You have to be here to understand it. You can watch the events unfold from the comfort of your couch at the other end of the nation or on the other side of the world, but living through the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011 has taught me that what you see via the television is very different to real life.
A few days ago, I ventured into the central city, within the four avenues of the beautiful city of Christchurch. Peering through wire fences at streets that are still cordoned off, my heart ached for what we’d been through – and what some are still going through. It’s hard to imagine anything more surreal than seeing the busy streets that I drove down every weekday morning on my way to the office – including the morning of 22 February – now quiet and as gappy as a six-year-old’s smile where familiar old buildings have been dismantled and reduced to rubble. The scenes matched the images seared on my mind by the television footage – the cups still sitting at al fresco tables outside much-loved cafés and the verandas tipped sideways – but the odd thing is that it’s a reality that many of us have not actually encountered since the quake and the first few – strange, strange – days that followed.
The office that I work in is virtually unscathed (despite the fact it’s only just outside the four avenues and not far at all from the devastated CTV Building). My home is also virtually unscathed (apart from the road outside being a little lumpy). My new route to work takes me around Hagley Park, which is as beautiful as ever on an autumn morning, with a light mist hanging over the vast lawns and the sun rising behind the grand old oaks. The shopping district of Riccarton, apart from a few of the older buildings, is open for business and heaving with shoppers. The bars of Merivale are doing a roaring trade (as are the hair salons – according to my hairdresser at Sutherland Todd, they’ve been flat-out since the earthquake). Even some of the more centrally located businesses are now springing back into life – iconic hotels such as The George and much-loved restaurants like Cook’n With Gas, 50 on Park and Pescatore are in the heart of the city but they’re welcoming patrons once again.
Outside the city, other activities are also operating as per usual. Wildlife is still on show at Orana Park and Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, and the International Antarctic Centre still offers an unforgettable glimpse of life on the southern continent. The Air Force Museum and Tanks for Everything are open, and you can still play golf, go white-water rafting or swim with dolphins in Akaroa. Imagine the perfect serenity of a hot air balloon ride with Balloon Adventures Up Up and Away. Further afield, an easy day trip to Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura, Methven or Arthur’s Pass can have you soaking in a hot pool, spotting whales, dolphins, seals and albatrosses, or hiking in a national park.
I guess the fact is that life goes on. For many people in Christchurch, life has – in many ways – returned to normal. They might drive a new route to work and drink at a different bar just at the moment, but otherwise they’re getting on with the business of life. Project ‘Restart 29 October’ signals a commitment to have all existing retail and hospitality businesses in the popular entertainment district bounded by Oxford Terrace, Hereford Street, Colombo Street and Lichfield Street open for business in time for Christchurch City’s annual New Zealand Cup & Show Week celebrations in November.
So if you’re planning a visit to New Zealand and you’re assuming you might have to take Christchurch off your itinerary, think again. There are approximately 1,900 motel rooms ready and waiting, the airport is fully functioning, and there are still plenty of things to do. As you’d expect, the news footage focuses on the damage, but in many parts of the city you really have to go looking to find it. Life here in Christchurch is getting back to normal – it’s what we here in Christchurch call ‘the new normal’ and you’re very welcome to come and be part of it!