Sunday, March 18, 2012

Being humbled in Christchurch

After our accommodation debacle we headed off to find a motel for the night - we pointed ourselves in the direction of the airport, figuring there’s always last minute accommodation around airports, but on the way stumbled upon a great little motel so we stopped there for the night. As I was checking in, the owner started to show me a few places on the map. I noticed that we were staying on the edge of the red zone, which he had kindly marked on the map - a sizeable chunk of the CBD which is currently shut off to the public while dangerous buildings are removed and the area is made safe again. When we’d first talked about going to Christchurch, some friends and family had asked us if we should really go there now, but everything I saw when I researched it suggested that Christchurch was encouraging tourists to start coming back, and we felt compelled to support that notion and include it in our great tour of New Zealand in the same way as we would have done pre-earthquake. We’d searched carefully for accommodation that said it was away from the earthquake hit areas, but here we were, right in the city, a block from some of the worst devastation.

We dumped our bags, then headed out to have a look around and get some food for dinner. We had only been walking for a minute or two when we saw fencing along the pavement - looking through we saw a church, closed since February 2011, the walls cracked and damaged, with Mary standing facing it, as if assessing the damage, made quite a statement. On the opposite side of the road was a motel, open for business with it’s vacancy sign burning bright, while the four houses standing right next to it were surrounded by more fencing, massive cracks visible right through the middle of each roof, the blackened evidence of a fire that had burned inside stood out stark against the white wall, while a recovery worker was busy at the front of the building.

The motel next door was open for business - it amazed me how often we saw buildings standing shoulder to shoulder, one apparently unscathed while the other was a crumbling wreck

It was confronting. A few weeks ago, on the first anniversary of Christchurch’s big earthquake, we watched When a City Falls by Gerard Smyth, which was an excellent documentary showing the devastation through the eyes of a Christchurch local, and of course I had seen the news reports when the earthquakes happened, but nothing could have prepared me for the city that we were starting to see. When I was chatting to our motel owner later, he pointed out that the media shows images of the same buildings over and over again, leading us to assume that the worst of the damage is limited to those few buildings.

Some of the games machines were still inside

The area behind High Street - previously a major shopping area in Christchurch

We continued on, soon coming up against more fencing; this time it shut off entire streets, cordoning the red zone. In front of us was the Crown Plaza hotel, and although it was Friday evening, there was still a team working away, meticulously pulling the unsafe building apart one small step after another. There were a couple of people standing by watching; locals, I assumed, looks of awe on their faces, maybe they were visiting memories of happier times, maybe they were recalling the chaos of that fateful day, or maybe, like us, they were trying to wrap their heads around what they were seeing.

Smashed windows, wooden boards and fencing were a feature around most of the streets of the CBD
We walked on, skirting the perimeter of the red zone, walking carefully over cracked, raised pavements, all around us evidence of the day that Christchurch fell; broken windows, abandoned offices and the tell tale spray paint of the rescue teams who painstakingly combed the city looking for survivors in the days after.

It was Friday evening, a time when you would expect bars around a city centre to be heaving with office workers, keen to shrug off the working week and loosen their ties in preparation for the weekend ahead. The place was like a ghost town. Apart from the constant clunk and whir of machinery, the odd small group of tourists doing roughly the same as we were, and one or two people scurrying home at the end of their day, there was no other evidence of life. Our idea of getting dinner was fast becoming a ridiculous notion - we walked for almost two hours, admittedly with stops to gaze with wonder, before we found a Subway which was open and sold us what would become dinner.

The sun going down in the red zone - the sparkle on the pavement is broken glass, still lying there since the quake

One thing that I found particularly striking was the feeling that all this had just happened yesterday - peering through one section of fence would reveal smashed glass and crumbled concrete, look up and you would see smashed windows, curtains or blinds gently fluttering in the breeze, and everywhere was evidence of time stopping; posters advertising 2011 events, a set of flowerpots on a balcony which had clearly fallen over with the earthquake and their owner never been back inside to pick them up, and desks, stacked high with papers, chairs flung back as their occupants fled, thirteen months ago.

Many of the abandoned houses have ladders hanging from the upper floors 

All of this adds to the feeling of being in a ghost town, but much more than that, it gives a glimpse of the panic of the moment, and acts as a poignant reminder of just how much the earthquake devastated the city - we saw people working every moment we were there, and yet a whole year plus hadn’t been enough time for them to reach these areas, to fix these things. Being so soon after the one year anniversary, we saw dedications attached to fences and lamposts of those who had died near that spot. I was moved to tears several times.

Looking at the flower tributes on the perimeter fence

I found these flowers particularly moving - for the  lives lost on a bus - one of the tributes was for a young boy

We walked the entire perimeter of the red zone, and returned to our motel weary. Only one of us fell asleep easily, and slept soundly.

Pop up shops - made from shipping containers - ingenious!
The next morning, we packed up and left our motel and then drove to the other side of the city centre, to an area known as the pop up mall. We’d walked through it the previous evening and were so impressed - it’s a street of shops, banks and food outlets made entirely from shipping containers which has sprung up since the earthquake. It’s ingenious and I love it. We were looking for a farmers market that was rumoured to have started up near there. I’m so glad that we did return there - the area was buzzing, alive with people of all ages, going about there Saturday mornings and blowing life into Christchurch.

The pop up mall was alive with people on Saturday morning. We joined the queue of people to the left.

We didn’t find the market, but we did find a massive queue of people snaking through the mall, and moving forward at a reasonable speed. Remembering what another tourist had said to me the night before - that the red zone was being opened up for public access this weekend - we joined the throngs, and before we knew it, we were working our way through the usually out of bounds streets to the infamous Christchurch Cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral

Turning the corner and seeing what is left of  the Cathedral for the first time was a humbling moment, seeing the people of Christchurch going through this same passage much more so. The pathway to Cathedral Square was hushed and thoughtful, in spite of the huge number of people walking along. But the atmosphere in the Square was different; uplifting, and a definite positive vibe. It was an amazing thing to be standing in the middle of, to be a part of. I’m so glad that we returned in the morning, that we were able to feel the positive vibe that the people of Christchurch were living by and feel the life and soul of the city.

The Christchurch wizard had plenty to say, and people were gathered around him listening

Yellow ribbons inscribed with messages of hope 

Visiting Christchurch was an overwhelmingly sobering experience, a stark blast of reality that shook us right to our roots and made us shed tears, sit up and pay attention. After 24 hours, we were ready to leave, the weight of sadness bore heavy on our hearts. I have so much admiration for the people of Christchurch; they show such strength and durability as a community. Shining through the dust covered rubble, I could see glimmers of the city that was, and signs of a city that will rebuild itself. I saw a city that I would have loved to visit, and from everyone I spoke to I sensed a determination that one day Christchurch will be that same place again. And I look forward to returning some day soon.


  1. I never realised how much would be cut off from the rest of the area in Christchurch. Never realised that there was a red area. It looks really spooky.
    Also did not realise that people had lost their lives in the earthquake.
    Love the shipping container shopping centre - brilliant!

    1. I'm really glad we went Lisa, because there were a few things I didn't realise either, like the red zone, the extent of it, and the amount of damage and devastation that is still there now. I think the number of people who died was 185, so very sad. There was an art installation at one of the churches with one white chair for each person who died, each chair was different, and it was very moving to look at. The shopping centre was ery inspiring though!

  2. Great post. The people of Christchurch have had the toughest time.

    1. Thanks Carole. They really have had it rough, I have so much adrimation at their resolve to keep going.

  3. Glad to see the Wizard is still going strong. I remember him well. Very sad to see the Cathedral in that state.

  4. Yep, the wizard was still there, I read an article about him disappearing for a while after the earthquake, but I heard a few people around me commenting that he'd had a lot to say recently. I really enjoyed watching him debating with the crown gathered around him. It was sad to see the cathedral, in fact the whole city, in such a sorry state.