and empty spaces. It was very overwhelming to see, even so long after it happened. Anton also understood quite well that something very bad had happened here. At night he talked about the damaged churches that we had walked by. However, the irrepressible determination with which the citizens are now getting back on their feet made the overall experience a great and positive one for all three of us!
On our last day in Christchurch we got up and got ready for our departure. We packed our backpacks and left quite a bit of clothes behind, to be given to charity. (In the US we will go SHOPPING!). Then we took a shuttle bus back to the airport. This is also the location for the International Antarctic Center. Center for scientific research in Antarctica and for polar expeditions. The US Army also has its Antarctic headquarter here. There is a corner with a public museum, where it is possible (upon paying entrance fee) to get in and experience a wind tunnel with minus 8 degrees celsius that will give you a feel for what a polar storm is like. You can see penguins and many interesting and very engaging exhibitions about animal life in Antarctica. Also a great exhibition about polar exploring over the past 100 years. Thankfully, they have made a small children’s corner, so that the parents can walk around quietly immersing themselves in science. We also tried the tracked vehicles that are normally used on the ice shelf to climb hills (up to 35 degrees) and to cross lakes and crevasses. Behind the museum a rather hilly and bumpy track has been built to give the tourists a feel for what it is like to sit inside such a vehicle when it is in use. I was quite happy that the journey only took like 5 minutes! Anton was thrilled and could have stayed longer!
We left Christchurch on our first flight at 1630 hours in the afternoon. After a stop in Auckland we boarded the next plane to San Francisco. Here we boarded our final plane to Seattle, finally arriving at 1500 hours in the afternoon on the same date that we had left New Zealand. In other words we arrived 1,5 hours BEFORE we left. We crossed an international date line and quite a few time zones. Remarkably, none of us had any struggles with this. We went to bed a bit early on the first night, but the next morning we were all adjusted.
And now we are in the United States of America. We will stay here for 3 months. We are planning a short trip to Canada, which is not too far away. Vancouver is supposed to be very nice and incredibly beautiful. Even though it is almost winter. We will be seeing and exploring Seattle and spend some time with our hosts here. Daniela is a former school friend of Alexandra’s and she lives here in the city of Olympia, apprx. a one-hour drive south of Seattle. She has been kind to let us stay with her and her family for some days. This is a perfect way for us to relax a bit and to get a close look at the american everyday life. After this we will be driving further south, towards Oregon and California.
We have rented a normal car. Alexandra had made extensive research and found the right solution for us. Upon pick up, they tried to upgrade us anyway (involving a “minor” fee, of course!), even though most cars over here are significantly larger than what we are used to from Europe. Or Australia and New Zealand for that matter. Then they tried to sell us an insurance package, which would in fact double our daily rental cost. Finally they tried to sell us a GPS system that they felt we would need. We politely declined it all. Towards the end the guy who helped us was not at all smiling the way he did when we first entered. Obviously we did not really bring him any commission!
We are quite happy with the car we ended up with. A nice Ford Fusion. I am certain it will be of great service to us during our week-long journey down along the west coast and inland towards Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.