I cycled into Christchurch expecting to find a city almost back to normal but I was in for quite a shock. The historic centre remains closed off with high, wire barricades all around. You can peer through the wires into a post- apocalyptic scene of tumbled down buildings with rubbish blowing through the deserted streets. I cycled on to Sean and Sharon’s house along cracked, pot-holed roads through ghost towns of abandoned homes, some sitting at alarming angles or sunken into the ground with windows and walls cracked open. I chatted at length with Sean and Sharon who helped me understand just how devastating an impact this disaster has had. There is no end in sight to the frequent aftershocks so people can’t rebuild their lives and move on, and the psychological impact on people is immense – they have to live with a constant sense of dread and unease, worrying when the next big quake will come and where their loved ones will be when it hits. They told me that many households now sleep with lights on so they can move quickly should another big quake strike during the night but also for some sense of comfort during the dark hours. And so many people are caught up in protracted wrangles between insurance companies who decide that a house can be repaired so they only pay out repair costs and the council who say the same house is unsafe and has to be demolished. It’s been a very sobering few days for me!
Christchurch is the last stop on my bicycle tour of New Zealand. In nearly four months of meandering around the country there have been some great highlights – the spectacular scenery of Mount Cook National Park; cycling the quiet tracks of the Otago Central Rail Trail; exploring the former gold-mining communities of the beautiful west coast; some great wee camping spots; catching up with old friends in Auckland and Dunedin and making many new ones – but it’s been tough riding with hard hills and horrible headwinds! And there has been a downside too - New Zealand doesn’t half attract holidaymakers with no brains! Every day I’m passed by thousands of tourists in motorhomes spending every waking minute driving hundreds of miles to ensure they don’t miss any sight that their guidebook tells them they must see on their once-in-a-lifetime, whistle-stop tour of New Zealand. But they end up being processed at speed through New Zealand’s rather well-worn and overly packaged tourist trail. Then there are the young backpackers and gap year students who are whisked around the country on special buses that stop long enough so they can experience such life-enriching activities as jet-boating or bungy-jumping or hitting golf balls into a floating hole in Lake Taupo. Then it’s off to the pub to spend the rest of the time drinking. Some gap year! The most notable gap is between their ears!
This may sound like me being grumpy but I’m not – I’ve had a great time in New Zealand and I’m very sad to leave. But I’m not finished down-under just yet … so keep reading as I eat my tucker by the billabong and waltz with Matilda on a short cycle tour in Australia.