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Twenty-five hours after having left snowy Toronto, I was finally in Christchurch, having changed planes in Vancouver and Auckland. As for the final cost of my Air New Zealand return fare, it was certainly a lot better than the $3000. the first time I had looked. It was even better than the $2650. offer I noticed online two weeks before the flight. I got the ticket for $2150. and I am sure the price helped me decide to make South Island my destination, and not Colombo, Sri Lanka with its slightly cheaper airfare. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice!
Crossing the International Date Line meant that I arrived on a Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. after having left Toronto at 2:00 on Thursday afternoon. New Zealand is eighteen hours ahead of Toronto. The flip side of this loss of time is that on my return home I left Christchurch at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon and was back home in Toronto at 10:00 the same night. It all evens out in the end!
I also escaped Toronto just in time! The very next morning an epic snowstorm hit eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. with 30 to 50 cm. of snow. Planes were grounded for a couple of days and flight schedules were in disarray for days afterwards. Meanwhile, I actually got some sleep on the thirteen-hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland.
Having heard that the customs agents were real sticklers about travellers bringing any biological hazard into the country, I had taken the time to wash my tent pegs before I left home. I had even sprayed them with Lysol to give them that smell. No matter! They still insisted on giving my tent gear an examination to make sure all was proper.
After a short wait in Auckland, I was on the final leg of my journey to Christchurch. A quick taxi ride later and I was chatting with the Paraguayan manager of the motel where I would be spending my first two nights. The Amore Motel is on Riccarton Road, close to the University of Canterbury campus and just a two-minute walk from the city’s major shopping centre, the Westfield Riccarton, as you can see in the image below.
The first thing I did after ditching my baggage in my room was take the #3 bus back towards the airport; the Natural High depot is located on Harewood Road, just a 2 km walk away from the airport. (The bus ride to the airport was about $3.50; the cab ride from the airport had been $40.!) Max, the Italian backpacker turned mechanic, put on my handlebar bag holders and my Brooks saddle for me and installed a basic odometer and checked to make sure all was good. The bike was a Cannondale Touring 2 (probably 2008 vintage; I hear they stopped making them in 2010); it would prove to be an excellent bike. I never needed to inflate the 35mm tires and everything from the spoke tension to the derailleur system worked with no worries. Now that I was all set I went back to Riccarton Road and had lunch and an afternoon nap before I put my bike to work on the roads of Christchurch.
I had no idea what was going on but as I cycled back to the motel, I was amazed by the number of fellow bike riders on Yaldhurst Road; they were all geared up in spandex and looked real pro! People sitting in collapsible chairs on the sidewalk applauded as I cycled by. “What a bike-friendly place!” I thought as I took in the positive vibes.
Well, it took me a while but I finally stopped and asked someone what was going on here. It turns out that I was gate-crashing the Speight’s Coast to Coast Race (a 243-kilometer combo of biking, running, and kayaking that takes contestants from one side of the country to the other).
The downtown core (Central Business District or CBD) is about four kilometers to the east. It was badly mauled two years ago this month by the second of two earthquakes within the span of six months. 185 people died and many structures damaged beyond repair, including many heritage buildings. The current (as of January 7th, 2013) Red Zone is shown in the map below –
Click here for a full-size Google map of the above that you can zoom in on for more detail. A newer version of the map (as of April 21, 2013) can be seen here. Some progress – slow as it may be – is evident.
Riding down Riccarton to Hagley Park, I made my way to the CBD to see things for myself. The analogy of passing motorist slowing down to gawk at an accident scene did cross my mind; I saw it more as the acknowledgement and the paying of respect to those unlucky to have been dealt the death card thanks to forces of nature beyond our control (or was it shoddy building practices in the one structure where most people died?).
I headed first for Cathedral Square, the once-heart of Christchurch. From behind the barriers, you see high-rises that look fine but which you know must come down because of structural damage. In order to rebuild the downtown core, most of what is there now must first be torn down. “Overwhelming” is the word which comes to mind to describe the needed effort.
Take a look here for a brief news clip from April 17, 2013 about the “new” Regent Street. It sounds like the street has finally reopened, a positive sign for sure.
In my ride around the cordoned-off area of the city, I did see this moving tribute to those who lost their lives in the second and more devastating quake in February of 2011. The art installation was in a parking lot just outside the Red Zone.
There are also some signs of renewal. Perhaps the most visible is the Re:START mall project on Cashel Street which involves the creative use of shipping containers.
It was a Saturday afternoon when I first visited the area and there were a few people around, mostly tourists like me who had come to gawk at the damage. At the end of my NZ visit, I would return again – this time on a Friday evening around 7:00. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me but I was struck by how dead it was. I felt like I had come to visit a friend all hooked up to tubes in the hospital. A half-dozen local teens and a few Japanese tourists were the only people I saw.
Back on Riccarton Road, there was life, thanks to the mall and all the motels. I found an Indian restaurant and had the first of many veg curries; I found this was usually a sure bet in my quest for vegetarian food choices. By nine the jet lag kicked in and I was back at the motel, ready for a real sleep after my first day in New Zealand.
Sunday, February 10.
Based on the route described in the Lonely Planet guide to cycling in New Zealand, I made the ride to New Brighton and Sumner beaches my first real ride, planning to cap it off with the ride over the Port Hills to The Sign of the Kiwi cafe on Dyer’s Road and then back to Riccarton.
Sunday morning is my favourite time to cycle in Toronto, given that things are much quieter than usual. The same was true in Christchurch as I cycled through Hagley Park at about 8:00 a.m.
Passing the Antigua Boat Sheds again, I followed the Avon all the way to New Brighton beach. I had thought that there might be a dedicated bike path along the river banks but this proved not to be the case; I had to content myself with quiet nearby streets that eventually led me ocean-side. The ride through Hagley Park and then near the Avon made clear the reason for Christchurch’s description as “The Garden City” (a name it shares with London, Ontario and who knows how many other cities!)
An hour later and I was approaching New Brighton beach and the Pier. But first a ride past the still-shut storefronts on Brighton Mall –
And then the beach and the Brighton Pier (built in the 1990’s) jutting out some 980 feet into the Pacific. I got off my bike and spent some time just walking along the beach and appreciating the fact that I was here on such a beautiful morning.
The ride took me along Marine Parade and up Bridge Street to Dyer’s Road until I took a left and followed Ferry Road until it becomes Main Road and goes all the way to Sumner Beach, my second seaside stop for the morning.
Perhaps it was simply because it was an hour or so later in the day, but there were certainly many more people at Sumner beach than New Brighton – surfers, strollers, boys playing football, families with blankets spread out…a lively scene.
And then it was time to head up into the Port Hills, apparently the remains of the rim of an ancient volcano. The roads- Summit and Dyer’s- would give me a nice tune-up for the ride over Porter’s Pass and Arthur’s Pass in a couple of days. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought of the earthquake and its impact; as the images above show, that impact reached all the way to Sumner and beyond. They had also affected the roads crossing the Port Hills.
Not that my updated September 2012 edition of Pedallers’ Paradise had anything about closed roads. Here is its description of the Christchurch earthquakes:
At 4:35am on 4th Sept 2010, the city experienced a 7.1 earthquake. While there was much damage to infrastructure, no-one was killed and only 3 seriously injured. The city is slowly returning to normal.
The second and much more severe earthquake hit in February of 2011 but somehow it was missed in this update! Luckily I had been chatting with a couple of local cyclists down by the beach and was made aware of the road situation up in the hills. I also learned that the iconic The Sign of the Kiwi was closed due to earthquake damage and will need some work done before it can be safely reopened.
I saw very few vehicles and perhaps a dozen cyclists on their road bikes during the two hours I spent in the Port Hills. This and the views made the effort to get there more than worth it. It would also be the last day in a while that I would enjoy the feel of an unloaded bike; the next day I would be heading off for Greymouth and then Haast via Porter’s and Arthur’s Pass.
The ride down the Mount Pleasant Road was exhilarating and occasionally I had to apply the brakes to slow things down to a manageable speed. One thing I was already noticing was the absence of those cracks that run across the width of the road; perhaps the freeze and thaw cycle in Canada is such that our pavement ends up with cracks while the roads of New Zealand (South Island anyway) are not affected by such dramatic changes in temperature. For a cyclist’s point of view, the road quality on South Island was excellent. The occasional narrowness of the roads would be a different issue that required that I be a bit more alert about traffic.
Once back on the coastal road I followed Ferry Road all the way back to the city and was soon back at my Riccarton motel. The next day my South Island tour would begin. You can read about the first leg – the stretch across the Southern Alps to Greymouth – here.