Tag Archives: Christchurch

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – two weeks on

I spent a day in Christchurch, just over a fortnight since the earthquake. The mood there is understandably subdued, but determined. Christchurch is open for business and welcomes visitors right now.

‘Stay strong, Christchurch,’ is the message posted everywhere. People are nervous, of course. When a brief aftershock rattled the windows at 10pm, I tucked my mobile phone under the pillow, remembering those who’d been able to send text messages after being trapped. Of course I didn’t need it. Continue reading

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NEW ZEALAND – two telling little stories

Two little stories seem to me to sum up this country and its people.

A tour bus pulled up as I emerged from a quick lunch at The Thirsty Weta cafe. Elderly passengers alighted and stood around in a semi circle, as if expecting some event to begin. I pushed between them and walked on towards where my car was parked, then noticed little knots of people standing up and down the main street of the little town. The flags were at half mast.

I stopped too. An older couple bustled out of the Mitre 10 hardware store. The woman tugged her husband’s sleeve. ‘Stan, stand still!’ ‘Why?’ asked Stan, setting down the plank of wood he was carrying. ‘Christchurch,’ she whispered.

It was 12.51, the time it happened, exactly a week ago.

**************

There’s little happy news from Christchurch in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, but there is one good story:

To raise money for the relief effort, Phil Johnson is auctioning the 30 tonne boulder that rolled down the hill and smashed its way into his home. ‘Rocky’ is advertised as ‘a landscape feature designed to create an indoor/outdoor flow’. Mr Johnson has had plenty of enquiries and comments, including one from a woman who thought Rocky sounded like her ex – ‘no personality, stoned all the time, sits on his arse and does nothing and I guarantee the TV remote is under him somewhere.’

Phil believes it’s a welcome distraction for people and it’s giving his fingers a good workout, ‘which is just as well because my gym’s been destroyed.’

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CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – a glimmer of good news on travel

Since I wrote about my plans to visit Christchurch, some people have contacted me asking about whether they should postpone or cancel travel to New Zealand. I’m writing from Sydney and have no special inside knowledge, but I have been watching the media and searching the internet for news of the transport and accommodation situation.

The loss of life is tragic, the search for victims is heartbreaking and rebuilding parts of Christchurch will take years. Naturally the media images focus on the worst affected areas, and give the impression that the entire city is a pile of rubble. But an estimated 85-90% of buildings suffered no major damage, and the stoical, resilient Cantabrians are keen to get back to normal as soon as they can.

Christchurch Airport is open and operating both domestic and international flights. Some changes of schedule are being advised.

The city centre is closed except to emergency services. Naturally sightseers would only get in the way and are strongly discouraged.

Hotels : Some, particularly those in the centre of town, are badly damaged. Others are structurally fine, but without water and gas and are therefore temporarily closed, they hope for just a week. However, according to my sample, most accommodation in the greater Christchurch area is open as usual, with many hotels and motels posting good news to that effect on their websites. Some advise those with bookings to ring, rather than email, to get a faster update.

The rest of New Zealand, including the region surrounding Christchurch, while no doubt emotionally touched by the disaster, was physically unaffected.

The bottom line is, unless locals advise me to postpone, I’ll be going ahead with my New Zealand trip this week and urge others to do the same. Make a generous donation to the relief effort, see a beautiful country, meet warm friendly people and spend some money. The Kiwis deserve it.

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CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – to go or not to go?

Photo: John Kirk-Anderson, The Press

I can’t not write about this, because I was booked to spend a pleasant day sightseeing in Christchurch the week after next. My travel-writing trip was organised months ago, with adventures on the North Island, cycling round the South Island, and a short stop-over in quiet, pretty Christchurch before flying home.

Along with all Australians, I’ve been watching in dismay as the Christchurch earthquake tragedy unfolds. We’re supposed to have a rivalry with the Kiwis, but it’s a country we love and we have many New Zealand friends. It’s not right or fair, but it’s only natural that Australians should empathise with New Zealanders even more strongly than with victims of tragedies in farther-flung parts of the world. Continue reading

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ANTARCTICA FOR BEGINNERS – in Christchurch, New Zealand

Next blizzard, 5 minutes


There’s an intriguing line of footprints leading away from the arrivals hall at Christchurch Airport. A giant in work boots has apparently walked through a puddle of blue paint before heading off across the car park. I have four hours to kill before my onward flight, so I follow his tracks over to the International Antarctic Centre.

This is a serious scientific base, home to the New Zealand and Italian research programs, and to US Antarctic Operation Deep Freeze, but it also has a section open to the public, billed as ‘The World’s Best Antarctic Attraction’. That may sound like a big call but how many Antarctic attractions does the world have? Most of us have little chance of ever getting to real life Antarctica so this may be the next best thing.

‘If you hurry you’ll catch the next blizzard,’ says the friendly ticket lady, ‘it starts in five minutes.’ I never like to miss a blizzard, so I dash through to the Snow and Ice Experience room. Attendants issue me with a padded jacket and rubber overshoes. They warn me I’ll be walking on real snow and that snow is slippery; then let me through an airlock between two heavy doors.

I join a dozen fellow chill-seekers in an Antarctic diorama. There are mounds of snow (I check, yes, it’s really slippery), an ice cave and rows of black and red flags. An Indian family looks cutely incongruous as they photograph each other standing by a snowmobile, with a backdrop of Antarctic mountains on the wall behind them.

The thermometer above the door shows the room temperature to be minus 8degrees,
which is not so good for those of us wearing shorts under our padded jackets. ‘Warning! Storm approaching!’ announces the PA system. Sound effects wind howls, hidden fans start up, and it starts to get seriously cold. Other people, warm people, watch us through the large glass windows in front.

The wind machine cranks up to 40kph, and the gauge shows that, with the wind chill factor, we’re now at minus 26.3, so this is the coldest cold I’ve ever experienced. After a couple of minutes I’m looking anxiously towards the marked shelter points where people are escaping from the icy blast and getting back to that toasty minus 8 we were basking in a few minutes ago.

But before anyone gets really uncomfortable, the wind dies down and we can take off the jackets and move on to the next attraction, penguin feeding.

Penguin encounter

The Little Blue penguins on display at the centre are the species commonly found on the coast of Australia and New Zealand. They don’t live in Antarctica. Nevertheless, they’re very popular with the visitors as their keepers feed them fish. The ones here have all been rescued because of various injuries and would not survive in the wild. The most popular is the one wearing little blue booties over his flippers.

Apart from these entertaining exhibits, the centre also provides rooms full of serious, interesting information about the wildlife and daily life in Antarctic, focussing on Scott Base, the New Zealand facility. We can try on the clothing residents wear there, leaf through their safety manuals and photo albums, and crawl into replicas of their tents. There’s a stuffed leopard seal (slightly the worse for wear, though I suppose he doesn’t mind now) and a small aquarium with strange ugly fish collected from below the ice at McMurdo Sound.

In the audio-visual room we watch a short, spectacular film about the Antarctic continent. I’ve seen so many documentaries about it, but until now I didn’t realise it was quite so dry (dryer than the Sahara), so big (twice the area of Australia) or so high (average elevation 2300m), or that there are spectacular rocky areas that are not covered in snow.

Finally I step outside for a Hagglund Ride. I don’t know what a Hagglund is, but the centre’s legal advisors seem keen to have me not ride in one. A sign warns that I shouldn’t do it if I’m pregnant, prone to motion sickness, have a back problems or a nervous disposition. Signs like that make my disposition nervous. Nevertheless, in interests of Antarctic research I ignore my dodgy back and board the thing anyway.

Your Hagglund is here, Sir.


The Hagglund, invented for the Swedish army, is the Antarctic workhorse. It’s a boxy little tractor with caterpillar treads, towing a trailer. Inside there are industrial strength seatbelts and handgrips everywhere. Driver Alastair speaks with the gentle, reassuring voice of a dentist about to extract a wisdom tooth. ‘This trip might cause some slight discomfort, but I think we’ll be fine.’

Behind the Antarctic Centre is an assault course where Alastair can put the Hagglund through its paces. We crawl up hills at a seemingly impossible 45degree gradient. One hill is split down the middle by a crevasse, one and a half metres wide and three metres deep. Black flags on either side warn of its danger and there’s a roadside cross near the summit.

Needless to say, we make it over safely. The cross, Alastair informs us later, was for a daredevil rabbit that tried to run under a Hagglund and only made it halfway. We try tilting the vehicle up to 31degrees, and then drive into a lake. As the water laps up towards the windows, the caterpillar treads become paddles and the amphibious Hagglund swims across at a stately 3 knots.

Shaken but not stirred, I uncoil my white knuckles from the handgrips, stumble out onto solid ground and retrace the giant’s footprints back to the airport. I’m more enthused than ever about getting to real Antarctica some day. Four hours very well spent. It’s certainly been a lot more exciting than sitting in the Christchurch departure lounge.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: The International Antarctic Centre is right next to Christchurch Airport. The Penguin Express bus runs hourly from Cathedral Square Christchurch. Cost $NZ10 return.

Further information: Entry to the International Antarctic Centre costs $NZ48 for adults, $NZ36 for children. Family passes are also available.
http://www.iceberg.co.nz

First published Sun-Herald Sydney

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AKAROA – where Nouvelle Zélande is almost French


You’d hardly see more French flags per square metre in Paris on Bastille Day. In Rue Lavaud, Rue Jolie, and Rue Balguerie the B&Bs, motels and hostels have names like La Belle Villa, La Rochelle and Chez le Mer Backpackers. The butcher is a ‘boucherie’, the service station sells ‘essence’ (petrol) and the cafes serve ‘café’.

I’m not in France, Belgium or Quebec. This is Akaroa, a village 80km south of Christchurch, on the Banks Peninsula or, as it proudly calls itself, “the Riviera of Canterbury”.

But for a small historical accident, the whole of New Zealand’s South Island could have been dotted with French towns, and this part of the country is playing up its French-ness for all it’s worth. Mon Dieu! They’ve even bussed in a party of British tourists to make the place seem authentically continental.

The Banks Peninsula has plenty of other things going for it before it starts beating the tambour francais (French drum). It’s geographically spectacular for a start. Ancient volcanic explosions left a major crater that is now lovely Akaroa Harbour, and lava flows formed steep spurs down to beautiful secluded bays all around the edges.

Akaroa Harbour


Fishing trawlers and pleasure craft bob in the sage green water of French Bay, the rolling hills form a pleasant backdrop and the rocky cliffs on the eastern shore add some drama.

It’s quiet enough in the off-season, but it must really boom in the summer holidays. Attractive yachts offer the ‘Sail Akaroa Experience’. Tours take visitors out of the bay to fish or to swim with Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest variety of that creature.

St Patrick's Church, Akaroa

The information office provided me with a self-guided audio tour of the town. La Marseillaise (what else?) introduced each stop. I promenaded along the foreshore, admiring the almost-too-cute-to-be-true wooden houses and churches, and listening to the town’s story.

Captain James Cook, normally so meticulous with his mapping, had an off day here in 1769. He failed to circumnavigate what he mistook for an island, quickly named it after Sir Joseph Banks, and sailed on to Botany Bay.

There followed a tragic period of exterminations as first the seals, then the whales, the trees and finally the local Maori were ruthlessly exploited. In 1838, French whaling captain Jean Langlois ‘bought’ the peninsula from Maori people. It may seem surprising that they wanted to offload prime real estate with sweeping water views, presumably in return for axes and muskets, but probably they and M. Langlois had different concepts of what land sale meant.

Langlois returned to France to bring back 63 settlers to colonise his new beachfront property. The British were having none of that so they sent a warship to nip into Akaroa, raise the flag and claim the land for England. A hastily assembled court ruled that nobody but the British crown was allowed to rip off indigenous people, so Langlois was effectively gazumped.

The French, no doubt bitterly disappointed, nevertheless gave Gallic shrugs, struggled ashore and formed their colony under British law. Visitors these days can be very pleased about that.

If the standard of local cuisine took any dip after the British invasion, it’s back with a vengeance now. Little Akaroa has more cafes and restaurants per head of population than anywhere else in the country and prides itself on its gastronomy. C’est la Vie cafe had such an excellent reputation that I couldn’t get in, but there were plenty of alternatives.

On the terrace outside l’Hotel, my young waiter’s t-shirt wished me ‘Bon appetit’, but he didn’t seem very French. Not surly or superior enough perhaps, and when I ordered a flounder fresh from the Akaroa Harbour, he replied with a cheery ‘Sweet as. Inny problems, just guv us a yill.’ There were no problems. The flounder was ‘tres bon’ (very good), and the glass of local ‘chardonnay’ (chardonnay) even better.

Next day I took a drive over the spectacular summit road to the bays on the other side – it wasn’t always easy going. The sign warned that the road was unsuitable for towing or campervans. Would my ageing rental car cope? It strained to reach 25kph and my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel as I negotiated a narrow bumpy road with few safety barriers and disconcerting drops below me.

Little remains of the forest that formerly covered the peninsula, but there was still plenty of nature to enjoy. There were rocky outcrops on every peak, and vistas to the bays below, whenever I dared to flick my eyes off the road to enjoy them. An eagle swooped on a rabbit. Endangered yellowhead birds flitted across my path, but fortunately I was driving so slowly I wasn’t endangering anyone but myself.

French Farm Winery

Across the water from Akaroa a sign pointed to the French Farm and Winery. It sounded like the perfect spot for an ‘au revoir dejeuner’ (see you later lunch). It looked perfect too, with lavender hedges by a French provincial-style building with heavy wooden doors and vaulted ceilings. The cuisine was of French provincial quality as well. My excellent salmon was caught in the bay and the vegetables locally grown.

As I downed the last drops of my sauvignon blanc, I noticed a family next to me, having a little trouble reading the menu and making themselves understood by the Kiwi waitress.

‘Sacre bleu! (Heavens!)’ I thought, ‘They’re really French! Are they perhaps descendants of Jean Langlois?’ No, they turned out to be tourists, and very happy ones. They admired the décor, they enjoyed the food, and they took a photo of the fromage (cheese) platter.

So how did genuine French people find the Banks Peninsula experience? I asked. ‘Formidable! (Sweet as!)’ they said.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there:

Akaroa French Connection runs shuttle services from Christchurch to Akaroa from NZ$20 ($16) return. http://www.akaroabus.co.nz

Staying there: http://www.akaroa.com lists numerous accommodation and dining options.

Further information: Audio walking tour from the Visitor Information Centre costs NZ$10. Entry to the Akaroa Museum costs NZ$4.

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