The coast road from Nelson to Christchurch is currently closed, due to a combination of last year’s earthquake and this year’s recent cyclones. So instead of stopping off at Kaikoura, as originally planned, we diverted onto the Lewis Pass and headed for Hanmer Springs.
The drive over Lewis Pass was stunning, with seemingly endless mountain wilderness and forests that went on past the horizon.
We had been warned that the diversion around Lewis Pass could get quite busy, given that it’s currently the only available road into Christchurch from the Nelson area. Perhaps the road was busy by its usual standards, but it seemed eerily quiet to us, with just the odd lorry and camper van to keep us company.
Buller River Swing Bridge
Alongside some spectacular scenery, we also stopped off at NZ’s longest swing bridge, just outside of Murchison. Spanning the Buller river, the 110m wide swing bridge is part of a former gold mining settlement.
I’m not a huge fan of precarious looking heights. So my photos of the crossing were hastily constructed, while I clung for dear life onto the wobbly bridge that was allegedly going to transport us over the raging river far below.
The kids had no concerns, practically running across the bridge, calling for me to hurry up.
A short walk through the bush bought us down to the Buller river and some pristine looking water. Pristine except for the presence of sand flies, which we are avoiding like the plague after suffering from the nuisance of itchy bites for several days after our last encounter in Kaiteri.
At the kids request, we then decided to strap ourselves into a harness and fly back across the river to safety. As it turned out, this was a much more pleasant crossing than the rickety swing bridge.
Anja took a little convincing on this one, but it was great fun and we would all have gone again if they’d let us.
Stop Over In Hanmer Springs
Hanmer Springs is billed as NZ’a alpine resort, and the air did have a distinct alpine chill by the time we arrived in the late afternoon.
There is a ski area in the winter, but the main draw of Hanmer Springs, as the name might suggest, is some hot water springs.
We’ve already had our fair share of hot water pools after a week in Waikite Valley, but the kids never willingly turn down the chance of swimming. Chuck in some water slides and we’re there for the day.
Firstly, I need to make a confession. Despite lots of pre-trip planning, my Airbnb booking for Christchurch really wasn’t very good. The pictures looked nice and the reviews were all good, but as soon as we arrived something just didn’t feel quite right.
It may have been the broken front gate (first impressions?), or the damp in the bedrooms (not visible, but smell-able), or the freshly peeling paint in the front room (we’re being too fussy now).
Nobody said anything at the time, so we settled into our first night, with an unspoken determination to make the best of what we found.
Our first night didn’t exactly help matters, as we awoke to find a fresh covering of insect bites. I’m no expert on insect bites and we didn’t call in forensics, but we jumped to the conclusion that this place probably had bed bugs to complement the peeling paint, the damp and the broken gate.
The kids were happy because there were a variety of board games in place, but this wasn’t quite enough to induce us to stay any longer. Most of our Airbnb homes have been extremely nice and we managed to change our booking to an alternative house in Christchurch, which immediately improved our outlook on the town.
It’s hard to walk around Christchurch without feeling that you’re in the middle of a post-earthquake building site. Which effectively you are.
One of the most shocking sights was Christchurch cathedral, in a state of near collapse and surrounded by hoardings to keep any overly curious tourists away from the now precarious lean-to structure.
But it’s only when you stop and look around the cathedral, that you can see what has been lost. In the empty spaces that now fill what used to be the old town centre.
All around town are abandoned shops and office blocks, with concrete towers halfway through construction or in the process of being demolished. It’s sometimes hard to tell which.
Occasionally you stumble upon a new building that has emerged from the debris. Like the Christchurch art gallery, all shiny and new, looking a little lost amidst the quiet streets of Christchurch.
Other parts of town have a temporary feel to them, like the re-start mall. Hastily constructed from shipping containers, it’s become a tourist destination now, so perhaps it will outlive its intended purpose of providing a temporary home for shops displaced by the last quake.
The transitional cathedral, constructed partly from cardboard, is another temporary installation that feels too good to discard whatever happens to the original.
As a visitor to Christchurch, it’s inspiring to see how resilient people can be in the face of disaster. Creating new spaces to replace what has been lost. But I’m sure the reality is much harder than it appears on the surface.
In the centre of town, next to the re-start mall, is this little museum that shares some of the stories from the last big earthquake.
In late 2010 there was a magnitude 7.1 quake, located 40km from the centre of town. But real disaster struck in February 2011, with a magnitude 6.8 quake just 10km from the centre of Christchurch. 185 people were killed in this second quake.
The museum contains some important artefacts that were recovered from the wreckage, but the heart of the place is a video playing on loop, where ordinary people tell their stories of the quake and its aftermath. Some people had stories of lucky escapes and close shaves. Some of the stories were harder to watch.
Margaret Mahy Playground
Located along Armagh street and next to the River Avon, the good people of Christchurch have built a new playground out of the rubble of their 2011 earthquake.
Unlike the new art gallery, this place was constantly busy in the late autumn sunshine and felt really alive.
It was free and had good coffee, so the kids were allowed to visit as often as they liked, which was most days. With a water play area, sand pit, climbing nets and a roundabout, what more can you ask for if you’re 6 and 9 years old. Perhaps an ice-cream or two, but apart from that, not much to argue with.
Governor’s Bay & Corsair Bay
A 30 minute drive from central Christchurch, Governor’s Bay was a great spot for some lunch.
We stumbled upon my favourite type of cafe, in the shape of She Universe, which had the perfect combination of great views and lots of chocolate. Anja and I opted for a sharing platter, with a selection of meats, cheeses and chocolate. Some of the combinations sounded a little unusual, but it all went down very well.
Corsair Bay was a perfect little spot to cool off after lunch. A small sandy beach and a sheltered harbour for swimming.
Kiera managed to track down a jetty that she could launch herself from, much to the surprise of most people on the beach given the sea temperature was less than tropical.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
Apart from some seriously creepy eel creatures, which the kids mysteriously loved feeding, this place was lovely.
A small slice of bush has been carved out of a Christchurch suburb and filled with a collection of native wildlife, along with a few more recently imported breeds.
Not to mention our first sighting of a real-life kiwi bird, although you couldn’t take photos in their nocturnal enclosure.
We went for an hour and ended up spending most of the day, with the kids liberally sharing their collection of bird and animal feed.
Come On The Crusaders
Our newly adopted rugby team is the Canterbury Crusaders, who were playing in town while we were there.
For the uninitiated, rugby is quite a big deal in New Zealand. Every school playing field has a set of posts up, and we’ve seen countless practice sessions and local games taking place as we’ve been driving around.
The Crusaders were playing against a team from South Africa, the Stormers, as part of a tri-nation league that also includes teams from Australia. I think it’s fair to say that the kiwis currently have the upper hand in this arrangement, and the Crusaders handed out a lesson to the Stormers.
The kids cheered every try and waved their Crusader flags, which they’d been given by some of the players on a walkabout in the Margaret Mahy playground the day before the game.
Hopefully the kids now have a new found appreciation of live sport and I can sneak in a few more games from around the globe as we continue our travels.
Twelve nights in a campervan. Our first introduction to the delights of sleeping in a tin can. Hopefully we’ll love it, so I can then look for some really cheap re-location deals in Australia. If not, at least we’ll have tried.