Diving in New Zealand
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Christchurch's Ōtākaro Avon River has a lot to offer. Join schools of brown trout, Doris the friendly eel and local guides having fun around its banks this summer; it’s an inner-city flow-asis providing cubic-litres of fun.
Flowing through Hagley Park, winding through the city centre, traversing the Avonside red zone and out to sea, a journey down the Ōtākaro Avon River is a chilled out tour of the city’s most interesting spots. The river’s Māori name, Ōtākaro, means ‘a place of game’, after the children who played on its banks as the adults were gathering food from its bountiful waters. We’re channelling that spirit and heading to the Avon for a playful paddle and some delicious kai.
The Ōtākaro Avon River bursts into life at the historic Mona Vale in Fendalton, where the Ilam, Waimairi and Wairarapa streams converge. Start your Avon adventure there (don’t miss the fabulous rose and iris gardens) by fuelling up at the idyllic Mona Vale Homestead and The Pantry, serving exquisite high tea as well as a full seasonal lunch menu with views of the Avon and the park’s lush surrounds.
Follow the Avon’s grassy banks down the northern border of Hagley Park and wander the river. Celebrate an important moment in New Zealand history on the camellia-lined Kate Sheppard Memorial Walk. In the 1890s, camellias became a symbol of women’s suffrage when parliamentarians wore white camellias in their buttonholes to show their support, and those in opposition wore red camellias. Don’t miss the Daffodil Woodland, where in the late 1800s and early 1900s a menagerie of animals was kept, including kangaroos, llamas, a tortoise, a Californian bear and an emu named Jack. Since the animals have been removed, 500,000 daffodil bulbs have been planted here, and in spring it’s awash with yellow.
On the other side of the river, take the 1.5km Botanic Gardens River Walk, then pop into the Canterbury Museum to explore incredible taonga from Christchurch’s past.
For a great bite in the gardens, Ilex Café is all about simple sophisticated dishes and great coffee with fabulous views of the river in an equally fabulous building. Get amongst Christchurch Chef Jonny Schwass’ Huevos Rancheros or pulled lamb flatbreads. The Curator’s House was originally built for the curator of the Botanic Gardens in 1920 and is now a drool-worthy Spanish restaurant sitting in a glorious spot on the edge of the Avon. A shared paella is the perfect way to gear up for a day on the water, but perhaps stay off the uber-tempting wine menu for now, you’ll need your balance for these Avon on-water adventures.
At the Botanic Gardens, you can join KT from Christchurch Sea Kayaking, who knows how to play like the best of them. She’ll take you on one of three journeys: Te Toru Nui, exploring the blooming Botanics, bustling City Centre and re-greened red zone; City to Estuary, where you’ll start from the city and paddle through the nature-filled red zone to the bird bonanza Bexley Wetlands and out to the estuary; and City to Sea, where you’ll spend a full day journeying downriver from the Margaret Mahy Playground through the abundant estuary to the seaside Moncks Bay. KT’s full of great yarns and enthusiasm for the nature that invades Ōtautahi’s urban sprawl.
On Te Toru Nui, you’ll pass by the moving Christchurch Earthquake National Memorial, which commemorates those lost in the tragic quakes. Ngāi Tahu has gifted the memorial its poignant Māori name, Oi Manawa, which means ‘tremor or quivering of the heart’. Keep an eye out for eels as you pass The Terrace and Riverside Market, a favourite local relaxation spot (try Castro's Tapas & Bar for a drink with a view) and under the impressive Bridge of Remembrance, dedicated to those who served in the two world wars, as well as various other conflicts in New Zealand’s history. Further downstream, spot Robert Falcon Scott on his high plinth, a statue carved by his wife Kathleen. She’d made a bronze statue of Scott that was already on display in London, but this one was made from Carrara marble because of the metal shortages during the First World War. Scott faces north, the direction the expedition team were headed at the time of his death.
To get a higher perspective, join former adventure racer Joe Jagusch either at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, near the band rotunda by Cambridge Terrace or on the new Avon Loop boat ramp off Kilmore Street for a sitting, kneeling or standing trip downriver. Airborn Paddling offers starter lessons, through-city odysseys that conveniently finish near thirst-trap Pomeroy’s, shorter morning missions where you can explore Ōtākaro when it’s calm, or evening energisers where you can float from the gorgeous Botanic Gardens to the inner-city Edmond’s Band Rotunda – the perfect alightment for a post-paddle New Regent boozefest. Look out for Joe’s Flatwater Festival at the end of February.
For a more DIY experience, order up some grub at the Boat Shed Café (the spicy wedges are too good) and pick from the eclectic selection of boats for hire. You’ll find single and double kayaks, but also kid-friendly fibreglass paddleboats, wooden clinker-built rowing skiffs crafted right there at the Boat Sheds, or Canadian Canoes: long expedition-worthy wooden boats that you’ll need some teamwork to paddle. Grab one of the café’s picnic hampers and make a day of it.
From the Antigua Boat Sheds, you can take a nod to the city’s English heritage through a half-hour trip Punting on the Avon. Sit back in your comfy seat and watch the willows, redwoods and rhododendrons go by, with nosy ducks and geese accompanying you on your inner-city adventure.
Don’t miss the marvellous Margaret Mahy Playground on any jaunt down the river, arguably the best family playground in the country, and a great place to tire out the wee ones. Head down to the river to discover Ōtautahi’s untold stories with Waka on Avon. Māori sailed immensely technical voyages to reach these shores in the very beginnings of New Zealand’s human history, and during the birth of our city, early settlers and Māori used waka to transport bricks from Barbadoes Street to Deans Cottage, one of Christchurch’s earliest buildings, in a demonstration of the coexistence of the city’s two cultures. 180 years later, waka are back on the river. Indulge in stories of our city’s beginnings while enjoying what’s both the newest (Waka on Avon did its first voyages in early December), and the oldest way to paddle the river.
Landlubbers, don’t worry, we’ve got an Avon exploration for you too. Te Ara Ōtākaro Avon River Trail winds itself along the stunning Avon from Cambridge Village Green, through the residential red zone and out to Pages Road just outside New Brighton. You can wander or freewheel along it, stopping at the information boards to learn how this part of the city and its community have been uniquely affected by the earthquakes. Take a weeny detour to the Richmond Community Garden, where a community group is using red zoned land to grow vegetables and create a super-cool community space (say hi to the chickens from us). Further down, you’ll find the Riverbend Refuge, a native habitat restoration project, and enjoy Kaumātua Teoti Jardine’s specially commissioned poem inscribed onto tree rounds. You can make the whole trip even easier by hiring e-bikes from the folks at Chill, or joining their City to Sea electric bike tour, following Te Ara Ōtākaro and whizzing all the way out to New Brighton pier.
01 — STAY Don’t be spooked by this contemplative figure wading his way through the river just upstream of the Gloucester Street bridge looking like he’s lost his watch - it’s just STAY, a cast iron human created by British sculptor Antony Gormley (you might have met its twin over at the Arts Centre). Gormley created these to contribute to the healing of the city post-quake, and has said they carry “a sense of reflection or ‘taking stock’.”
02 — Tribute to Firefighters Look up after you pass under the Madras Street bridge and you’ll see a twisted whorl of rusted steel. These are actually steel girders that once supported the 102nd floor of one of the World Trade Centre buildings in New York, gifted by New York City to Christchurch in 2002 to honour all firefighters worldwide, and shaped into sculpture by Christchurch sculptor Graham Bennett.
03 — An inner-city green corridor The Avon River has lush plants dotting most of its length, but the stretch around the Armagh Street bridge is lined with weeping willows. It’s a fabulous corridor of sweeping leafy curtains ready for you to poke your bow into.
04 — Victoria Square A great spot to reflect on Ōtautahi’s history, Victoria Square has statues of Captain James Cook and Queen Victoria, as well as Māori pou and two waka statues designed by Ngāi Tahu master carver Fayne Robinson, all set against the backdrop of the stunning Christchurch Town Hall. The waka, titled Mana Motuhake, were designed to complement the existing Queen Victoria statue; a representation of the partnership between iwi and the Crown.
05 — Ever-changing wildlife Joe from Airborn Paddling loves to spot Canada geese chicks and plucky paradise ducks growing up as the summer season goes on. KT at Christchurch Sea Kayaking is all about the fabulous spoonbills at the Estuary Reserve, and has even seen a little blue penguin swimming up the rapids by Madras Street, perhaps popping into town for a latte.