The first stop on our full-day’s itinerary in Christchurch was the International Antarctic Centre, where penguins, sub-zero temperatures and jolting excursions were the order of the day.
This centre of all things Antarctic was such a delight. What’s the connection between Christchurch and Antarctica, you might ask? Well, the centre is right next to airport where many Antarctic expeditions depart, which means it is a great place to visit if you have some time to kill at the airport. Not only were there heaps of King Penguins to keep John happy, but you also got to experience the plunging temperatures of an Antarctic wind storm. Donning thick coats and overshoes, you shuffle in to a snowy chamber complete with igloo and snow-mobile.
The kids were at first excited about the snow and cold. Already at -5°, the countdown clock ticked down to the time the storm would begin. At the commencement of the storm, the room went dark and a howling wind picked up, dropping the temperature to -18°. Thomas stoically braved the minute of rage, but John and Connie found it a little too much. Their little pink cheeks and frozen tears were a sign perhaps we this was a step too far. However, soon after they had warmed up outside, they were again plunging their hands into ice baths and were dropping ice cubes down everyone’s shirts, so I don’t think they were too scarred by the experience!
The other highlight of the experience was getting to ride in a Hagglund – the all terrain vehicle, specially designed for the extreme Antarctic environment. You get to ride in one around a purpose built course, designed to show off what the vehicles can do – and boy could they do a lot. Traversing steep hills, navigating ‘roads’ of logs and tyres, driving through deep, watery pits, straddling crevices – all with surprising speed and dexterity, but not much comfort. It was a rush bouncing around in the back for the 20 minute ride, but I can see why they don’t let pregnant women or children under two ride.
In contrast, the rest of the day took a more somber tone. Unfortunately, no trip to Christchurch is complete nowadays without some earthquake tourism. Ravaged by two sizable quakes just months apart, much of the city centre lies now lies in ruin. On 22 February 2011, Christchurch was struck by a 6.3 magnitude quake with its epicentre just 10km from the Christchurch CBD. It killed 185 people and damaged hundreds of buildings already weakened by a quake just five months earlier. Now six years on, the evidence of nature’s destruction is still all too evident. Much of the city centre is abandoned and everywhere are parking lots where damaged buildings have been demolished or cordoned off buildings dressed in graffiti, visible reminders of the powerful force of nature.
However, amongst the wreckage are clear signs of a vibrant city determined to get back on its feet. The Re:Start mall is a good example of this. After the CBD shopping district was flattened, business owners took to selling their wares from shipping containers. This shipping container shopping mall, although billed as temporary, is now a proud example of the resilient mentality of Christchurch residents.
Unfortunately, in Cathedral Square there remains a sorry reminder of the destruction. Arguments between the Anglican church and heritage groups including UNESCO have seen precious little done to the Anglican cathedral that once proudly stood in the square, and the cathedral still remains broken and desolate behind temporary fencing.
This too is the same for the Catholic cathedral (Christchurch Basilica) a few blocks further east. This building too, is a quite literally a shell of its former self.
But this city named for its churches is not without focal point of worship. A temporary Anglican cardboard cathedral was designed and built in the years following the quake. As its name suggests, it is made from cardboard tubing, as well as shipping containers and perspex sheeting. The effect is quite subtle but is worth visiting to take in the metaphor for rebuilding and moving forward in the face of adversity.
A block behind this is perhaps the saddest reminder of all, a vacant lot occupied by 185 empty white chairs, each individual to represent a person that perished in the quake. Officially the installation by Peter Majendie is called Reflection of Loss of Lives, Livelihoods and Living in Neighbourhood and features armchairs, kitchen stools, rockers. Even a high chair and a baby capsule are poignant signs of lives lost.
Visitors are encouraged to take a seat that connects with them and spend a moment sitting in reflection. It certainly was a visual way to show the human face of the tragedy. Like many things in the city, the memorial is only temporary. A permanent one was being constructed down by the river while we were there, so I’m not sure how long the white chairs will remain.
Finally, we were able to see the city alive and kicking by taking a circuitous journey on the city’s old wooden trams. Apart from satisfying the kids’ insatiable desire for ‘things that go’, it was a great way to get around the CBD, to take in not only the destruction but also to see the rebuild and public art that have arisen in the aftermath of the quakes.