Days 106-108: Christchurch, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 10, 2014

Days 106-108: Christchurch, NZ

You can't visit Christchurch without confronting the lingering aftermath of the earthquakes that rocked the city four years ago. The most common topic of conversation throughout our time in New Zealand — aside from every single person telling us that we're mad for trying to cycle across Australia in the summer, and also how much I love hand pies — has been the earthquakes and the effect they've had on the city, the region, and the country as a whole. During the three full days we spend in town we can start to understand why.

It doesn't matter where we walk, the urban landscape is an unsettled mix of cranes, metal construction site fencing, buttresses, stacks of drywall, ladders, scaffolding, excavation machines, dumpsters, and orange traffic cones by the thousands. Some buildings have been reduced to shells, and some to only a few free-standing sections of walls. Hundreds of others have been torn down, hauled away, and all that remains is a barren patch of earth covered only with dirt or gravel or weeds. There are memorials to century-old churches and museums that no longer exist, and homemade banners that announce how the property owner is still in litigation with the federal Earthquake Commission after more than three years of negotiations. Dozens of stores and art galleries and even the city's central cathedral are housed in cheap, temporary structures of sheet metal, plastic, and reinforced cardboard until insurance claims are processed, revitalization plans finalized, and reconstruction completed.

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Almost every motel we walk or ride past has its No Vacancy sign lit up. The rooms are filled either by the people whose homes are no longer livable or the people who have come from other parts of New Zealand or the world to repair or rebuild those homes, or the buildings downtown. But another thing we notice is that so many of the new office buildings and condo complexes in the downtown core are constructed of concrete and green-tinted glass and are entirely without charm. And even the buildings that have a sense of purpose and character are burdened by the fact that they exist in the middle of a sea of empty lots. One of the most intriguing parts of any city is how its history is reflected in the style and layout of its buildings and parks and avenues, but with so many places destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and the core layout of the city undergoing a massive reconfiguration, in Christchurch that sense of history and placement has now been lost forever.

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At the site of what used to be a cathedral.
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It's the kind of dying downtown I've seen a lot in America, in places like Bremerton, Washington; Great Falls, Montana; or any of dozens of the cities in the Rust Belt, where most of the retailers and restaurants and hair salons have bolted for cheaper rent and easier parking out in the suburbs. Except this isn't a city of 75,000 people; it's a city of more than 375,000, the largest city on the South Island, and the third-largest in the entire country. And unlike a lot of those old steel and mining towns, I feel a deep, unwavering sense of guilt every time I stop to take a photo. This isn't a city that became severely injured because the resources it had been pulling out of the ground for decades with no respect for their effect on the environment ran out and it had no backup plan. It's a city that was going about its business, already fighting to stay relevant against the pull of lower-cost housing and shopping malls in the suburbs, before being blindsided in the harshest possible way. There's nothing they could have done. The biggest question isn't how long it will take Christchurch to recover, it's whether or not the city will recover and some day thrive again at all.

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On Thursday afternoon we ride south away from the center of town and on to the outer neighborhoods. There are still the scaffolding, temporary fences, and portable toilets that mark the continuing home repairs and construction, but in general these areas look healthy and active and much the same as they probably looked before the earthquake. It makes the barren, war-torn feel of so many parts of downtown Christchurch seem that much more dramatic and hard to believe in comparison. We head in this direction because we've been offered the chance to stay with Vivian and George, who we met more than a month ago when we stayed with Alison and Grant back in Nelson. But as with everything else in New Zealand that involves riding bikes, to get to their home we have to earn it. We ride up a series of the most painfully steep hills we've encountered anywhere in the country, and by this point in the day the warm weather that marked our return to the city has disappeared. In its place we find ourselves riding into the teeth of a thirty mile-per-hour wind, and by the time we make our final turn it has started to rain. We could not have scripted a more appropriate way to end our cycling in New Zealand.

It'll only take a day or two, right?
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There is sometimes rain and wind around that time of the year.
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We spend a couple of days with Viv and George and their university-aged sons William and Alastair. It gives us a chance to relax, to clean up both ourselves and our bikes, and to start planning the long, hard push across Australia that lies in wait. We also learn about the adventurous lifestyle Viv and George have enjoyed over the years, which included not one but two trips from England to South Africa via the deserts and jungles and remote countryside of the African interior — once with a group of friends while driving a pair of breakdown-prone Range Rovers, then again a few years later using a bright yellow ex-military truck, the kind that was capable of driving across the Congo without stopping to fill up because it carried 1,200 liters of fuel. In recent years they've cycled the mountains of Tibet and India, sleeping outside in tents up beyond 15,000 feet in the shadows of Mount Everest. Their stories are a clear reminder that no matter how daring you think you are, or how high you think your risk tolerance might be, there will always be people who have done more.

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Pizza time with George and Viv.
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Awesome.
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On Friday we catch a bus into downtown to pick up packing tape, zip ties, and a big box into which we can throw all of the dirty and smelly things we're about to unleash on Australia. It's clear when we board that we don't know our asses from a hole in the ground as far as the Christchurch bus system goes, but unlike America we aren't yelled at and berated and made to feel stupid because of it. Instead the driver suggests the type of ticket he thinks we're most likely to need and then explains how the transfer system works. When we hand him a ten-dollar bill because it's all we have, instead of putting it into a machine that swallows up our fare and all of the overage, he places the cash in an open till next to his arm and gives us exact change in return. And rather than sit in grubby old seats and look out through windows turned hazy with age and scratched up with graffiti, the bus is new and clean and music plays from speakers mounted in the ceiling.

The bus experience captures some of what we'll miss about New Zealand. It's a nice, friendly, sensible, welcoming country that does a good job of taking care of its people and its visitors. We'll also think back with good memories about the the lush beauty of the native forest in the scenic reserves, the cheekiness of the weka birds and the distinctive calls of the tui and the bell bird, the hundreds of quiet, empty, peaceful roads on the North Island, and the fact that the toilets were almost impossible to clog. We'll remember watching baby lambs struggle to stand on wobbly legs, Jimmy's-brand mince and cheese pies, gumboots, the charming accents that all New Zealand children have, and the rare clear days that revealed the incomparable beauty of the Southern Alps as they stretched along the spine of the South Island. We'll think of Monteith's crushed apple cider, making fun of awful tourist traps, and the remote beauty of the Forgotten World Highway, the West Coast Wilderness Trail, and Danseys Pass. And we'll remember all of the people walking around in bare feet, how the landscape is green everywhere, and the incredible generosity shown to us by every family who hosted us and answered all of our ridiculous questions along the way.

We'll have less good feelings about the hail, the snow, the heavy rain, and the high winds. We won't miss the overpriced holiday parks, nor the fact that every restaurant is expensive, no matter how good or how bad the food. We're also looking forward to stepping away from the hyper-tourism and rented RVs and camper vans that were absolutely everywhere on the South Island, and to waking up in the tent in the morning or heading to sleep at night without being able to see our breath.

The question we asked ourselves more than anything during our last month in the country was a simple one: would we recommend New Zealand to other cycle tourists? And the short answer is, probably not, unless they're sticking to the North Island or their tolerance for discomfort is high. It's a place where the terrain almost never runs flat, and where the hills tend to be steep and long and frequent. The weather is wildly unpredictable, especially in the spring, and there's no such thing as a prevailing wind direction to help moderate the effect. And it isn't as simple as riding in New Zealand in the summer instead of the spring or the fall, because although we didn't experience what summer traffic feels like, when we tried to imagine it all we could do was shake our heads. In the spring, most everyone on the roads where we traveled was a tourist, and almost all of them were from out of the country. But in the summer not only does the number of foreign tourists go up, but they're joined on the highways by a few million Kiwis, all of whom have four to six weeks of holiday time to burn. The thought of riding the narrow, winding roads of the West Coast or the Southland with an unbroken string of RVs and rental cars filling our rear view mirrors seems like far more stress and danger than it's worth.

Yet here's the thing: with all of that being said, we haven't for a moment regretted traveling here when we did, and we've talked at length about the fact that we want to come back some day soon. New Zealand is a land of unparalled beauty, and the sparse population that exists outside of the cities means that it's not hard to find yourself in remote, rugged, amazing places that you can have all to yourself. It's a place that begs to be explored not only by bicycle, but by foot, by canoe, or by kayak. We lost count of the number of parks and conservation areas where we wished we could have spent one week instead of just one night. There are so many more quiet country towns, rugged mountain peaks, and isolated forest lakes worth experiencing. If the circumstances of your life ever present you with the chance to travel to New Zealand, you owe it to yourself to make the most of that chance. Just consider leaving your bicycle at home.

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Our time in Christchurch also gives us the time and space to think about how much we've been sleeping indoors and hanging around the comforts of civilization during the past six weeks. I've had so much idle time that I'm caught up with major world events, with what's making news in Seattle and Portland, and the finer details involving hockey, baseball, and football both college and pro. And I can't stand that. One of the great joys of travel is losing yourself in the mystery and charm of wherever you happen to be, not existing with a foot firmly planted in both worlds. There's something about it that feels painfully unadventurous, like it's at odds with the pace, physical challenge, inward-focused hours on the road that go along with cycle touring.

But we also know that the end of those feelings are near. Starting tomorrow the adventure returns.

Today's ride: 11 miles (18 km)
Total: 3,239 miles (5,213 km)

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