With a pang of anticipation, I stepped aboard the three-hour Emirates flight from Sydney to Christchurch, unsure what to expect upon visiting our closest neighbours who suffered recent devastation. I had no idea what to expect, and was blown away by the hearts of the locals and how far they have come in just over 12 months.
The descent into Christchurch offered spectacular views of the Southern Alps and majestic Mount Cook (Aoraki), I felt as though I was flying into a film set for Lord of the Rings.
The drive from the airport to the newly refurbished IBIS Hotel in downtown Christchurch was orderly and uneventful as we passed immaculate tree lined streets, manicured gardens and gentrified homes. I’d seen much media coverage of damaged buildings, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.
The quake damage to the Central Business District is still extensive and on a much grander scale than I could have ever imagined. A large section of the CBD, or Red Zone, is still cordoned off while demolition work continues, but increasingly large sections of the city are opening up for visitors to explore on foot. Many of the ruined buildings remain just as they were on the day that the September 2011 quake struck (a living time capsule and a testimony to the raw power of Mother Nature).
Wandering through the Red Zone is a real must for any visitor to Christchurch. The sheer scale and randomness of the damage is what struck me the most. Walking through the CBD reveals perfectly undamaged buildings perched next to piles of rubble and twisted ruins; vacant blocks where churches once stood; and empty shops with their signboards still out on the street.
Christchurch has a deep soul, and the more time I spent exploring the city, the more I came to expect the unexpected. The locals are incredibly resilient, resourceful and passionate about their hometown. Green shoots are appearing all over the city. A walk past the bus station revealed a black board scribed with the hopes, thoughts and dreams of locals and visitors. The next day the board was wiped clean and ready to collect more.
Onto the next block, and I discovered a collection of teddy bears tied to a cyclone fence, along with poignant poetry on walls and old black and white TVs playing historic footage of Christchurch in an abandoned electrical store. Near the site of the CTV building (where so many locals lost their lives), is a powerful memorial to the 185 souls who lost their lives in the quake (a moving sculpture containing 185 white chairs of different shapes and sizes all perfectly arranged in rows). Seeing a white baby capsule was incredibly moving.
The following day, an early morning walk revealed a street artist painting an installation on the side of an abandoned building; a vintage wedding car parked out the front of a ruined office building; an old washing machine (complete with a plug for your iPod, speakers and glitter ball); a pop up soccer field; and a shopping mall made from shipping containers.
Christchurch is awash with countless Gap Filler projects (a concept where residents create unique and temporary cultural experiences to fill the growing number of empty spaces in the city). As a result, the city is constantly in a state of flux as new art installations pop up in random locations, only to disappear and be replaced by something newer.
The Re-start Container Mall is a triumph and was originally conceived as a temporary replacement for the city’s Cashel Mall. Here you can find everything from designer labels to local fashion, souvenirs, market stalls, coffee, and dining options all housed in a series of cleverly converted shipping containers. The Re-start Container Mall has proved to be so popular with visitors and locals that the City Council is considering the option of re-locating it once construction starts on a new shopping centre.
A new restaurant and pub culture is also emerging. Where else can you sip a cocktail in a jam jar at Cargo Bar (a shipping container bar located at the back of an old car wash), sample local craft beer in the back of an old bus at Smash Palace, or perch yourself on an old bike seat at the bar at The Pedal Pusher (which has been transformed from an old bike shop).
Christchurch is a city emerging from its re-birth. Whilst a number of the original heritage buildings have been destroyed or damaged, most of the city’s old buildings are either intact or in the process of being repaired. Unfortunately, the city’s Grand Cathedral was heavily damaged and debate continues over its future.
The gentrified English style gardens remain and visitors can still take a punt ride on the Avon River (albeit with a twist). The punt ride now takes visitors through the Red Zone and provided me with a unique close up perspective of the severity of the damage to buildings and bridges, as well as the demolition and construction activity.
As the city rises from the rubble, an ambitious plan is in place to re-build Christchurch as a “City in a garden”. With an estimated cost of NZ$2 billion, the rebuilding is expected to take at least 10 years.
Whilst changes are taking place rapidly, there is still time for visitors to experience the city during its exciting period of transition and re-birth.
With the strength of the Aussie dollar and daily three-hour flights to Christchurch, there has never been a better time for Australians to fly across the ditch to New Zealand. You’ll not only be rewarded with one of the very few opportunities in your lifetime to experience the re-building of a city, you’ll also make a huge difference to the lives of the warm, friendly and resilient locals, by contributing first hand as a visitor to the revival and reinvention of their city.
How to get there
Emirates fly daily from Sydney to Christchurch on its state-of-the-art Boeing 777-300ER. Passengers can experience Emirates’ luxurious in-flight facilities, which include private suites in First Class, lie-flat seats in Business Class, and a new generation of comfort in Economy Class. Return Economy Class fares are A$387; A$1,397 for Business Class; and A$2,037 for First Class passengers. All classes feature ice - Emirates’ award-winning Digital Widescreen in-flight entertainment system - and gourmet, chef-inspired meals. For flight information and bookings visit http://www.emirates.com/au
Where to stay
Hotel Ibis Christchurch
The IBIS is superbly located in the heart of the city’s Red Zone and directly adjacent to the Re-start Container Mall. The IBIS Christchurch recently received a $10M facelift and features 155 contemporary rooms, restaurant OOpen, a bar and meeting facilities. Rooms are comfortable, modern, equipped with ensuite bathrooms, Flat screen TVs and access to broadband internet. Rooms start at NZD$159.
The IBIS is the perfect base for exploring Christchurch.
Walking through the Red Zone
Put on your walking shoes and explore Christchurch’s Red Zone. With more streets opening up, it is the best way to take in the scale of the quake devastation, whilst stumbling upon street art and surprises around every corner.
Cargo, pop up bar and restaurant culture
Sip cocktails, sample local craft beers, an extensive range of New Zealand wines, and fabulous local produce at some of the city’s quirky new dining and bar venues. Great bars and venues are popping up all over the city in shipping containers, in converted bike shops, car washes, and in old Council buses. Cargo culture is alive and well in Christchurch.
Punting on Avon
No visit to Christchurch is complete without a punt on the Avon River. Experience and tranquility as you glide down the river in comfort. Relax and take in the beauty of the city’s parks and gardens. The new punting tour through the red zone is a definite must see.
Waipara Wine Tasting
Located just 40 minutes North of Christchurch, the Waipara wine region is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing wine regions and home to some of New Zealand’s most awarded Pinot Noirs and Rieslings. It’s great for a day trip or an overnight stay. Find yourself a designated driver or book yourself on a tour.
Lunch at Black Estate Winery Black Estate Winery is a great way to sample the region’s premium local produce matched with great local wines whilst taking in sweeping views of the vineyards and mountain ranges (bookings are essential).
The International Antarctic Centre
Just a stone’s throw from Christchurch Airport and a short drive from Christchurch, you will find one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. The International Antarctic Centre provides visitors with an exciting, interactive, and hands on Antarctic experience. Experience the chill of an Antarctic snow and ice storm, take a thrilling Hagglund ride, experience an amazing 4D simulated Antarctic cruise, meet the little blue penguins, and learn about life in modern day Antarctica. It’s the perfect place to while away a couple of hours before checking in for your international flight home.