Sunday, June 4, 2017

Winter is Coming! (Christchurch and Akaroa)

Before the winter kicked off (officially 1 June, as they say), we made one last trip to the South Island, which we learned has fewer inhabitants than Auckland alone. No wonder Auckland is bursting at the seams. We heard Christchurch was not worth visiting due to earthquake rebuilding progress - or lack thereof. Such statements always perk our interest. Our last experience in Dunedin was so good for a city ‘not worth visiting’ that we thought we’ll give Christchurch a fair chance. It did not hurt that it is only a 90 min drive from the most French region of NZ. Ok, I kinda admit it, Christchurch was a bit of an excuse...

You may recall that Christchurch experienced a devastating earthquake about 6 years ago. The whole downtown was shaken during work hours and 185 people lost their lives that day. A memorial made of 185 white chairs is a poignant reminder of the impact on the city. 
The 185 white chair Memorial
Walking the city was a sad experience seeing buildings still in need of major repairs and demolition. When we stopped by the main cathedral, a local (and earthquake survivor) was eager to share his experience and told us the current struggle the city is facing to decide what to do with the cathedral rebuild/replacement. Not long after the earthquake, they stood up the ‘cardboard cathedral’ as a temporary replacement, but the reconstruction of the original is at a standstill because the current bishop (a Canadian woman) wants to raze the original cathedral to rebuild a new one while the local kiwis want a restoration. It's a bit amazing to us that the decision would be not be an easy one to conserve the NZ history. Sometimes we feel NZ allows way more external input than they should. Did you know for instance that while we don't even have a permanent resident status we can vote?
The Main Cathedral still awaiting its fate
The rain was getting old in the city so we jumped on a tram (something like the SF street cars) to do a city tour hoping to learn more about the rebuild progress. Instead the woman tram driver pointed out all the new shopping malls sprawling as part of the rebuild. One of those malls is made of containers which happened to be a creative way to carry on with business after the event. If you think about it most of what comes to the country comes in huge container ships, so reusing those "boxes" makes sense. Some bank branches are still operating in containers. While we were hoping the tram tour would be more educational, we pondered if this was not the attitude locals had to adopt to deal with such ordeal. Many people have chosen to relocate north after the devastation. 
ASB bank container office
Artists were called on to help bring some joy back to the city and the street art they created was reminiscent of Dunedin's. We are hopeful Christchurch will become the most modern city in NZ, as it was pointed out to us by one of our recent hiking buddies. What they are rebuilding is modern, but it is just taking a whole lot longer than one would hope.
Street art in Christchurch
After a day in Christchurch we drove to Akaroa, the main town in the volcanic Banks Peninsula close to Christchurch. The peninsula is basically a big (really big) volcano crater with finger bays all around it. Quite a site from the air. I have been wanting to go there since we arrived in NZ as the French influence is apparently the strongest there. Akaroa has only 600 year-around residents yet it has 3,000 (yes three zeros) houses, most of them owned by Christchurch inhabitants. 

French bakery in Akaroa
The tourist season in Canterbury ends at Easter, but we decided to take a chance with the avoid the crowds, and crowds there were none. While the weather did not cooperate much, with heavy fog robbing us of what we read are spectacular views, we enjoyed muddy hiking in drizzling rain and soaked socks, followed by superb food for such a small place. 

Onewa hike (credit to the awesome Frenzy NZ guide)
What made up for the poor weather was access to the America’s Cup broadcast in our little La Rochelle’s motel room. In Auckland we only have the basic cable channel our landlords grant us so we have been keeping up via post-races online news reports which was less than satisfying. Having early morning live access from our hotel room meant we could deal with any weather after that. We expected a lot more excitement from kiwis about the Cup, but the lack of accessible covfefe (new word for ‘coverage’, we hear) has made the event barely an event here. Very sad.

Let's just hope the US stays true to this treaty
On our way back to Christchurch to catch our flight we stopped by the International Antartica Centre. Christchurch is known as the gateway to Antarctica, providing 5hr flights to the Scott Base for several nations, including the US. This is the location of the United States Antarctic program funded by the National Science Foundation. We got up close and personal with our favorite blue penguins as the Centre has a rehabilitation unit for those poor birds who could not survive in the wild. We got a bit more educated along the way; did you know Antarctica is the tallest continent (the Arctic is only floating ice) and that you only find polar bears in the Arctic and penguins in Antarctica, while seals are found in both?  Now that we exhausted our South Island options for the coming winter months (we are here to stay warm), the "should we buy a car while we are here" topic is coming back on the table with a vengeance. With the weather becoming finicky (and damp) in the winter, visiting the North Island will become our focus. Stay tuned....