Later edit: after I wrote the article, a few hours ago, more replicas of the initial earthquake have been reported and right now the situation is much worse than I initially depicted it. There is a huge demand for helping people trapped under collapsed buildings, for bringing in supplies and for starting the recovering process. I left the post published in the initial form only to keep the beautiful image I was able to see during my trip alive in the minds of my readers, but my heart is going with the people of Christchurch right now. They need help to rebuild the city in the form I was able to experience it in this post.
Author’s note: As I write this, reports from a second earthquake in Christchurch are coming in. This one was even bigger than the last one in September. The city has many more buildings down this time. But, as one who has been in Christchurch just two days ago, and experienced its peaceful and joyful side, I know they’re going to build it back again. They’re great people and they deserve a fantastic city. What you’re going to read relates to my pre-earthquake experience of Christchurch, as many parts of the article were wrote a few days ago.
I always wanted to go to Christchurch, on the Southern Island of New Zealand. In fact, I always wanted to go to the Southern Island of New Zealand and, since Christchurch is the biggest city on the Southern Island, it always made sense. So, here I am, boarding on a JetStart flight from Auckland to Christchurch (129 NZD, including a checked in 20kg luggage). I checked in online but I still had to go through the counter, to check my bag in. It didn’t take long, though, and after I passed over the security control, I was ready to go.
The domestic terminal in the Auckland airport is pretty neat, although I wasn’t quite impressed about the quantity of liter floating around. As a matter of fact, I think that terminal was the most dirty one I saw in years. It doesn’t go like this in any other area of the airport, or of Auckland, for what matters, but this is how it was.
After around half an hour, I boarded an Airbus 320 and was ready to fly. In a matter of minutes, we were up and flying over Auckland. The scenery made up for any bad impression I may have had.
Once in Christchurch I made a short phone call to the motel I previously booked, just to confirm and ask for some directions. and then took a shuttle to it. I learned that in most airports shuttles are a way more convenient way to get to your hotel than taxis or buses. They’re small, fast, and usually cheaper than a taxi. Sometimes, if you travel in small groups, they may be even cheaper than a bus ticket.
The Aotea Motel
Once I got to the motel, I tried to check in. It took a good quarter of an hour to the owner to make his appearance, despite the fact that I conscioulsy rang a few times. To make a long story short, in just a matter of minutes I was checked in, in a small one bedroom unit (their name for a one bedroom apartment), unit that I will have to share with my travel buddy (ironically called the same as me, Dragos). The motel was pretty standard, but clean and relatively large.
We made a short stop to eat at a local restaurant (quite an expensive one, but apparently a very old and well established one too) and then we walked downtown.
From this moment on, I started to have short, unexplainable deja-vu sequences. We had two ways to go downtown (both were involving walking, not buses) and we took the one following the local river, Avon.
Christchurch is a silent place. It also exhales a feeling of space and well-being. There are a lot of tourists going around downtown, but they are usually polite and relaxed. Being so far away, Christchurch is selecting his visitors using a very simple filter: money. It’s really, really difficult to get there if you’re not having enough money to spend just to go to a silent place.
As we walked down, signs of the recent earthquake were visible everywhere. But it seemed that not only the locals were quite used to those quakes, but they’re also expressing their feeling towards it with a lot of humor:
The city center is formed by a large cathedral surrounded by a generous square, surrounded by hotels, shops or cafes.
The square is pretty animated, with fairs or other entertaining activities (I saw a huge chess game going on and some comedians too). There is also an old but completely functional tram line which encompasses the whole area. In fact, the tram line is a little bit bigger than the square, and the entire area surrounded by the tram line is formed by small shops, restaurants or cafes. Nothing has more than one level, because of the earthquakes, I presume, but the overall feeling of this center is very pleasant.
On one side of this area there is the Avon river, filled with small boats. You can actually rent a short ride on Avon, if you want to, in one of the gondola-like boats, slowly pushed by people dressed like one century ago. The overall feeling is of people having good time and enjoying life.
One thing that you cannot ignore is that Christchurch has a much more unbalanced population, in favors of locals. I rarely experienced the same street race mix I experienced in Auckland, people were overwhelmingly on the white side.
You can find pretty much everything you want, from Japanese to Chinese, from Italian to Greek and from fast food to more exquisite restaurants. I tried a few of them, including a small Chinese eatery and a much more classy restaurant near the upright zone near Avon. Everywhere food was delicious and served reasonably fast.
If you’re not into eating out, you can get your food from one of the many supermarkets around. Each neighborhood seemed to have a small Chinese shop every few blocks. The problem is that you cannot always get a receipt there and you may have quite a difficult time making yourself understood.
Christchurch is sitting on a long fault formed by two huge plateaus. So, the earthquakes are pretty common here, In fact, when I arrived, last week, the September quake was still spitting replicas and I actually felt a couple of them. First one came while I was sleeping, the second while I was in the shower.
Both times I felt like I was on a child swing, only I was standing. I actually didn’t know about the first replica, it was Dragos that warned me. It was like 8 AM and I was sleeping like a baby when I heard Dragos asking if I felt the quake. “They may bring in the mother of quakes, I will continue to sleep”, I said. I may have said it only in my mind though, that’s how sleepy I was. The second replica, in the shower, was almost pleasant. Just a few shakes and then nothing. It wasn’t serious enough to damage the water system or anything.
Just two days after I left Christchurch there was a really big earthquake. So big, that the cathedral tower was torn apart. Many buildings down, airport closed and phone lines closed. As I write this, they don’t yet know the real extent of the damages but it seems there are no human casualties. I feel from the people there and I also admire their courage and determination.
Back to what you can do in Christchurch – apart from living a great life as a local, that is – there are plenty of outdoors activities. First of all, there is that gondola thing. If you’re into sight seeing from a slowly sliding boat, then this one is for you. There is also sky diving and ballooning, if you really feel the need for a short shot of adrenaline.
But these are more like on the tourist side. To be honest, you can do sky diving pretty much everywhere in New Zealand, provided that you’re in a tourist area (and pretty much the entire New Zealand is a tourist area). There are some things which are part of Christchurch unique location and lifestyle culture.
One of them is surfing. You can do surfing pretty much all year round. In winter, you can also do a ski session in one of the close by mountains and then get back to city and do a surf session. I think this is something extremely rare to find.
Another thing you can do pretty much all year is paragliding. There are a few flying spots around Christchurch and a few paragliding schools, all of them pretty active. I did a tandem flight too while I was there. Needless to say it was a life changing experience (just read that blog post).
The Overall Impression
The moment I started to walk on Christchurch streets I had a very intense feeling of deja-vu. Also, I thought that somebody went very far away just to find heaven, found it, packed it up in a container, loaded it up in a plane, flew all the way up over here, unloaded it, unpacked it and gave it the name of Christchurch. Yeah, I am a little bit biased, I admit it, but the you got the main idea.
Christchurch is an incredible place to stay. As a matter of fact, despite of the recent massive earthquakes, I’m seriously considering changing my base headquarters for my future New Zealand stayings to Christchurch instead of Auckland. It’s true, Auckland is a little bit more cosmopolite, vibrant and noisy. Sometimes this mix may be motivating.
But it’s equally true that living in a city with all the modern amenities, with great food, with almost everything within walking distance, with silent surrounding and with a plethora of outdoors activities can be even more motivating.
Can’t wait to get back there. Honestly.