Way up high...and down low

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April 15th 2008
Published: April 15th 2008
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I've spent the last couple of days exploring two of the top five attractions in Christchurch. Yesterday morning I caught the bus out towards Lyttleton and went on the gondola up to the hills overlooking the city. There was a bit of mist around but it wasn't too bad at all and I had good views in both directions. On the other side of the hill from the city is Lyttleton Harbour, where the first settlers landed. After months at sea they would have had to walk up the long, steep slope to where I stood, carrying their children and all their possessions, and then walk down the other side to the swampy land that would become the city. Once they arrived they had to live in tents until they'd built the first solid houses. I went on a walk that's known as the Pioneer Women's Memorial Track because it goes out to a little memorial that's been set up to the women of these first families, commemorating the hardships they endured in the name of creating a good Christian city for their children to grow up in.

At the top of the gondola system there's a visitor centre with an observation deck, cafe, shop etc. There's also a really good little Time Tunnel exhibition where you sit in a car like those at the Jorvik Museum, and follow the journey of Christchurch from the creation of the land by volcanos through to the Maori settlers, the English settlers and finally the city of today. It's narrated by a really annoying little girl but apart from that it's extremely well done.

I had a whole morning of climbing yesterday, as just before the gondola trip I also went up the 134 steps of the cathedral tower to look out over the inner city. No help from man-made transport this time - the effort was all in the thighs and I was glad the tower wasn't taller! The views were ok but I couldn't see out to the pretty end of town. At least my $5 fee (2 pounds) went towards supporting the work of the cathedral.

From high to low - today I spent the morning at a place celebrating the furthest south you can get. The International Antarctic Centre is out near Christchurch airport, as this is where 70% of visitors to Antarctica fly from. There are actual research centres for various countries here, and the visitor centre has grown up on the site. It's a fantastic place to visit and I'd recommend it to anyone! I arrived just in time for the penguins' breakfast, and watched them swimming about in their pool catching fish thrown by the keepers. The penguins there are Little Blues which are the smallest species, and all of them have some form of disability which means they can't survive in the wild. Some of them are blind and have to be fed on land as they can't cope with swimming and eating at the same time. They were very cute and all the children there were quite entranced.

Next I went on a Hagglund ride! The Hagglund is an all-terrain vehicle that's used in Antarctica for navigating over hills and across crevasses. There's room for 16 people, and on the 15 minute ride we were driven up and down steep hills at quite some speed, over gaps in the middle of the hills that were pretending to be crevasses, and through a pretty deep pond that came halfway up the sides of the vehicle. It was great fun!

After that I went round the rest of the exhibition. There's a room dedicated to the Scott Base which is one of the research stations on Antarctica - you can find out about where the inhabitants eat, sleep and socialise, and see pictures that have been sent back by the photographers out there. These come through on a daily basis and are dated, so you can select any date on the computer and find out what was being photographed that day. The next room is a representation of the four seasons in Antarctica, with some quotes from Scott's diaries on an audio visual system, and changes in the brightness of the sky as the year progresses. At one point fake snow fell from the ceiling which was very exciting!

Next I moved on to the Storm room which was my favourite part of the centre. You have to put on overshoes and a warm coat, and then you go into a room with what looks and feels like real snow on the ground (it's probably the really good fake stuff they use in films!). There's an igloo, an ice slide for children and a tent you can crawl inside. The room's kept at a constant temperature of minus 8 so it feels pretty cold. Once every half hour a storm comes along, and they turn on the wind machines and turn the lights right down. The actual room temperature remains the same, but the wind chill factor makes it feel like minus 19 as the wind speed gets up to 25mph. You can crawl inside the igloo or the tent to hide from it, but I stayed outside imagining how much worse it would be in extremely cold temperatures, stranded miles from anywhere. It only lasted for a few minutes but my face was really cold afterwards and it was lovely to get back into the normal temperature of the rest of the centre!

Other highlights of the exhibition included a tank containing some of the fish that live in Antarctic waters which have antifreeze in their systems so that they can stay alive, some models of seals that you could touch to feel how soft their fur is, and a gorgeous ten minute photo montage of icebergs, divers, penguins and other Antarctic scenes all set to specially composed music that really fitted well with the images. In one of the more wordy rooms that adults might be more interested in, there was even a small play area labelled "Children and Penguins Only" where children could read story books or play with large cuddly penguins. I was very impressed with how well thought out everything was and by the variety of aspects of Antarctica that were represented - exploration, research, wildlife and landscape. A fab morning out!

Pictures are here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=47779&l=f40ad&id=503895728


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