The next day we made the journey from north to south—a 40 minute plane ride separated us from the southern island. Wellington’s airport was so small that security didn’t open until an hour before our flight took off. I made the mistake of waiting to get breakfast until we arrived, but after losing a battle with the lone, pre-historic vending machine outside the gate, I surrendered to hunger pangs. By some miracle, we were handed free “pre-ordered” chocolate muffins on board the flight despite not actually ordering them. The attendant shoved them onto our trays in a hurried fashion going “…just take them”. My angel of the sky.
We landed in Christchurch and shuffled off to the hostel with little haste. We had fully settled into the travel vibe and it was easy to move between places. Christchurch was not full of unique natural scenery or a specialized foodie scene, but the city’s earthquake history makes the stop both fascinating and jarring.
Walking distance from our hostel is the Cathedral, damaged by a 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people. The 100+ year old structure survived numerous quakes throughout the decades, but crumbled into disarray during this particular disaster. The remaining walls sit inside the center of town, surrounded by a tall wire fence like an ominous memorial. It’s worth a trip to the “Quake City” museum to get a glimpse into the horrifying experience of that quake, which crumbled buildings and changed the landscape of downtown in a matter of 24 seconds. We learned about liquefaction, a cryptic phenomenon that shoots muddy water up from underground during a tremor. Images from the quake show blue sky juxtaposed with rubble and dozens of soot-colored puddles. A digital map shows you everywhere in New Zealand that experienced a “shake” in a given week. Those “earthquake warning” instructions inside every NZ motel all at once became glaringly evident.
After stopping for a snack of sweet Japanese custard buns at Auntie Dai’s on a deserted stretch of once-vibrant street, we meandered back “home” through a quiet park. Our stroll took us past heavy construction and graffiti-tinted walls.
We picked a high-end Asian restaurant for dinner called King of Snake, which served up searing hot plates of kung pao chicken that melt in your mouth like spicy, tangy heaven. The sauce oozed over the light crunch of the bite-sized chicken and kicked open my sinuses as I drowned inside a fresh cocktail. The place was so busy that we ended up jammed into a bar-side high top next to an enthusiastic crowd of 50-something men drinking pints of beer. Nobody knocked over my chicken, so things could have been worse.
The city was pin-drop quiet on the streets that night. We heard that the earthquake had sent a lot of residents and businesses to the outer suburbs and not everybody came back. Christchurch proper was a mix of brand-new shops and eateries and streets still riddled with cranes and rubble. It was interesting to be an outsider in a place with such a strained yet resilient vibe. There is quite a bit left to excavate from beneath the surface.