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Sunday 24 Feb 2013
Christchurch, New Zealand

Oh ####, this is an EARTHQUAKE!

I left Rotorua on Thursday with the Naked Bus - not a codename for the Kiwi Experience bus, simply a no frills coach service - heading south for Wellington.  10 hours journey for only $20! On the way we passed through Taupo, with stunning views of the three great volcanoes south of Lake Taupo: Tongariro, currently erupting vents of steam on a regular basis; Ruapehu; and the solitary cindercone of Ngaurahue, better known to thousands of Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom.

We also stopped in Bulls for lunch.  This is a town with a sense of humour, as demonstrated in their signs: Bulls Library (Read-a-bull); Bulls Police Station (Const-a-bull); Bulls Bank (Bank-a-bull); Bulls Real Estate (Afford-a-bull); Bulls Fashion Outlet (La-bulls) 

I got chatting to a French Canadian guy on the bus who turned out to be a dive instructor, so he gave me a list of great dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia for later in my trip.  We explored Wellington in the evening, enjoying a delicious cold beer on the waterfront while watching a free salsa class on the jetty.  The next day we walked up to the Victoria Lookout.  This involved a very steep climb up through the woods, but the views at the top were well worth the effort.  Unfortunately the weather wasn't great - my first overcast day in New Zealand - and "Windy Welly" lived up to its reputation.  I think my highlight was actually walking back past the post office and seeing 13 larger-than-life-sized silhouettes of a Hobbit and 12 Dwarves marching along the roof line. Cue photo stop...

I flew down to Christchurch on Friday 22nd, not realising that it was the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake.  I consequently got caught out a little by the relative lack of accomodation available in general, but especially on such a busy weekend, as I hadn't booked anything in advance.  This meant that after phoning around a string of hostels, I eventually paid four times the price of a dorm bed for a single hotel room in a fairly unsavory place (definitely a local place for local people!) but at least I didn't have to share with anyone for a change. I got some excellent Japanese food to takeaway and made the most of having a telly for the night.  Bizarrely, the channels that would stay tuned in were showing Graham Norton and Alan Carr, so I settled in for a night of British telly.

Suddenly my bed started moving as if someone behind was banging into it, like seats on a coach or a plane.  My first instinct was to look behind and wonder what on earth was going on in the next room.  Then I realised the next room was actually my ensuite bathroom. Then I realised the bed was still shaking, as was the bedside table, and I was definitely not imagining it...


The whole thing lasted probably no more than 10 seconds, but it was enough to get my heart pounding and multiple scenarios rushing through my head, none of them good.  I found out later it rated a 3.9 on the Richter scale, classed as quite small here.  There have been something in the region of 12,000 minor after shocks since the big one in February 2011.  As with the abseiling in Waitomo, it made me question my decision-making on this trip for a few minutes!

On Saturday, I walked up to what remains of the city centre behind its fencing and keep out signs.  It is really difficult to imagine the scale of the devastation until you see it, 2 years on, still looking like a ghost town or a scene from I Am Legend. On the walk in, I passed several empty lots and whole blocks which are still cordonned off.  The cost of the earthquake is well into the billions and it will take 10-20 years to fully rebuild.  One of the good things to come out of it all, has been the ingenuity and imagination with which people have set about making a new home out of the rubble.  Probably the best known is the Re:Start Mall, a shopping mall built entirely out of brightly painted shipping containers.  I spent the morning walking around, watching street performers and eating lunch outside in the food court.  It has a fun, energetic vibe - a bit like Covent Garden or Edinburgh during the Fringe.  Gap Fillers is another project, where people use the empty lots for short term projects, such as a washing machine disco (old washing machines converted into speakers with ipod docks, so you play your own music and dance on the little dancefloor in front of each one) or a cycle-powered cinema (fixed bikes which have to be pedalled to power the projector).I also spent a lovely couple of hours walking around the Flower Festival exhibits in Hagley Park - I particularly enjoyed the Port-a-loo displays - before deciding it was time to head back and find the hostel I'd managed to book for the next night.  

Looking at the map, it didn't seem too far to walk, so I loaded up my backpacks and off I went.  The route took me around to the far side of the cordonned area and I was quite shocked at how much worse it looked in the eastern part of the city.  I passed two whole suburban streets fenced off, which had chimneys and whole parts of some houses still lying in the street where they had fallen.  You'd have thought it happened days ago, not two years.  The despair and frustration over this inactivity was clear from the spray-painted messages on some of the boarding: "CERA doesn't CARE at all!" (CERA is the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority). Some people have still received no insurance and no progress has been made in their areas.  The biggest difficulty is the damage to the entire infrastructure.  What was so destructive in this earthquake was the vertical pressure that caused the buildings to literally bounce on their foundations, followed by extreme liquefication, where the ground water and silt was forced upwards through the cracks and newly formed spaces.  The result was the ground almost instantly became boggy and unable to support the weight of the buildings above.  underground, nearly 70% of the city's pipework was damaged or destroyed, so sanitation became the next challenge.  All this pipework has to be relaid and tested before the buildings can be rebuilt. Add to that the constant aftershocks and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

My short walk turned into over half an hour before I got around to the right road, and then discovered to my horror that I was at number 214 and my hostel was number 563! There was no chance of getting a taxi or a bus, so I had no choice but to keep walking.  An hour's walk is fine, but an hour's walk carrying an extra 20kg in the hot sun is not my idea of fun. As I walked, it became clear how far out of the centre the damage had gone.  Even 10 blocks out of the cordonned area I still saw houses and shops fenced off.  When I finally reached the hostel, feeling hot and exhausted, I was greeted with the sight of two pretty rundown houses, one of which had a garden piled high with junk.  With a sinking feeling, I thought I had somehow booked online into a closed hostel, but someone appeared through the back gate at that moment.  He took one look at my face and laughed, reassuring me that was how everyone looked on arrival, but there were in fact about 60 people staying there.  It was run by a couple of hippies who had converted the back gardens into a makeshift campsight while the bedrooms all held a mixture of rickety looking bunkbeds.  To say I have stayed in nicer places would be an understatement.  But it was only one night and I was happy to get out early this morning! 

A tip to anyone visiting Christchurch: Book your accomodation in advance!


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