The flight to Christchurch, New Zealand was a bit rough. We sat on the runway for some time and then the captain announced that we had to go back to the tarmack because something on the plane wasn’t working. I cannot remember what he called it, but from the tone of the captain’s voice it appeared to be rather inconsequential. He sounded irritated that whoever was in charge of the take off wanted it fixed. It reminded me of the last Friends episode when, in an attempt to stop Rachel from moving to Paris, Phoebe tells Rachel that something is wrong with the left “filangi.” For all I know the left filangi is exactly the reason our take off was delayed for a couple of hours. As for the flight itself, I remember on more than one occasion the plane’s tail jerked from right to left. Not surprising since the Tasman Sea is notorious for its wind; heck these winds are responsible over the past 23 millions of years for blowing over Australian birds to New Zealand where they have since evolved and become “native” New Zealanders. This includes the most loved and cherished of all NZ birds, the kiwi. Like many other feathered friends of the land, the kiwi is flightless, but only became so after a period of evolution.
I was due to arrive in Christchurch at the akward and inconvenient time of 12:50am. Fortunately there was a lounge for overnighters where I crashed until being awoken by airport staff at around 7 in the morning.
I spent three nights at the Urbanz Hostel. Unlike my dark, and dirty hostel in Sydney, this place was clean and spacious with very comfy beds. I took the day to walk around Christchurch and had a hard time putting my finger around how this could possibly be the second largest city in New Zealand; it seemed so quiet and empty. I walked along the underwhelmingly small Avon River and through the botanical gardens. But apart from that, there wasn’t all that much to see, except for the remnants of the earthquakes that hit five years ago.
In September of 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch. It didn’t cause all that much damage, but on February 22nd, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake did. This second quake was much shallower and it shook the ground violently causing the people on the ground to feel twice the force of gravity, enough to knock you off your feet. Buildings collapsed, debris fell everywhere, and after the final tally, 185 people had lost their lives.
A thick round jovial woman in her early thirties checked into the hostel later in the day after I had returned from my tour. She was friendly and outgoing and I soon learned of the reason for her visit to Christchurch. She grew up there but had since moved to Adelaide, Australia and had had three children. Her sister, 18 at the time, and her sister’s baby – only five days old – lost their lives on that fateful day of February 22nd. Another woman whom she called “Auntie, ” whether blood relatedness not I am not sure, also perished on that day. This was the first time my new roommate had come back to Christchurch since the quake and she was there to participate in the commemoration of the five year anniversary. “I prefer the comfort of strangers to family this weekend,” she told me. “Staying with family is just too difficult.”
As I walked from place to place over the next few days, I started to get a better picture of why Christchurch seemed so quiet. First, a number of lots were empty, as unsafe buildings had to be taken down. The recovery had been slow and many people waited for the insurance companies to pay them what they were owed. “This is not the same city I grew up in,” the young women told me. “Last night was a Friday night and it felt like a Monday night; there was absolutely nobody out and about. I don’t even recognize the place.”
On Saturday I met up with Kelsey and Christina, a lovely Canadian couple, perhaps around my age, whom I had the fortune of getting in contact with through KP (who just may in fact have friends in every corner of the world!). We had a great time chatting. I received some travel tips and I learned more about Christchurch. “People are still afraid to come downtown. A lot of people have moved away entirely,” Kelsey told me. I can’t say I blame them. Christchurch experienced 10,000 aftershocks. 10,000! Multiple earthquakes a day for months upon months. If that doesn’t make you feel edgy and want to pick up and leave…
The lonely planet guide paints a rosy picture of the how the spirit of Christchurch is helping the people here to rebuild and reshape the future. But it isn’t. Christchurch is a sleeping city. The Anglican Cathedral, the iconic symbol of the city, sits in a crumpled state of disrepair, a whole end of it ripped away, as the city debates how and if the church should be repaired. Empty square plots dot the downtown area like a speckled quilt. The bulletins along the river were not so much about what the river park looks like now, but what it supposedly will look like someday when and if building projects ever get finished.
On Monday, the day of the five year anniversary, I was busy trying to get out of the city. Just that morning I had bought a 1998 Honda minivan for 1400 US dollars and was about to spend five plus weeks on the road. A lot of preparation was necessary. I would have liked in some regard to have attended the memorial in the botanical gardens. But it was just as well that I didn’t. After all, although the damage that the earthquake had done and the stories that I heard shocked me, I was a half a world away when it happened. Although in some respect I mourned with them, it was not my city to mourn. But as I rushed to pack my stuff into my new purchase I was aware of the time – 12:51pm. A group of people had settled in front of my car and remained there to honor the moment, a few of them looking down at their watches as they did so. The city became motionless again. I could only freeze as if the national anthem were playing. This song though was silent.
That afternoon I was about to see whether the purchase of an 18 year-old car was a good idea or not. I tested her out on the coastal roads of the Banks Pennisula, a stunningly beautiful drive. The peninsula was formed 8 million years ago from volcanic eruption. The middle of the volcano now makes up the rather large habour in the middle of the peninsula – it must have been some explosion. The outer reaches of the peninsula contain bay after bay, that I could have explored for almost a week, but with just six weeks in New Zealand I have to be prudent about the time I allow myself to stay in each place.
I learned quickly that any sign that says that a road is not appropriate for camper vans is also probably not appropriate for me or my mini van. Early on Tuesday I found myself high above the valley floor on a one lane dirt road. Nowhere to turn around. The only way was up! I had to go to another place mentally and put all my focus on the road in front of me. Never did I once look down.
Located in the middle of the peninsula on the harbor, the town of Akoroa tries very hard to be French, with good reason, after all a number of French settlers made their home there as early as the 1840s. Today all the street names start with “Rue” and the cafes have French names. They embrace their French beginnings and this is part of what makes it a tourist draw, particularly for francophones. Fortunately there was no need to get by on my rudimentary French: this officially was and still is an English speaking town.
The next day, I climbed Stony Bay Peak and was awarded with tremendous views of the harbor and of the surrounding countryside that very much looked like it could have been cut out of a European landscape from the hills of northern Switzerland or the Welsh countryside. I drove along the rim of the ancient volcano on Summit Road and visited the Maori Museum at Okains Bay on my way back to Christchurch.
On Thursday I headed for Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. Along the way I stopped at Lake Tepako and hiked the Mt. John loop along the lake and up the the peak, which has an observatory and is apparently one of the best places in the world to look at the night sky. Nestled at the top, which Lonely Planet describes as “perhaps the best place in the world for a cafe…is… a cafe! The views from all directions looked far off to distant mountains. I was trapped in an ever-ending sea of them…
But it was cloudy and windy and I didn’t stay long. When I got to Mount Cook National Park, the visitor center’s weather report for the next few days looked miserable – heavy rain forecasted. I figured I better get a good walk in while the weather was holding out, so I tromped up to Kea Point and looked out over Mueller Lake and the Mueller Glacier and up to Mt. Sefton, but the top was covered in clouds. Still, the surrounding glaciers were quite impressive. A look to the east and before my wondering eyes appeared…Mt. Cook, in all its majesty! – and the highest in New Zealand. At 3700 meters (over 12,000 ft) this is no joke of a mountain. It was first climbed in 1894 by a team of New Zealanders who raced to beat an Englishman to the top who had to his advantage a new climbing invention: crampons. In 1913, the first woman climbed the peak. Since then 1000s have reached the summit. But this is no easy mountain and around a hundred and fifty people have died on its steep slopes. It takes real technical climbing skill to reach the summit; it’s more technical then say Mt. Everest but you don’t have the altitude to deal with.
It was in fact these Southern Alps that served as the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary who would later, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, be the first to conquer Everest. Hillary is a legend in New Zealand. He may be the only living person to have his face on his country’s currency. (He died in 2008.) When he finished his climbing career he continued to spend a lot of time in Nepal and rose money for numerous projects. He built schools, hospitals, and airports. He was quite shy and timid in his early years and struggled socially. He had an almost disease-like lack of confidence until his climbing days. He once said, “I know that I am a very ordinary person. I think I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities, many of which I’ve thought up myself, but then so have so many people…I have discovered that even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve.”
I admire him greatly.
The wind gusted something great that night rocking my mini van back and forth as I slumbered on the double mattress in the back. I have a built-in skylight that allows me to look right up at the stars. The moon was full early in the week and became something of a nighttime companion, a gentle reminder (I suppose) that even though I am 8000 miles from home, at least I am still on the same planet (New Zealand is not in fact, despite popular opinion, Middle Earth.)
When I woke up – sunlight! A beautiful morning, but the wind was still magnificent. I could not wait to take advantage of the sunshine and I made the arduous walk fighting hurricane force gusts to reach Hooker Lake with the glacier beyond and even more breathtaking views of Mt. Cook. I asked myself if wind like this could possibly be at all frequent here and I came to my own conclusion that yes, it must be, because normally there would be natural debris from such winds. But here the grasses and bushes took the full force of the tremendous gusts and didn’t so much as lose a blade or a branch. These are tough plants and this is a tough land.
In the afternoon I visited Tasman Lake, a body of water that did not exist 30 years ago, but is growing so rapidly in the wake of the quickly receding glacier that it is currently retreating up into the mountains at, on average, 3/8 of a mile a year! When this valley floor was covered with ice during the last ice age, temperatures were only 5-8 degrees Celsius cooler than they are today. But like in other places in the world, in the last 100 years there has been a rapid increase in the rate of the disappearance of glacial ice.
I returned to the campsite in the evening after visiting the Hillary Center located at the Hermitage Hotel. My campsite happens to be the site of the first Hermitage Hotel. It was a haven for rich adventure seekers around the turn of last century. But the first hotel fell victim to a flood from Lake Mueller and it was rebuilt at its current site near the visitor center.
Although the wind had died down some in the afternoon it remained throughout the night and a steady drizzle joined in after dark. In the morning I left Mt. Cook National Park and the brooding clouds of the West Coast mountains behind for sunny skies as I headed south then east.
I put in some miles crossing Dansey’s Pass on a desolate stretch of curvy dirt road along a deep gully, and then to Naseby, a cute little town that looked like it belonged somewhere on the western frontier in the US, despite the fact that it is located in what is called the Black Forest. Only a 100 residents call this place a permanent home, but they have cashed in on some historic buildings that help give this place its charm. This was gold rush country in the 1860s, and along with farming, helped Naseby and nearby towns grow up.
Back on the coast, I headed to the decent size town of Oamaru (emphasis on the “u”). In the 1880s this town was the same size as Los Angeles at the same time. It thrived on farming, the gold rush, and a natural harbor. But a drop in agricultural prices, the need for larger harbors for bigger ships, and the temperance movement all contributed to the decline of the town. What’s left today is amazing neoclassical architectural buildings that line its main drag, which admittedly seem too extravagant for a town of its size (just 12,000 people).
Next its on to Dunedin before heading to the southernmost point of the South Island. I hope to get some good tramping in soon.