I won’t go into details, but the bus ride between Queenstown and Christchurch was stunning. It’s a road every New Zealander and visitor should travel, if only to catch a glimpse of our tallest mountain Aoraki/ Mount Cook reflected in the glacial waters of Lake Pukaki.
As the bus detoured through the southern suburbs of the Christchurch, I began to see how much had changed. This area was once light industrial, ringed with the residential subdivisions of an expanding city, but ever since the violent earthquakes of 2011 displaced many residents, the southern suburbs have become a hive of activity.
The earthquakes brutally redefined Christchurch from a city priding itself on its visible English heritage and unique locale, to one structurally and emotionally fragmented by the destructive forces of nature which still shape New Zealand.
The bus pulled up outside the Canterbury Museum, just across the road from the fenced-off Arts Centre – a collection of gothic revival-style buildings built from the late 1800’s onwards as part of the Canterbury University College. The post-quake Arts Centre restoration is one of the largest of its kind in the world and is expected to continue until 2019.
The city centre had come a long way since I stood in the completely deserted, almost apocalyptic Hereford St in 2010; this time backpackers from the bus trotted off to a nearby hostel, the inner city was no longer cordoned off and the building where I picked up my graduation robes is somehow still intact.
This time I was able to wistfully gaze in at my old university haunt of Dux de Lux, a music venue, pizza purveyor and beer garden par excellence, which sadly seems unlikely to ever return to its previous home.
While almost all of my university friends have left the city for good, I was soon picked up by my brother, one of the many remarkable people who have chosen to stay and help the city rebuild. Staying with him, his wife and my chubby little nephew, I started to get a better idea of how this city I grew to love during my studies is slowly healing and looking to the future.
It’s a city where almost everyone knows one of the 185 people who died from the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, where more than 70% of the inner city buildings were either shaken apart or demolished due to danger of collapse in the countless aftershocks.
While rebuilding efforts were long-delayed by the aftershocks, the process is now in full swing and if Christchurch can avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy, it has the unexpected chance to reinvent itself into a green, future-thinking city, even better than before.
On this note, one of the highlights of visiting was getting a sense of the resilience and resourcefulness of those living there.
Instead of just upping and leaving, they got on with life, opening up a central-city shopping mall made of shipping containers, filling the cavities left behind by felled buildings with colourful art installations and grounding a creative selection of great craft beer breweries, bars and restaurants to make up for those lost in the earthquake.
In fact, I just read there has been a NZD $25 million adventure park approved for the city’s Port Hills, including chairlift, mountain bike tracks and ziplines. The port town of Lyttelton (home to the excellent Wunderbar) is busier than ever.
Some wounds will take longer to heal, and some perhaps will never heal at all. The future of the Christchurch Cathedral, lying cordoned-off in ruins, is unsure and the site of the CTV building will hopefully remain a permanent memorial to the 115 souls killed in the 6-storey building’s collapse. The infrastructure in some areas is still terrible.
However, the more I met with friends, the more I looked forward to seeing what will happen to Christchurch. It is in a unique position, both geographically on the Pacific Ocean between the volcanic Banks Peninsula, the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps, and figuratively, poised to define itself once again. I’m curious to see the city my nephew will grow up in.
Days later, in a circular fashion, I found myself back at the very same airport I left New Zealand from in 2011.
It was, in the end, a very short trip home but even so, I’m grateful I was able to ground myself after the whirlwind of experiences over the last years.
Kia ora New Zealand. The road goes ever on and on.