Christchurch Revisited

Forget everything I ever said about Christchurch.

I did a bit of trash-talking about the city in the past, likening it to Auckland’s shoddy, bratty, little sister.  To be fair, my last foray with the South Island’s big city had me seeking out touristy, tacky places recommended by a pink-haired, Eminem-loving hostel worker.  This time around, I had the guidance of Andy and Holly who both had normal colored hair and liked dance music.  Andy was a friend of a friend that I ran around with at a wedding in the uber-posh Casino San Juan in Puerto Rico.  We had never met, though we went to the same university and have a sprinkling of friends in common.  He graduated a few years my prior, but a mutual Facebook message from the friend found Felipe and I at his house a few months later.  With a week in the city under his guidance I can now say I am a bon-a-fied ChCh fan.

Andy, after checking with the misses, invited us over to dinner for our first meal in town.  We chatted about our home state of Virginia, about our new Kiwi vocabularies and the art of adding “eh?” to the end of sentences.  Later, we went into more important subjects like missing Ketchup, what channel you can find South Park on, and where to find a good burrito on this side of the world.  Andy and Holly had lived in New Zealand for three years.  I had only been here five months, but it was nice to sit down and reminisce about the little things that make us quintessentially American.

Not to be left out, Andy and Holly were friends with a small Chileno community in Christchurch and promised to arrange a get together for Felipe a few nights later (making some slight adjustments to our growing the itinerary).

Andy and Holly knew all of Chrischurch’s dirty secrets.

Ten minutes into our first glass of wine together, I knew we were in for a crazy week.  The couple took it upon themselves to ensure that our time in the city was eventful and set us up with a schedule from the start.  First up, the next evening Felipe and I would meet them for Happy Hour at Dux de Lux, the multi-bar megapolis on the edge of the Art Center.

Most of our day was spent in that vicinity wondering through the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu and gawking at Kiwi artist Christine Webster’s shocking photography in the premier exhibit.  The gallery’s other showcase exhibit “Observation/ Action/ Reflection,” by Kiwi Andrew Drummond, was meticulously technical and scientific (with little action observed to reflect on) so we ditched our guided gallery tour and went across the road to the Christchurch Farmers Market.

The crowning jewel of the Kiwi culinary experience – the item you are guaranteed to find in every town at any establishment that sells food, is the pie. Naturally, we found the pie stall at the market and ordered ourselves lunch.  Personal, puffy, savory pies can be chic or cheap in New Zealand. This curried green oyster pie from the gourmet pie vendor far surpassed the gas station mince and cheese typical of my late night cravings.  Oysters in a pie… you can’t get much more Kiwi than that.

The vibrant market had not only up-market food vendors, but also arts, crafts, wine and beer, and a string of quirky musicians.   The market was on the edge of the Art Center, a collection of forty specialty shops, fine art galleries, film, dance and theater venues, bars and restaurants all housed in stone buildings of the Gothic Revival style.  On the outer edge of the Centre was Dux de Lux where we met Andy, Holly, and a slew of their friends from the local swinger’s club for Happy Hour.

I had always imagined swingers to be an attractive group of busty woman and fit men, you know, the way the appear in avant-garde movies.  Not so.  The swingers at Dux could have easily passed for a West Virginia motorcycle gang, yet looks can be deceiving.  The Christchurch swingers were a lot friendlier than they appeared, but I guess being overly friendly was in their nature.

We got to talking with Steve, a burly, longhaired, middle-aged American clad in a tight, black leather jacket that busted at the seams over his expanding belly.  His partner was at home, but she had told him he didn’t need to be back until ten the next morning.  He stuck around long after the others left and we learned of his new forays into S&M and his day job as a counselor for violent sexual criminals.  Some people have a funny way of balancing work and play.

After using the “one drink at each bar” routine to explore the city’s nightlife with Andy and Holly, we awoke later than lunchtime and rested until after-dinner when we went to see the Free Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus.  It was part of the two-week Platform Arts Festival sponsored by the University of Canterbury.  Like most theater I have seen in New Zealand, I was overly excited by the flashy marketing and completely disappointed by the production.

The following day, Felipe and I met up with some friends from Franz Josef, explored the Christchurch Cathedral, watched a Māori Haka dance in Cathedral Square, and ambled about in North Hagley Park.  On the edge of the park we entered the Canterbury Museum and went up to the third floor to check out the Antarctica exhibit.  Kiwi’s are really into Antarctica.  They are the smallest country to have a base there (Scott Base, near the American’s McMurdo) and have historically served as a point of departure for this last Earthly frontier.  The exhibit at the Canterbury Museum plainly displayed their enthusiasm and Kiwi pride.

After a failed trip to the only Borders Bookstore in the South Island (whose books and CDs cost twice that of their American counterparts), we met up with Andy and Holly back in the city at their Chilena friend Connie’s for a game of Cacho.  The rules for Cacho rest somewhere in the happy junction of Yaghtzee and Poker.  There are dice, a cup, and betting.  Beyond that, the goal of this popular South American dice game was a bit murky.  My team’s strategy was to stay unnoticed and it seemed to work.

Christchurch is the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island.  It is the second largest in the country, but perhaps I should clarify what is meant by a large city in New Zealand.  At 372,600 people, Christchurch is roughly the size of Omaha Nebraska.  Situated along the eastern coast about halfway down the South Island, Christchurch is at the edge of the Pac Man-shaped Banks Peninsula.

After almost a week in Christchurch, Felipe and I could not stop gushing about how much we loved the place.  I seriously contemplated ditching my job in Queenstown to move to the big city.  Playing devils advocate, I argued that Christchurch lacked the natural beauty found elsewhere on the South Island but, taking offense to my comment, Andy butted in and demanded we go to the Banks Peninsula.  Thus, we added the last item to our itinerary, modified the rest of our trip, and drove off from Christchurch the following morning into the center of Pacman’s mouth.

The Banks Peninsula was formed by violent eruptions of three volcanoes and their craters nurse the harbors of the peninsula’s major towns Lyttleton and Akaroa.  The Banks Peninsula is historically the sight of an old Māori settlement of the Ngai-Tahu tribe although it’s main town, Akaroa clings strongly to its French-colonial identity.  Akaroa, with its Rues, French Flags, and themed shops glared of a fabricated authenticity and reappropriated quaintness.

The head-spinning roads leading to Akaroa must have had superb views – the outstanding nature Andy had spoke of – but, all we saw was the same gray cloud we had seen for weeks.  Closer to the water, the limited view offered a murky brown mud that melted into blue/green pastels on the horizon.

Christchurch was a ray of sunshine.  The clouds parted for us just when we were ready to venture inside to the museums and shows.  As we drove back to the country, Mother Nature regained her fervor and the floodgates reopened.  The following day, with all roads to the south flooded and closed, we drove the only direction possible – west.

Everyone told us it wasn’t worth it – that the rain was so bad we would see nothing but the ten meters in front of our car.  As the Otago Daily Times splashed pictures of desperate, drowning sheep on its front page, we headed west through the clouds into the mountains.  My months in New Zealand were becoming a never-ending battle with nature.  I, the underdog, was losing sorely.  In twenty-four hours, I would be snowed in at an unheated hut below New Zealand’s highest mountain.  My sunny days in the city of Christchurch became a distant memory as the world around me turned a blinding white….

Planes, Trains, and Naked Busses

I love trains.

I love trains so much that when I was a kid I had a special closed off area in the basement called the “Train Room,” where I converted the old scratched up pool table into a miniature village serviced by a ramshackle collection of vintage and new train sets.  I would go to the local hobby store and really geek it up with the owner about antique cabooses and the advantages of N over HO scale.  So, when it came time to plan my route from Auckland to the remote town of Franz Josef on the South Island and something called the “Trans Alpine” was mentioned and the words, “one of the most picturesque rides in the world,” came up, I immediately worked it into my plans.  However, I still had forty-eight hours, three buses, one flight, and some quality time on my own two feet ahead of me before I could ride the majestic train.

Having neglected to check out the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I headed up hill through the expansive Auckland Domain.  The Domain is the city’s largest park, which, interestingly enough, lies within the crater of the Pukekawa volcano.  As I neared the museum steps, I encountered a field overflowing with armored kids, running amuck in furry costumes.  It was as if a group of Teletubbies were let loose to create their own absurd Renaissance Fair.  Normally, I would question the meaning of such a scene, but it was far too comical to ruin the mystery.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum was quite expansive, spanning three floors covering Pacific People, Natural History, and New Zealand’s War stories.  The ground floor contained a wealth of knowledge and artifacts from greater Australasia.  But, it was the second floor’s Volcano room that sucked me in for over an hour (leaving me no time for the third-floor).  New Zealand is a very new country geologically speaking, this I knew.  However, what I didn’t know was that Auckland’s volcanic field is very active and overdue for an eruption.  The Volcano Exhibit showed the outcome of such an event and the means in which the city has in place to deal with such a disaster.  This made me feel a little better about my flight to Christchurch that afternoon.

When I exited the museum the kids were gone, but in their place, was a group of about twenty kilted, marching bagpipers and an enthusiastic crowd of redheaded spectators.  I don’t know why it took me so long to go to the Auckland Domain, but I will certainly be back and I expect to see something good.

I caught my flight to Christchurch that afternoon.  It was pretty uneventful except for this in flight video:

Christchurch changed some of my preconceived notions of Kiwi Cities.  After the impeccable tidiness of Auckland, Christchurch felt like it’s punky little British sister.  While it straddled the Avon River with beautiful parks and gardens, there was trash on the street, there was graffiti, and there were suped up cars from the 1970’s revving their engines.  The South Island likes to think of itself as the Wild West of New Zealand, so in addition to the obvious English influences in the town, they seem to share an affinity for Cowboys and Indians.  The bar the pink-haired receptionist at my hostel recommended would not have been out-of-place in Laramie, Wyoming.  Yet, it’s not the town that draws people to Christchurch, it’s the lazy river walks through the cheery botanical gardens.  After all, Christchurch is “The Garden City.”

As I walked in South Hagley Park through the fragrant rose gardens, I noticed a crowd gathering around a stylized tennis court.  I was just in time for The Christchurch City Council’s Summer Theater production of The Anthony Wilding Story.  Maybe you watch Tennis and know who this guy is, but I had no clue.  As the production notes summarize, “This dynamic, entertaining, and emotional production goes beyond Wilding’s sporting life and reveals a truly fascinating New Zealander, born and raised in Christchurch before heading oversees to take on the world.”  Any time Christchurch was mentioned the crowd went wild, and it made me sad that I could not think of a single hometown hero from my hometown of Springfield, Virginia.

That night, I stayed out way too late, heard way to many Eminem songs, and woke up way too early the next morning for my Trans Alpine adventure.  As groggy as I was, I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole way.  I sat across from a Russian couple for a short while until I made my way to the open-air viewing carriage and never returned.  Camera poised, I watched the landscape transform from the sheep covered Canterbury Plains into the heights of Arthur’s Pass National Park with it’s snow capped mountains, steep gorges, and wide river beds.  Words cannot describe this journey so I will let the pictures below do the talking…

The last leg of my trip was on Naked Bus.  The trip from Greymouth (fittingly described to me by a Kiwi as “not our finest city”) to Franz Josef took about three hours, but I imagine it could have taken about two.  We stopped at every small town along the way so the driver could smoke a cigarette, rousing us with his lively remarks,  “go on.  Get on out and stretch ya legs mates.”  He would disappear, we would amble around, and then in about ten minutes we’d go for another thirty minute drive and do it again.

The snow-capped peaks of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook drew ever closer until we came to a stop in the two-street-town of Franz Josef.  It is here that I will spend the first leg of my year in New Zealand, working for Scenic Hotel Franz Josef.  I am glad to finally settle down for a few weeks and have a place to call “home,” but in terms of “working holidays” I much prefer the latter.

For Photos of Christchurch and the full Album of the Tranz Alpine click here