It’s been over two years since the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake that destroyed large areas of the city and killed 185 people, and yet, when you stand in the central streets, you could be forgiven for thinking it all happened yesterday.
Everywhere you look are barren patches of ground, construction sites or, eerier still, cordoned off buildings with stock laying exactly where it fell all those months ago.
A major problem was not how many buildings crumbled following the quake, but how many were deemed to be structurally unsafe afterwards. This has led to whole blocks becoming derelict as their owners wait patiently for them to be razed to the ground.
When I spoke to locals, the general feeling was that the situation was improving – but exceptionally slowly, with the main issue being disputes between insurance companies and surveyors from the Earthquake Commission as to whether or not specific buildings could be saved.
What does the future hold?
While there are clearly major issues to address and it will take many years before Christchurch is restored to its former state, it was encouraging to see progress being made.
Throughout the city are projects aimed at brightening up the streets and providing temporary shelter for businesses. None stands out more than the Re:START project in the central business district, where brightly coloured shipping containers have been brought in to provide retail space for over 50 businesses, including cafes, gift stores and fashion boutiques.
Taking a city tour
While many tourism operators suffered a loss of business or closed down all together, there are a number still running tours throughout Christchurch and, along with the surrounding Canterbury Plains, it still has plenty to offer.
People have started to leave Christchurch out of their New Zealand itineraries or to only use it to break up their journey down the east coast, but I’m a huge advocate of tourists staying a night or two in the area. It’s important to support the local economy at a time like this, and to help spread the message that aid is still needed.
I took part in a city tour run by Welcome Aboard, which included punting on the river Avon, a ride in the Gondola for panoramic views of the city, and a tour of the botanic gardens on a bright green electric-powered ‘caterpillar’ vehicle.
Probably my favourite quote of the day was when our tour guide Ian said ‘So, you’ve come all the way from England to the antipodes to go punting?’
I guess when he put it that way, it sounded a little crazy, but I’m actually glad my first experience of this relaxing pastime was on the other side of the world from England. It made it more unique that my exquisitely dressed punter was from Fiji rather than being some high-league Oxbridge student trying to make a few extra bucks.
The experience was made yet more enjoyable by the fact that they gave us each a hot water bottle and blanket for the duration of the trip. I could have stayed on board all day.
At the top of the Gondola, you have the chance to grab some lunch from a wide selection of hot and cold meals in the hilltop cafe.
There’s a gift shop to look around, and if you’re lucky your Welcome Aboard tour guide might give you a 10% off voucher to spend there.
If you have time, you should check out the Time Tunnel – a 7-minute gentle ride through a museum in electronic carriages. Included in your Grand Tour ticket, this exhibition is made up of sculpted scenes and video information on the history of New Zealand. Since the basic premise already bears close resemblance to a ghost train, it’s fitting that the girl used to narrate the movies (apparently, the General Manager’s daughter) is more than a little creepy!
Winter perhaps wasn’t the best time of year to take a tour of the botanic gardens. Once again, they provided blankets and, as we huddled under them, our enthusiastic guide told us pretty much everything there is to know about the local and imported species.
Plants aren’t really my thing, but it was a pleasant tour, and we also got to see an impressive sculpture by the Mexican-born artist Hector Zamora. The large-scale installation called Muegano was intended to ‘generate reflection about the implication of traditional house structures in Western culture’.
The piece would have been placed in Victoria Square but, when the earthquakes happened, it was instead given a temporary home in the gardens.
Time to spare?
At the end of your tour, it’s well worth taking the time to wander through the city. The Canterbury Museum has free entry, and you can also visit a moving memorial to those who lost their lives.
Getting to Christchurch
Intercity Buses provide services to Christchurch from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Kaikoura (3 hours); Mt Cook (5 hours); Picton (6 hours) and Queenstown (8 hours + with the option to spend a bit of time in Mt Cook). Further transfers are available from these locations. See the Intercity website for a full list of their services and bus pass options. To get between Christchurch and the west coast, the Kiwi Rail Tranzalpine Scenic Train to/from Greymouth is your best bet. It takes just over 4 hours, the scenery is fantastic and there’s plenty of interesting commentary too.
Where to stay
I stayed with a friend in Christchurch so am not in a position to recommend a particular hostel. However, I would advise that bookings are made ahead of time, even in low season, because hospitality has been limited since the earthquake.
I was a guest of Welcome Aboard as part of my partnership with 100% Pure New Zealand. They did not request that I write a favourable review and any opinions expressed here are my own.