A trekker along the Routeburn track had told us that New Zealand's second largest city would be a shock. But we didn't realize just how much.
Many of us remember the media images of the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. We specifically remember the quake on September 4, 2010 – the day we got married - as we had very nearly booked New Zealand as our honeymoon destination (hmm...sometimes we have to wonder if there's a connection between our travel plans and unusual events). Incredibly, there were no deaths when the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck near Christchurch in the early hours, as most people were tucked up in bed. However, it was a different situation on February 22, 2011, when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the busy town centre at midday. The damage? 185 deaths, the cathedral spire crumbled, and Christchurch's historic town centre was flattened.
Perhaps we were naive, but we had assumed that the town had been rebuilt and everything was back to normal. How horribly wrong we were. The scene that greeted us was not a bustling town centre, but rather a very bare and bleak shell of what was once a thriving town. There was a quietness and sadness about it. Shops had long been closed and scaffolded up, building sites and cranes met us at every turn, the cathedral brought back haunting images from the news as though time had stood still, heritage buildings were boarded up and waiting to be demolished. It was all incredibly sad.
We had no idea that the rebuild was so painfully slow. Differing views about insurance policy coverage and with the Government-supported Earthquake Commission struggling with depleted funds, Christchurch residents were, understandably, not shy to show their feelings. Someone even asked us quite seriously if we were living in our camper van as some people have been living in their cars since the quakes, unable to return to homes that are considered too unsafe.
A town in transition
As harsh as it sounds, life must go on. And that's where the people of Christchurch have really pulled out all the stops. The ways in which they have embraced creative and innovative projects is truly admirable, and shows the strength of the town in creating a transitional Christchurch. Here are a few of the rebuild projects we caught a glimpse of:
Many of the displaced town centre shops, cafes, and banks have been relocated in shipping containers at the Re:Start mall, where the scene was bustling.
Pop-Up Food Trucks
A pop-up scene has also developed for many former restaurants and cafes who have moved into mobile caravans and trucks. You have to admire their resilience.
Then there's the transitional cathedral made from 98 cardboard tubes, which was designed by Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, and built in just 11 months. Whether or not the 1881 cathedral will be rebuilt remains to be seen, with contrasting views between those who campaign to save it and others who want to look to the future and build anew.
Finally, there are the “Gap Filler” projects to fill the empty spaces where buildings were demolished; From art projects and giant chess boards to moving memorials dedicated to earthquake victims.
The rebuild has a long way to go, and many raw feelings are evident among the Cantabrians, but, talking to the locals, a sense of determination and positivity shine through, and that truly won our admiration.