Back Down South

Wednesday 1st December

Having spent most of my life in the relative seismic oasis that is the UK, I can’t say I’ve had too much direct experience of earthquakes or other such natural disasters. Of course, some Brits – particularly those ill-fated enough to have spent the past week living out of a sleeping bag in the departure lounge of the snow-immobilised Gatwick Airport – will contest that we bear more than our fair share of environmental havoc through our schizophrenic weather patterns, but after witnessing for myself the trail of destruction left by Christchurch’s recent earthquake, I can confidently say that we have it pretty easy back home.

My only previous brush with seismic activity was about a decade ago when I happened to be staying in the West Midlands during a rare British earth tremor. Though the spontaneous, violent shaking of a building one is residing in would be disconcerting at the best of times, I can assure you it is ten times more terrifying when one is awoken by it in the middle of the night. Unsure whether I was still dreaming, my first thought, naturally, was that the house was under attack from laser-wielding aliens in flying saucers. My second was to get the hell out of there as quickly as my still-barely conscious body would allow so I launched myself out of bed, rocketed down the staircase, crashed out the front door and landed gracelessly out in the porchway. At which point, were we really being invaded by an exterminating army of space monsters, I would almost certainly have been blasted into oblivion by a multi-coloured death ray. Fortunately, at that exact moment, the tremor abruptly ceased and I had just enough time to gather my senses and withdraw into the house before the neighbours had a chance to glimpse my feeble, semi-naked form cowering on the doorstep.

Amusing though this episode seems in retrospect, quakes are rarely laughing matters for those unlucky enough to be caught up in those at the deadlier end of the Richter Scale. Despite my overly imaginative, half-awake state, the manner in which the radiators rattled feverishly as the quake took hold was genuinely frightening and I can only imagine the terror engendered by a much stronger tremor. What required no imagination was the physical damage the 7.1-measuring one inflicted upon the buildings of Christchurch, where we recently spent two enjoyable days during my first return visit to the South Island.

As we walked around the central city we stumbled upon a number of quake-wrecked shops and eating establishments, some of which looked as though nothing less than a bomb had gone off inside them. The strange thing, though, was how random the devastation appeared to be. I had expected entire streets to be mangled and crumbling but instead we found little pockets of destruction right alongside completely intact structures. In fact, much of the downtown area appeared remarkably debris-free, with some streets’ damage signposted only by the presence of a digger or crane, presumably being used to help stabilise the foundations of those buildings that, despite superficial appearances, have been left structurally unsound. So while one should not underestimate the suffering endured by the quake survivors (and let’s remind ourselves that, almost miraculously, everyone was a survivor of this one), the message we took home was that Christchurch is very much open for business.

Of course, even if the city were not in desperate need of a tourism injection, Christchurch should feature on the itinerary of all newcomers to the country anyway. Culturally, there is as much, if not more, to appreciate here than in the far larger Auckland city centre and the Art Gallery boasts a particularly impressive collection of permanent exhibits and short-term showcases. We especially enjoyed a retrospective on hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck, whose unnervingly life-like giant and miniature men I had first encountered in the old Saatchi Gallery on London’s Southbank.

The gift shop and café-crammed Arts Centre, meanwhile, is worth visiting for the building alone, which is an impressive homage to the quadrangled Oxbridge colleges that inspired it.

Visitors with time on their hands should also tick off the Botanical Gardens and Cathedral, which are both more worthy of a city the size of London than this 390,000-populated township, but they might have more fun standing in the central square listening to the cosmic diatribes of New Zealand’s self-proclaimed “Wizard”, a bearded, red-robed eccentric who seems to spend his days lecturing the populace on an imagined war between religious priests and magical warlocks.

If there is anything disappointing about Christchurch, it is the main shopping district, which, earthquake or no earthquake, isn’t much more inspiring than your average English market town centre. I’d been told that Christchurch was the most English city in New Zealand but I was expecting something a little bit more characterful than the bland high streets seemingly beamed straight over from Sheffield and Nottingham. Though we came across some great cafes – most notably the labyrinthine C1, brewers of the best coffee I’ve yet sampled in this country and proprietors of some geek-gratifying sci-fi memorabilia – and the odd interesting second-hand book shop, we felt the city centre as a whole lacked the distinctiveness of the more historical English towns it was clearly trying to ape. The areas around the centre were lovely, though, and I particularly enjoyed the Oxbridge-reminiscent scenes of boater-hatted students punting young couples gracefully along the River Avon.

Our favourite discovery during our stay in Christchurch was not actually in the city but a small settlement called Lyttleton about fifteen minutes’ drive south of it. While Christchurch itself is landlocked, Lyttleton provides alluring access to the sea through both the South Island’s largest port and a series of secluded little beaches along its coastline.

We spent a halcyon afternoon exploring these recesses with our friend Morgan and enjoyed a great night out in the town’s memorable Monster Bar, whose walls are bedecked with paintings of fantastical ogres and deviant dolls made out taxidermied animal parts. In some ways, we wished we had be able to find accommodation somewhere on Lyttleton’s picturesque hillsides rather than the hostel we ended up staying with in one of Christchurch’s blander suburbs. Though the facilities were perfectly adequate, we were not so impressed by being awoken two mornings’ running by the ear-anathema parps of our landlord’s saxophone as he treated us to a particularly disharmonious rendition of Scott Jolin’s ‘The Entertainer’. As if that weren’t maddening enough, we were also greeted by the grating sounds of a painter inconsiderately sanding down our windowsill and then irascibly ordering me to shut said window when I dared open it to let some air in. It was enough to bring back fond memories of a certain sleep-depriving West Midlands earthquake some ten years previously…


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