He was the kind of man you could rely on. An almost cliché of a Kiwi male, he was tanned from incidental exercise and spoke with the authority of a man used to leading suited warriors to corporate war. So when he spoke of his experience of the 2011 earthquake, I thought his story, of all people’s, would have a happy ending.
We were sitting in a darkened area of Quake City, a museum-like attraction set amongst the shipping container stores of the (transitional and hopefully permanent) Re:START Mall. Quake City is where you go so you can stop endlessly harassing locals about the quake – because really, the quake is all you want to talk about.
Away from the rest of the exhibits, a film of people simply telling their stories from that fateful day plays to a makeshift theatre. And suddenly it all becomes very present and real. The gaps between me and them, now and three years ago, are lost in the story of a man who commandeered a plane to fly him back to Christchurch so he could wait by a flattened building for over thirty hours to hear that his wife was most likely dead.
It’s a tragic story. And it’s Christchurch’s story.
“There is a crack,” sings Leonard Cohen, “in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” And whether flying above the cracked earth of the epicenter or visiting the stunning Transitional ‘Cardboard’ Cathedral, there is no mistaking the energy that has reinvigorated Christchurch.
Suddenly Christchurch is cool. It is still very much the Garden City it ever was: you can quite easily forget there was a devastating earthquake as you punt along the Avon River. But this city, once famed for its Englishness, now displays a creative edge that will have even the fuddy-duddiest out there instagramming their way through the Pallet Pavilion (yep, it’s made from pallets).
Because if Christchurch were a phoenix rising from the ashes of its biggest disaster, the phoenix would be sporting an ironic moustache.
“It’s not the city it was, but it now has a story to tell,” Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter told Traveltalk.
“Sure, it’s like looking at someone’s front jaw with half their teeth missing, but there’s a story of strength and resilience and creativity here.”
To be honest, Christchurch didn’t really register on my list of must-see places. Its English charm wasn’t enough to pull me from the nearby Cantabrian wonders and the lure of the South Island beyond. But a city that is literally building itself anew with input from not only architects and engineers but from artists and dreamers – now that is worth seeing and worth seeing now.
So forget about planning your trip when Christchurch is ‘done’. Cities are never done. They are always in flux. It’s just that in the unfinished Christchurch the ‘becoming’ is more obvious, and how often do you see that?
Where to stay:
Traveltalk stayed here the night of a relatively large tremor, but was secure in the knowledge that the 2012 New Zealand Seismic Award winner was probably the safest building around. Plus, its back story is a wild one.
What to do:
Shop at The Tannery
Where to eat:
How to get there:
Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch daily from most capital cities, with a new direct flight from Perth as of December 2013.