The South Island (IV): Akaroa and Christchurch

22 02 2012

The small village of Akaroa was originally founded by French settlers in 1840. They were too late to claim the South Island for France as the British had arrived just a few days before on another part of the island. Today, many street names and shop names still are French. We began the day with a croissant in a café at the bay, then started the steep ascent to the Summit Road which runs along the edge of the volcanic crater that formed the peninsula. Our Lonely Planet travel guide called this route “absurdly beautiful” and that actually summed it up pretty well. We were lucky with yet another summer day with clear blue sky and admired the views from this fantastic narrow and windy road. After a coffee break at a picnic site, we completed the circle around the volcano and headed down and north towards Christchurch.

View from caravan park to Akaroa village and harbor.

Panorama view from Summit Road onto Akaroa Bay.

Road sign at Summit Road.

Narrow Summit Road along the edge of the volvanic crater.

Coffee break in the mountains.

Sheep above Akaroa bay.

Christchurch was hit by probably the worst earth quake in its history on February 22, 2011, so exactly one year ago to this day. When we arrived five days ago we were not really sure what to expect. The suburb that housed our caravan park, about 5 km outside the town center, at first sight showed no damages. When we drove into the town center the next day, the closer we got there the more damages were noticeable – houses and whole blocks fenced off due to risk of collapsing. Chimneys and stone decorations on roof tops broken off, roofs preliminarily fixed with tarps or zinc panels. We then realized that basically the complete central business district (CBD) was blocked for the public. Beyond the fences the former major shopping streets looked like a ghost town. Outside the blocked center, a preliminary new business center has been set up in a small container town – an initiative called ReStart, designed by architects and sponsored by many larger companies, which provides new premises to the businesses that cannot reach their original buildings anymore. But also in areas further away from the fully closed part of the CBD, access to many buildings is still blocked. We learnt later that in the CBD alone 500 buildings have been demolished so far because they were beyond repair, and another 700 buildings still have to be taken down. Only then work will start in the residential areas around the town center where an estimated 12.000 houses will have to be demolished. Thousands of people had to leave their houses, and in many cases new houses cannot be built on the old blocks of land because these areas are now considered not safe enough with respect to future earthquakes. So a lot of people are still living in provisionary housings, one year after the catastrophe. We left with a very sad feeling for the people of Christchurch, wishing them all the best for the future

ReStart - new provisionary commercial center built from containers.

Map of Christchurch city center, with area inaccessible due to earthquake damages marked in red. On the right, view eastwards into fenced off part of Cashel Street, corner of Colombo Street.

Christchurch Art Centre with attached metal braces as preliminary stabilization, and top of tower taken down and placed on pavement to prevent collapsing during aftershocks.

Signs on doors of buildings still standing but not safe enough to be used,

Damaged building in Gloucester Street, just beyond the fence, with heavy metal braces installed to stabilze it.

Our route in yellow, with places where we stayed for the night as yellow circles.