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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Christchurch (Ōtautahi): the Resilience of Community

In 2011, the New Zealand city of Christchurch (Ōtautahi) experienced a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, killing 185 people and destroying property throughout vast areas in the city. Evidence of the destruction was everywhere when we visited in 2023, 12 years later. But, so too, was evidence of a community determined to come back and rebuild.

The school where I worked for 21 years had a personal connection to this event. We had students and faculty studying in Christchurch on the day the earthquake occurred. We consider it a great good fortune that none of our faculty or students were harmed, but the staff who nervously awaited for word from the students and faculty in the ensuing days will never forget the worry and anxiety. Before the earthquake, Christchurch was the second largest city in New Zealand, but it is now the third, after Wellington. When we talked to guides and residents while we were there, they often mentioned how many people left after the earthquake and did not return. But, an influx of immigrants are helping rebuild this city, and the people who stayed are determined to make a full comeback.

Because our trip was only a week, this was more of a "vacation" and less living in town than our other stays. We stayed in a hotel, and we did a bit more compact sight-seeing to get a feel for the city.

Walking tour of Christchurch CBD

We started our time on a walking tour of the downtown area of Christchurch. The tour, Walk Christchurch, is operated by knowledgeable local volunteers and costs only $20NZD (about $12.50 USD) per person. We booked the day before and I think because it was so close to the date, we couldn't buy the tickets online, so we had to bring cash. That turned out to be a bit of a problem because we had to walk over a mile to find an ATM. But the tour itself was really informative and we saw a lot. The tour started outside the Canterbury Museum, itself a good example of Gothic Revival architecture that is a hallmark of the old Christchurch - often referred to as the most "English" city in New Zealand. Our guide discussed the origins of settlement by several groups of Māori who settled in the higher areas around what is now the city, because the central part was largely swamp. Later, the Māori name was agreed to be Ōtautahi, one of those settlements. The guide described Europeans arriving in 4 boats in 1850, settling in the more central plains. We learned quite a bit about the earthquake and its aftermath. In the photos below, you can see some of the old structures, some of the new structures, and some of the structures that are being repaired. You will also see structures that should be repaired but are still standing in devastation, and a lot of car parks that are on lots where damaged buildings were torn down, but it was too expensive to build a new building. There was a kind of odd feeling about being in a downtown area with so many car parks and so few buildings proportionately. Hundreds of the older, culturally important buildings were lost.

We saw a statue of Kate Sheppard, the woman who gathered thousands of petition signatures to persuade New Zealand's parliament to become the first modern democracy to grant women the right to vote in 1893; a statue of Captain Robert Falcon Scott (sculpted by his widow, Kathleen Scott), a Briton who had his Antarctic base in Christchurch, who tragically lost his life in an effort to be the first to reach Antarctica; he missed and was second by 5 weeks, in 1912, and died on the return trip, when he was caught in a storm and his party ran out of food; and, we saw a modern statue by Antony Gormley, a British sculptor who created the work for Christchurch as a reflective piece after the earthquake.

Scenic gondola overlooking Port Lyttleton

On a different day, we took the gondola up the slope of Mount Cavendish in the Port Hills. On the way up, we saw lots of sheep and some beautiful views. On top, there is a cafe, gift shop, and tourist center. The views of Port Lyttleton was especially beautiful, but you can also see the city of Christchurch from the other side. The gondola ticket includes entry into a short history ride which includes a model of a life-size moa. At $35NZ per person (about $22USD), it is well worth the price. We took an Uber to get there and a city bus (at just over $2.20NZ (about $1.25 USD) per person) back.

Walks along the Avon River

We took several walks along the Avon River, named after the Avon River in Scotland (not the river where Shakespeare grew up). There were many sculptures along the river, including one representing the Māori waka - large sea-going canoes, and two wrestlers. We saw beautiful Māori designs on the pavement which signified a welcome from the Māori community. The river connected the downtown area to Hagley Park, and our hotel was across this large park. There is a moving memorial to the people who lost their lives in the earthquake along the river near town.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

We visited the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, located across the park from our hotel on the edge of the CBD. After a nice breakfast and coffee there, we visited the gardens. The flowers were gorgeous, and my new zoom lens I had just purchased the day before got a good workout. We saw some early autumn leaves (this was the end of February). The small brown bird sitting on a tree branch is a fantail - and not especially notable, except that a second after I took the photo is fanned out its beautiful tail. Of course, I wasn't fast enough to get that photo! Goals!

We stayed at the Parkview on Hagley, a conveniently located hotel in a part of town called Riccarton. The price was $235NZ per night for six nights (reserved on, which is about $145USD per night. The price was a little high because (unknown to us) there was a star-studded music concert in Hagley Park during our stay to benefit people impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle, followed by another music festival the following night. The concerts were sold out and there were lots of people. The hotel was pretty nice - a large room with a mini-kitchen and a view of the park. For those who are traveling, it was also nice that they had pay washing machines/dryers in the hotel guests could use.

Something we noticed about post-earthquake Christchurch, it's hard to find one convenient location to stay in if you're walking. The devastation in the center of the city seem to have resulted in the city spreading into a more suburban vibe everywhere. We had to walk over 15 minutes from our hotel to find a coffee shop. There were a few restaurants nearby, including one, Dux Dine, and another, Thai Orchid, which were really nice. But everything seemed kind of far away from everything else, and a visit here is more conducive to car culture than walking culture. Here are some photos from some of the nice places where we ate, including an amazing chocolate cafe, She Chocolaterie, located in the Riverside Market in the central business district.

What we missed

If we had stayed longer, there were several museums we wanted to see but just ran out of time. They included the Canterbury Museum, the International Antarctic Center, and the Christchurch Art Gallery.

We came to Christchurch by air, arriving at the airport where photos of Antarctic explorers adorn the walls and modern sculpture hangs from the ceilings. All around the city we saw beauty - both natural beauty and human-made. We left for one long day to traverse the Southern Alps by train, and we left the city for Picton and ultimately Wellington by train, riding the Coastal Pacific (both discussed in our blog on Riding the Rails Kiwi-Style) . This city has been through a lot, and still has a way to go. But the people are quintessentially Kiwi-nice, big-hearted and resilient, and Christchurch is well worth the visit.


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