Monday, January 07, 2013

Little Britain

It's almost impossible to go anywhere further from the UK than New Zealand. This is to be the apex of my journey and from here on I will only be getting closer to home and a return to the "real world". I arrived in Christchurch on a cold, blustery New Years Day. Apparently someone had forgotten to tell them that it was supposed to be summer here in the southern hemisphere. But that didn't faze me too much as it just added to the feeling of being back in the UK. For a long time New Zealand styled itself as the Little Britain of the southern hemisphere, and nowhere is that spirit stronger than in Christchurch. Founded by an alumnus of Christ Church college Oxford the city boasts a very olde English atmosphere, with architecture, boutiques and parks that are reminiscent of the old country. Cricket, afternoon tea and well-tended gardens are very much the order of the day. In fact, for much of its independent history, New Zealand has seen itself as the "Britain of the southern hemisphere" with Christchurch the heart of that Britishness.

Christchurch cathedral, once the symbol of the city, but now nothing more than an empty shell  held up by  scaffolding. Its future, as well as that of the rest of the city centre, is uncertain.

Of course all that changed two years ago with an earthquake that devastated huge swathes of the city, especially the centre. The February 22nd quake may have only measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, but coming hard on the heels of a previous quake only six months before it that had softened up many of the buildings, and with the epicentre unusually close to the earth's surface and only 10km from the city centre, the devastation was considerable. Power and water systems may have been restored relatively quickly but the city as a whole will take years to get back to anything resembling normality. The city lies on flat, low-lying, boggy ground, and the rearrangement of the ground caused the groundwater to seep up creating gooey, destructive liquefaction that undermined entire neighbourhoods and churned up many streets. The centre was particularly hard hit: the iconic cathedral was irreparably damaged whilst entire city blocks had to be condemned, forcing businesses that service the entire South Island to close or relocate.

Christchurch's Re:START mall, made entirely from brightly coloured shipping containers, in the small part of the CBD that is open to the public, is a great example of Kiwi ingenuity and resilience in the face of adversity.

Almost two years on and entire neighbourhoods, rendered uninhabitable, have turned into ghost towns, whereas large swathes of the city centre are still cordoned off, the skeletons of buildings still awaiting the wrecking ball. Peoples' homes are slowly being repaired when possible whilst swathes of new accommodation is being erected in satellite settlements. There are silver linings to be found though: a solidarity that has arisen amongst the population who came together to form an army of volunteers during the darkest hours; a spirit of ingenuity as people have taken back their ruined city in quirky was, setting up impromptu football pitches and recreational areas where office buildings once stood, establishing a mall in the heart of the city made entirely from shipping containers, and packaging earthquake tours for passing tourists; and most importantly, the almost complete devastation of the centre has provided the opportunity to create a modern, 21st century city nucleus with a blank slate, a rare chance indeed. Despite the continuing difficulties there is a sense of optimism in the air, and I would be very curious to see whether Christchurch is able to rise like the phoenix it would like to be from its rubbley ashes.

Stopping off at the famous Sheffield pie shop to catch one of its gourmet pies (well, gourmet for New Zealand, where cuisine is modelled on 1960's British fare) with Liam and Eila.

I was lucky to get a lot of this information first hand (including a "live" description of the fateful day) from my friends Liam and Eila who were in Christchurch during the two quakes and the thousands of subsequent aftershocks. Whilst they gave me a good overview of Christchurch's recent woes, they also took me out to see the local environs of the Canterbury region. From the coves, bays and quaint coastal towns of the Banks Peninsula to the bare mountains of the Southern Alps in the west. My particular favourite is a little-known spot up in the highlands west of Christchurch called Cave Stream. Since the Kiwis are not particularly imaginative when it comes to naming things it's exactly what the name suggests: a stream that plunges into the rock and gouges out a narrow, sinuous cave until it comes out half a mile later. Not only can you admire it from either end, but you can wade up through the icy waters and pitch black cave, negotiating the sometimes strong currents and little waterfalls. It can be quite challenging when there's been some rain, and most people when we visited had to turn back as they were unable to negotiate one of the stronger falls. The best thing though is that there is no entry fee, barrier or other hindrance to embarking on this mini adventure, and the risks you take (small, but there nevertheless) are your responsibility alone. Something that is exceedingly rare in our ever more pampered and health-and-safety conscious world.

The entrance to cave stream (where the stream comes out of the rock as you  wade through it against the current), looking like the lair of some giant worm.

I then shamelessly used Liam and Eila as a storage space to leave some of my less-useful and more cumbersome belongings before heading out to explore the wild and rugged southern reaches of the South Island.

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