Shades of grey - Greymouth and Christchurch

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January 31st 2016
Published: March 18th 2016
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We left Fox Glacier on a much brighter morning, with blue skies and sunshine. Phoowee. We drove along to Franz Joseph to have a look at their glacier, but just from the car park - no more risking wet feet for me. I was impressed with that one too but it seems to play second fiddle to the one at Fox Glacier - maybe I'm easily pleased. We were driving out of the area that would provide us with our last chance to see Mount Cook but it wasn't meant to be, even though we scoured the skyline. It seems we were fated to join the esteemed company of Captain Cook himself, who also never saw it. We took Route 6, driving through a mix of countryside - flat, hilly, mountains and rainforest, mainly populated by cows but with the occasional goat too.

We stayed overnight in The Gables Motel in Greymouth. Again, this was just a journey-breaker for us, but it was an interesting place, mainly known for its fishing and associated tragedies. We drove around the town and ended up down by the harbour, exploring the pier, where there was a makeshift memorial to the fishermen and sailors who had lost their lives over a considerable number years, mainly down to the vagaries of Greymouth Bar. Indeed, we knew nothing of the history at this point and somewhat voyeuristically watched a fishing boat returning to harbour, commenting innocently on the way its engines seemed to be struggling and it was steering a far from straight course. We noticed other people on the pier end too, who also seemed to have gathered to watch the boat's return. Surely Greymouth couldn't have this many tourists who just happened to descend on the pier at the same time? We all dispersed after the small boat finally made a safe, if somewhat ungainly, return to harbour. Talking later to the motel owner, it transpires that the waters over Greymouth Bar can change from a delicates wash to a turbo spin in the blink of an eye and many a sailor/fisherman has lost his life within arm's reach of safe waters. I couldn't shake the Tennyson words out of my head 'But such a tide as moving seems asleep ...Turns again home'. Tragic. Sometimes, people like to go down to the pier to make sure the boats get back safely. (There's a terrifying YouTube video of the phenomenon - watch it if you can.)

We called in to the Tourist Information Office, to see if we were missing anything. We weren't, but while there we saw a train in the station which shared its platform with the Information office. It was the first train we had seen in NZ, even though the towns seemed to be criss-crossed with lots of train tracks. Indeed, we had seen many signs suggesting that we 'See New Zealand by train!' and wondered just how you were supposed to do that without a train to be seen. Well, the answer is you do it by the one and only tourist train, complete with steam engine and viewing platforms and this is what was standing at the station in Greymouth. Everyone was quite excited at its visit, the driver waved merrily, as did the tourist passengers, and the train blew its whistle before steaming off into the distance, slowly. Well, that was a thrill .... Other than that, and meeting the motel's golden retriever dog, there wasn't much else happening.

We set off the following morning for Christchurch. We had literally spent a few hours there when we first arrived in NZ, and most of those were asleep. We were returning to complete the circle and spend a few days exploring. Our journey once again started off grey and drizzly as we set off on the Great Alpine Way (Route 6). And alpine it was, really pretty but with plenty of motorbikes, roadworks and the dreaded CHIPPINGS! We stopped at Arthur's Pass to use their toilet facilities but it was so pretty we spent a bit of time there. We had a long holdup for roadworks but the weather had turned and we had glorious sunshine as well as being near the front of the queue, almost on a bridge (I don't come to a stop on a bridge over water as the people behind me at Selby Toll Bridge will tell you - you just don't know if it might choose that very moment to collapse!). So, we were able to get out, stretch our legs and enjoy the view while chatting to everyone else stuck in the jam. We saw another train (but I think it was the same one!) and, again, the driver waved and tooted the horn merrily. We passed ski slopes but without the snow and as the Alpine Way began to flatten the countryside became more agricultural. We noticed some pylons supporting electrical cables for miles and miles down a riverbed. Ok, it was probably the flattest land around but I've heard it's not just me and water that don't mix and it seemed a bit dangerous to me. However, I was brave enough to traverse a footbridge that could support only one person at a time, just to explore the riverside at the other side. I know, how brave am I?! I've often wondered what constitutes one person ... Would one 20 stone person be OK and, if so, could two 10 stone people cross at the same time? I didn't want to put it to the test and hoped my expanding waistline didn't mean I was over the limit, whatever that was! We had stopped being concerned about getting stuck behind the heavy lorries - their huge engines usually left us dead in the water and they only really struggled on the steep hills when they very kindly pulled over and let us get in front. Apparently, there's a rule in NZ that if there is a queue of traffic behind you than you MUST pull over to let it past and that's a good rule in my book - much better than attempting a dangerous overtake. I got the giggles when we passed through a place called Hei Hei and kept repeating it in a Muttley imitation which only made me laugh the more. Our journey was soooo pleasant through the stunning scenery under the clear and sunny skies.

We drove past the place we stayed for a few hours on our first night in NZ. It had been lovely but we wanted something more central this time, so we checked in to the Christchurch Country Glen Lodge on this occasion. It was almost as lovely though it was painted a very dull grey, which was a bit odd. It had a HUGE car park where we noticed a scratch down the passenger side of our hire car. You know, the hire car that we had driven with such care to avoid any minor chip? The one that I almost had to get complete strangers to bodily lift when I beached it at a view point? Yes, that one. It now had a scratch from above the rear wheel, across both doors and up to the front wheel. There was no hiding it, and the insurance would cover it, but it was annoying, given the care we had taken. We could only think it had happened at the Greymouth motel where parking had been tight and maybe the people parked beside us had caught it with a handbag or something. Ho hum. Anyhoo, the reason the car park at the Country Lodge was so big was that there used to be a detached building there, the home of the motel owners, and it had been lost during the last earthquake, leaving just the motel buildings standing.

We had an interesting time in Christchurch. We explored independently and took the city bus tour, which was a red bus version this time. While walking around initially we noticed lots of empty lots and it took us a while to realise that these were the result of the earthquake damage clearance. I don't think we were being dumb on this occasion, it's just that 'earthquake' was not the first thing that sprung to our minds as an explanation. So, there was plenty of parking space available but the city is rebuilding itself, bit by bit. Everywhere we walked we could hear the sounds of hammering and sawing, but there were still buildings that were shored up by, ingeniously, shipping containers full of rubble. The property next door to our motel was being rebuilt and the owners appeared to be still living in it whilst the work was being undertaken. The contractor was employing what sounded like eastern european labour and I suspect, with so much work to be done, labour shortage could be a real issue.

The city bus tour was really informative, as you would expect. We were told that the city was founded by people who had been Anglican church members in Christchurch, England - hence the name - in 1850. Apparently, to be accepted into the NZ version you had to be upstanding and sober, under 40 years old, a regular churchgoer with a recognised trade and a letter of recommendation. I'd never get in! It seemed there were no civil or construction engineers who qualified either because no-one seemed to realise that Christchurch is built on a swamp in an earthquake zone. Tragically, some of the buildings slid in the earthquake, some bounced, some collapsed and some survived. 185 people died, 115 from the same building which was built by a wideboy who ran off to Australia and, understandably, the NZers want him back. There is an evocative white chair memorial to those 185 people, each represented by a white chair, often their own favourite seat. It was very moving. The Anglican cathedral was so badly damaged it was going to be torn down, as the Anglican church could not afford to rebuild it. A court order was obtained to prevent its demolition (because, city icon) but there is still no money available for its rebuild. In contrast, the Vatican is funding the complete, improved version of the rebuild of a Catholic church. One of ten city hotels survived, the Novotel, but it had lost access. Once that was restored we were told it made a fortune as 4000 hotel rooms had been lost in the other nine hotels. Now there are strict building regulations in force. The 'No building higher than seven storeys' rule is already being challenged by an eleven storey application. The cost of people's damaged private dwellings was covered by the insurers and the NZ government covered the cost of the land but, sadly, that is still not enough to allow many affected residents to rebuild their homes and their lives. There is some good news though - a 'pop-up' shopping village is doing roaring trade operating out of those wonderfully versatile shipping containers and we had a tasty meal sitting under the shading umbrellas in the informal square. A new children's playground has been built, designed by children, for children. There's some really creative modern art (there's even an Antony Gormley man in the river, amongst the ducks and eels) and though the tour guide was pleased to say that the new skateboard park was being respected this time round with no graffiti damage, there was still plenty of graffiti to be seen mainly in the colourful, inspiration style and I liked it.

Our guide told us that NZers had been concerned that Christchurch would be rebuilt in functional but ugly reinforced concrete buildings. He was pleased that this was not the case, with plenty of glass and a small amount of colour being introduced. On the whole though, it looked to me as though there was still a considerable amount of grey and, personally, I think Christchurch has missed an opportunity to be creative with its rebuild, generally sticking with plain, boxy, oblong structures. It could perhaps learn a lesson or two from Singapore, where it seems no two buildings are the same, each one with a style of its own. But, I'm no architect or civil engineer and I'm not from New Zealand so who I am I to say? At the moment the shipping containers provide a rainbow vista to please the eye.

Two other things I discovered in Christchurch:

1. It is very hard to buy postcards there (OK - they may have other priorities at the minute);

2. It is impossible to send things back to the UK by surface (sea) mail. NZ stopped doing that four years ago, apparently, because it was 'slow and outdated'. It seemed to matter not that every other country we had visited so far still offered this (much cheaper) option and we really didn't care how long it took our parcels of mementos to make it back. We had no other option but to pay an extortionate amount for our things to go back by air mail, with the result that my friend received parcels 10 and 11 before parcel 4, her house is rapidly filling up with stuffed envelopes and her postman thinks she has started some international mailing empire! Thanks M!

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