Christchurch’s journey to recovery
Christchurch’s magnificent Gothic Revival cathedral was irreparably damaged in the 2011 earthquake. (AFP/Getty Images)
A flat-bottomed boat propelled by a guide who was dressed in a blazer and straw hat and carried a long wooden pole was an unusual way to see a disaster zone.
Jamie Storey, an operations manager for Punting on the Avon, takes tourists into Christchurch’s Red Zone, where some of the worst damage was inflicted on the heart of New Zealand's second city. About 185 people died in the devastation on 22 February 2011 when a magnitude 6.3 tremor struck New Zealand's South Island. Now, two years on, ruined buildings and vast empty spaces where hotels, shops and homes once stood dominate the landscape in the earthquake-scarred city.
Over the top of a grassy riverbank, Jamie pointed to an apartment block that is listing so badly it needs to be torn down, along with 80% of the city centre. It is an enormous job as every brick and twisted sheet of metal must be removed by truck. No-one was even allowed to access the Red Zone for 18 months after the quake as the area was too dangerous and unstable.
"It is eerie," Storey said. "I've been here beforehand so I know what it used to look like prior to the shakes. At the moment it is quite quiet, because there is no public that have been allowed access for the past year and a half. It feels like a ghost town. There are areas that feel almost post-apocalyptic."
Although parts of the Red Zone reopened in August 2012, Christchurch still feels subdued and shaken. For tourists, the desolate downtown area that once hummed with vitality and history can be a confronting experience; among the wreckage, the dust and the noise, lorry loads of debris are still being carted away.
But all around the city there are unmistakable signs of the population's resolve to bounce back from its trauma. Within sight of the ruins of the city’s iconic 150-year Anglican Cathedral, the Re:start mall, a temporary shopping centre built from brightly coloured shipping containers, has become home to more than 25 designer clothes stores, cafes and gift shops. On a bright day, it is an oasis of normality in the middle of the devastation.
One organisation, Gap Filler, is fostering innovation amid the rubble and vacant spaces. This urban regeneration scheme started as a response to the earthquakes, to temporarily create "beautiful and active sites" within some of the worst hit parts of Christchurch. Their coin-operated disco, the Dance-O-Mat, on a formerly-vacant site near the Re:start mall, pumps out music and lighting through a converted washing machine. For just one New Zealand dollar, visitors can plug their MP3 players or smartphones into the system and enjoy one of New Zealand's most unusual dance floors. Britain's Prince Charles recently showed off a few royal moves on an official visit to Christchurch.
And at the end of March, another new attraction will emerge from the ruins with the unveiling of a cathedral made from cardboard, which will temporarily replace the original Anglican landmark that was pulverised by those seismic forces. The giant six storey A-frame structure, which will seat 700 people, will be constructed of 86 large cardboard tubes placed on shipping containers, with a stained-glass window dominating its façade. The specially treated industrial cardboard will be water and fire proof, and promises to be a focal point for both the local community and tourists.
"To have such an innovative building go up really does put forward to the city and to the people a sign of hope," said project coordinator Reverend Craig Dixon.
But perhaps the greatest attraction in Christchurch is the city itself, and the determined efforts of its quake-weary people to recreate the place they love.