Published: November 10th 2011October 31st 2011
From the moment I emerged from Christchurch Airport into the swirling drizzle and Antarctic winds of a late Spring afternoon I knew I was going to have to find myself somewhere with a better climate if I was going to stay in New Zealand long term. All evidence pointed towards Nelson, claiming to be the sunniest place in the country I wasted only a couple of days getting there. First though, some morbid part of me wanted to try and understand just what Christchurch had been through in the past year.
I visited Christchurch six years ago. Jet lagged and freshly escaped from months of sitting behind a desk in the UK I was desperate for adrenelin-fuelled adventure, breathtaking scenery and the fresh air of the great outdoors - all the buzz words New Zealand promotes itself on. Landing in an old-fashioned English town on the other side of the world was not what I had spent 24 hours and a thousand pounds on, so I quickly got out and fell in love with the Kiwi countryside. Finally I was coming back, and after more that a year travelling around the tropics of South East Asia and the United States
of Australia, I was almost looking forward to the quaint Englishness of Christchurch. And I did find it still. Maybe not in the ghost town of the city centre, but in the Botanical Gardens the riot of spring flowers made my body clock lurch and I ached as I realised this was my first temperate spring in 2 and a half years. I walked around with a nostalgic grin plastered across my face as I admired trees heaving with blossom and watched the golden heads of the daffodils bent in the breeze.
This small island of peace and colour and new life is in such stark contrast to the rest of Christchurch right now. It is more than nine months since the devastating aftershock that damaged or toppled most of the buildings in the city centre. I read the newspapers everyday for a week when that terrible earthquake ripped through the city back in February and yet the scale of the devastation is impossible to comprehend through the reports of others. The news stories petered out, the next catastrophe grabbed the media's attention, and I had little idea of the state of Christchurch's recovery until I arrived here.
For two hours I walked the streets between my hostel, six blocks out, and the fenced off city centre. It took only a few minutes to see the first signs of the damage: long, jagged cracks in pavements and garden walls, boarded up shops, restaurants and offices with no-entry signs plastered across their windows, empty lots in prime real-estate locations. As I walked, all morning I saw only a dozen vehicles, almost all of them tradesman's vans. The atmosphere was eerie, broken only by the low rumble of bulldozers and tumbling rubble. A half-mile cordon around the city centre keeps the public clear of the wreckers and cranes, slowly demolishing their way through street after street of buildings beyond repair. It's hard to see how and when this work will ever be finished right now. In what is a highly developed country by world standards, they are still pulling down the damaged buildings almost a year after the devastation. Outside the cordons the situation is no better. For about three blocks beyond the fences almost every business is closed. The flourescent spray paint of the Search and Rescue teams still glows from the doorways of buildings and official signs warn
at the risk of entry for all but emergency purposes.
Later, sitting in one of only two cafes I had seen open during my two hour walk, I overheard the conversation of a group of ladies behind me. They were talking about the repairs required for their homes and when the work was likely to be completed. When one woman stated resignedly that it was likely to be three years before work began on repairing her home I was aghast. And yet she is supposedly one of the lucky ones, her home is still standing and habitable, although I'm not sure how calm I would be living in a damaged house in a city still regularly shaken by aftershocks. Perhaps Christchurch retains more of that old-fashioned British character than we think, or they have refound that get-by-through-anything attitude that our grandparents were so famous for during the years of the war.
If Christchurch was like a well loved but moth-eaten old, grey blanket when I visited, then Nelson is a rainbow hue'd poncho. A little quirky and very artistic, the coastal air and crisp morning sunshine vividly enhances the colours of the flowering trees and the greens of
the mountains that embrace the city. The analogy is rather an appropriate one because this spring Nelson has been the subject of a gang of Yarn Bombers, or Grafitti Knitters - I promise you I am not making this up! As you will have noticed from my Sydney blogs, I have a love of all things Street Art, so imagine my joy and curiosity when I arrived in Nelson to discover the city centre blanketed in colourful knitting. At first I thought, wow this is a kind and friendly eco-place, they even wrap up the trees in scarves to keep out the chill during winter - then I worried that maybe the climate in Nelson wasn't going to be as good as I hoped! For a week I wandered the streets admiring the woolie warmers on
bollards and bike racks, water fountains and even the old town stocks! Pompoms hang from bare winter branches and cuddly toys nest amongst the first buds of spring. Finally I asked a local just what all this random knitting was all about and I was enlightened about a world movement to bring soft, cuddly colour into the hard, concrete environment of cities...Google it and
see for yourself, there really is a thing called Grafitti Knitting and it is awesome!
Any city that prepares for the most important event on their sporting calendar by knitting flags to wrap around trees is alright by me so I decided to stay in Nelson and get myself gainful employment. No doubt there will be more blogs about the place once I discover some more of its local charms and quirks! Post Script
This blog is purely an expression of my thoughts and reactions as I walked around Christchurch on a wintery morning. While the city centre is
in a bad way, most of the city is still very much alive and well and in need of visitors' support so please don't let me put you off going there.
There are more photos below