It would have been unfair, prior to the rumblings over the last couple of years, to describe Christchurch, New Zealand as “sleepy”. But it was definitely free of the drama and devastation that the series of earthquakes, which began in September 2010 with a major repeat in February 2011, have brought to this beautiful South Island city. I visited a few weeks ago, and was struck by the placid resourcefulness of the city and its inhabitants, who seem to have accepted temblors as part of their lifestyle and are just getting on with things regardless.
The skyline was the first thing that struck me. Downtown, dozens of cranes dot the horizon, pointing to an effort, I thought, to get things rebuilt quickly. Not so fast! The cranes are actually dismantling buildings—dozens of them—both old and new. A history seemingly free of seismic activity led to building codes that paid little heed to earthquake-proofing, and now the city is paying the price, with modern apartment buildings and office towers falling to the same fate as 19th century churches: while they’re still standing, they are so hopelessly damaged that demolition is the only way forward.
All of this has left the city centre a shadow of itself, with whole blocks unoccupied and the bustle of downtown economics reduced to a whisper. That’s a condition the people of Christchurch realised they needed to fix quickly, and they’ve been innovative in their response: key weapons are hundreds of 40-foot shipping containers, removed from their natural home on the oceans and pressed into service as coffee shops, retail stores, information booths and very, very cool bars. “Container architecture” is nothing new but Christchurch is giving it a real push, driven by the necessity of providing a home to small business and a tangible means of keeping the city alive.
Viator’s Christchurch-based tour operators continue to do good business: the city is the starting point for a wide range of South Island tours and has many popular attractions within its limits. The Christchurch Tramway, the Botanic Gardens, the TranzAlpine Train, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and International Antarctic Centre are all popular with Viator customers and are doing their bit to rebuild the economy with a steady stream of bookings, lower than pre-quakes but certainly trending upwards again.
Don’t let Christchurch’s rocking and rolling put you off a visit to this beautiful city; there’s plenty happening here, and it’s still the best way to start a trip to the rest of New Zealand’s scenic treasures.
- Rod Cuthbert