There are plenty of risks involved in taking a tour into Christchurch's cordoned off earthquake zone and the guides aren't afraid to let you know them. Before venturing into the site that was the epicentre of destruction and chaos amid the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake disaster, the guide conducting the tour gives the group a solemn warning.
You are going into a area where there are still frequent aftershocks," we are told over the bus's PA system before the tour departs. If there is another earthquake you may not survive," the guide tells the group, to complete silence. "Please read the safety card on your seat, If anyone wants to leave the tour now is the time to do so"
Despite the chilling introduction no one leaves their seat, perhaps the warning has sparked intrigue and curiosity in others, or perhaps they are glued to their chairs in anxiety. Maybe to ease the minds, the tour guide lets us know that there has yet to be someone who left the tour at this point, and that there haven't been aftershocks while the tours have been in operation. This is nice to know, however the reality that with the amount of aftershocks Christchurch continues to experience the chance one occurring while on tour is always a very real possibility. Unstable buildings and other hazards still exist in the red zone area which is cordoned off and otherwise closed to the general public as further aftershocks affect the battered city.
A map of the cordoned off area where the tour goes
This is a city which has been stripped of its central business district and a city where the skyline is barely recognisable. More than a year and a half since the devastating earthquakes killed 185 people and decimated buildings in the city centre, signs of recovery, albeit slow ones, are starting to show. The tour into the heart of Christhchurch's shut down CBD makes it very clear however, that the city will never again look the way it once did.
The city skyline is barely recognisable leaving what looks like an ongoing construction site
Safety briefings out of the way, the tone has been set and the modern city transit bus pulls away from the Christchurch museum in the city's largely unaffected cultural precinct. From here the bus travels along major streets in the downtown area where buildings once stood and makeshift parking lots have since sprung up. The amount of empty space in the centre of New Zealand's second largest city centre leaves the area feeling like it is missing its core, and being a first time visitor to the city, it is at time hard to comprehend how the area once looked. 18 months on it is clear business and tourism operators in the city must be doing it tough, if they already haven't shut up shop.
These feelings of a deserted ghost town become ever more obvious as the bus is signed through a cordoned off military checkpoint about 10 minutes into the tour. We are the only members of the public allowed to be in this area, an area that is still considered dangerous and off limits to pedestrians. The bus moves along slowly navigating the deserted high streets, which formed the commercial centre of town. While the group is not allowed off the bus their are plenty of opportunities to observe the damage from the bus with factual and revealing commentary provided by the tour guide. It is facts like knowing that more than 1000 buildings within the city centre have or still will be demolished, which give a sense of the enormous scale of the disaster. It also hearing the personal anecdotes from my friend living in the city, and from the tour operators themselves onboard while on tour which gives a sense what daily life post-earthquake is like for the city's residents. This was something which until hearing and seeing for myself was very hard to comprehend.
Empty space where buildings once stood and makeshift parking lots add to the city's deserted feeling
It was difficult for many, myself included, not to be moved as the bus paused at the site where Canterbury television building once stood, where 115 people lost their lives and where a memorial has since been placed. Arriving at the Christchurch magnificent stone Cathedral which lost its spire, and is largely damaged as a result of the quake was another reminder of the scale of destruction and the sad reality that so many heritage buildings were severely damaged or destroyed completely.
Before and after shots of Christchurch once magnificent stone cathedral. Before Photo: Greg O'Beirne (Wikimedia Commons)
Though so many buildings were lost, the tour gave insights on the rebuilding process in the damaged city. This gave a sense of hope, as Christchurch now has the opportunity to reinvent itself as the city is literally building itself from the ground up. These plans include utilising cutting edge technologies and building materials to protect against future quakes and the herald the city as the world newest. Already retailers in the city have converted used shipping containers into brightly painted multileveled stores as a world-first. These containers have been placed well to form Christchurch new outdoor pedestrian mall and retail hub which is a unique and creative use of materials and hopefully a sign of the vision to come when rebuilding the city.
Retailers have converted shipping containers into unique and vibrant store space as part of the rebuilding process
Entering Christchurch's red zone and taking a tour of the area helped me to understand the effects of the disaster and the slow process of rebuilding the city. It provided candid and informative commentary to understand what it was like at the time of the earthquake, and what it is like to live in the city 18 months on.
Tours run 7 days per week and depart Rolleston Avenue, outside the Canterbury Museum. Tickets are $15.00 per person with a tour duration is approximately 45 minutes. For more information visit the Red Bus website
Great article Julian. Up until now I've only had in my mind my own memories of the beautiful city that Christchurch was, and the TV pictures of the devastation in the immediate aftermath of the 'quake. It's good to see some signs of clean-up and rebuilding and hope for the future.
How amazingly wonderful Julian! CONGRATULATIONS Going GOLD!
Humans are by nature 'gawkers' no matter how horrific the scenes, we just must see, then we move on forgetting. Your story gives great insight on the continual hardship the city faces to somehow regain some of it's former beauty, unsure how and when. Reminding us to perhaps give in some way, even if compassion to the people and the land.
Fantasitic story and thanks for reminding us life has not returned to 'normal' for Christchurch. L:)