Part Six: We took the next leg of our journey by airplane; leaving our car on the North Island would allow us to take the rail line on the South Island and come back as foot passengers on the huge InterIsland Ferry. It took an hour to fly from Wellington to Christchurch. The plane was a small one that we boarded from the tarmac (it’s always exciting to walk out into the open air and up the steps to your plane—there’s an extra sense of adventure, colored by the roar of the propellers and the old pictures of movie stars and presidents turning for a photo op on the plane stairs). The plane that AirNZ flies between the islands is an Aerospatiale ATR72 , made by the same company that made the Concorde.
Once we landed, our trip began to veer into Plan B territory. We’d thought of going to the Antarctic Center (I read that 70% of all the people flying to the Antarctic take off from Christchurch) and/or renting bicycles to tour around the largely flat city, but I was feeling a little low-energy. Punting on the Avon River was perfect, because after walking for 45 minutes to the CBD, I just wanted to sit and let the riverbank stream past. The kiddos didn’t mind it either.
Christchurch is a sprawly sort of city, which I wasn’t expecting. Some parts of the outer city and suburbs look like they’ve recovered well from the devastating 2010-2011 quakes, while the main part of the CBD is still in utter shambles, enough to make your heart catch in your throat for a second.
This is Christchurch Cathedral, at the heart of the city.
(Map source: blog.teara.govt.nz)
You can see the clear zones of earthquake risk in this map. Up in the Far North where we live, it’s pretty low-risk, but even the areas of less severe risk (such as where Christchurch is) can be hugely disrupted if a quake is a lateral one where the earth shifts sideways rather than up and down.
As we walked along the city sidewalks and through the huge Hagley Park, which the river punter/guide told us was the 3rd largest city park in the world (after Central Park in NYC and Stanley Park in Vancouver), we talked about soul and what it means for a place to have soul. Having driven through, walked about in, and stayed in numerous towns and cities at this point, we had some items at hand for a list:
A city must:
Have a walkable urban center or small centers. Christchurch is still suffering, not least because its main central square is cordoned off and bulldozers still taking down half-collapsed buildings. We couldn’t find the natural gathering place in the evening, and it was a sort of dispiriting walk back along vehicle-heavy roads to get to our lodgings.
Have street musicians. Buskers are an infusion of beauty (even if they’re not always very good, and maybe especially then, they tend to provoke a rush of sympathy from me) into a space that often sorely needs beauty.
Have non-chain stores. Just as in the USA, New Zealand towns and cities have their chains that pop up again and again, flattening differences that would naturally arise from the area’s people, tastes, and natural resources. Okay, okay, we did patronize St. Pierre Presents Sushi of Japan, and it was a very good lunch. Seeing a place you know has food you can eat is a relief, and the dependability factor makes this issue of chain stores tricky.
Have trees and green spaces. Christchurch is called the Garden City, though there are many areas within the shadow of its sprawl that are overrun with weeds. You know what I mean, because you’ve seen it too, in other cities: the sad patch of yellow weeds behind a business, the strip of planter bed between a parking lot and the street that’s been neglected. My hypothesis is that when great tragedy struck, resources were diverted toward the highest needs, leaving scant resources to care for these wayside areas all over.
As Christchurch mends, I’m sure many of these things will return. Right now, though, it’s still heartbreaking to find a city in shambles.