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BEAUTY AGAINST NATURE

Christchurch: On the face of earthquakes

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BACK TO SQUARE ONE: Christchurch is wooing tourists again

In the departure lounge of Singapore's Changi airport, psyching up for the nine-hour flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, a Chinese meat breeder chatted me up. "Their beef is very good, " he said. "I have a livestock farm just outside Christchurch, where I rear cattle and deer for export. There's not very much to do in Christchurch for a tourist, but you could always come down to my cattle farm. " This exchange occurred in January this year. I was back in Mumbai by February. By February 21, I had punched the final full-stop to my travel piece and and emailed it to the editor. The next day, Christchurch fell.


A 6. 3 magnitude earthquake had taken down the city barely six months after its 7. 1 disaster. The second time around, lives were lost - roughly 180. It was hard to reconcile this wreck with the place I'd just visited. The feverish real-time run on news sites showed crumpled houses, broken offices, grieving residents and piles of rubble.


Only a month before, I had taxied out of Christchurch airport and into the city, tranquilised by its semi-rustic quietude. I went down long streets and past low cottages and didn't see a soul. Not a face at a window, not a finger on a fence. Where did this city stow its people, I wondered? It was only when we passed Christchurch's celebrated gardens that part of the population showed itself - cycling, strolling, lock-stepping. On the Avon River that skirted the gardens, tourists were punting or chasing ducks. This is the life, I thought. I believe it still is.


New Zealand, in the south-west Pacific, is the sum of two parts - North and South Island. "You could say we're in Australia's back garden, " a resident joked. It stands to reason that Australians number one on their tourist scorecard. The country's top dog is Auckland in North Island, while Christchurch, in the province of Canterbury in the south, is its second city. It's fairly young as cities go, even though it is the oldest urban settlement in the country. It was colonised by the British in the mid-19 th century, and was christened after Christ Church, Oxford - alma mater of one of the settlers. Of course, the Maoris were here ten centuries ago, and they too have a name for it, but few go around calling the place 'O'tautahi'.


Call it what you may, you will call it sublime. The city resides in a plain stopped by the Southern Alps in the north, with the volcanic Port Hills to the south and the Pacific Ocean rimming the east.


Even though the quake dismantled much of central Christchurch, the suburbs and surrounding towns are still bas reliefs of natural beauty. The topography of South Island, to which Christchurch is chief portal, is as multiform as my mother's moods. At the YMCA in Christchurch where I lodged, backpackers were preparing to forge deeper into Canterbury: to go snowboarding in Ashburton;thermal bathing in Hanmer Springs, blue whale watching in Kaikoura and wine tripping at Waimakariri. For most, Christchurch was base camp where each tanked up for his/her own kind of sport - sunbathing at Sumner beach, or hot-air ballooning on the plains.


I stayed with the city.


When I visited in January, about 95 per cent of the detritus from the September 2010 quake had been cleared away. It was only when I turned a corner into the Central Business District (CBD) and came upon sudden shambles that I realised I was standing on the grave of a 'breaking news site'. Now, of course, onethird of the CBD is cordoned off and establishments have been temporarily relocated to safer parts. Habitable hotels and parks outside the no-go zone currently house recovery workers.
Prior to this, though, the parks housed concerts. Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen and Sting were here, as was beach boy Jack Johnson. Even Bob Parker, the mayor, was occasionally known to drive the devil from a drum kit at weekend gigs in Hagley Park - the city's pre-eminent turf. The city, I recalled, made the most of its baize. The summer guides were all about picnic-y projects that made a neat parcel of kite-flying, outdoor theatre, double-scoop ice-creams and bandstands. (They don't call it the Garden City for its mineshafts).


I stalked the CBD, and attended Sunday service at Cathedral Square whose showpiece - the eponymous mid-19 th century Anglican cathedral - is now devoid of its iconic spire. The spire's tip had capitulated before, to the earthquakes of 1888 and 1901, but not to this degree. It turns out the Cathedral is distantly related to our own Bombay University. Both edifices were designed by best-selling architect of the time, Sir George Gilbert Scott. At Cathedral Square, I took the tourist tram that circumnavigates the CBD, and committed to memory a statistic the driver offered;1, 000 chimneys had been knocked down by the September convulsion. How many more at last count?


I had two days of shambling around the city centre, sitting in parks soberly observing avian life, gorging on class A Angus burgers, idling at pubs like The Irishman and The Bard-on-Avon, and spending a morning at the Christchurch Art Gallery for the gooseflesh-giving hyper-realist sculptures of Australian artist Ron Mueck (the gallery's most successful paid-entry show to date with 135, 140 visitors in three-and-a half months). The gallery is now temporary headquarters of Civil Defence, but is slated to reopen in June.


Although the city is still under a state of emergency, tourism has resumed in South Island. Indeed, in a bid to revive the economy, Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism (CCT) is actively soliciting tourists back to Canterbury and even to Christchurch, if only as a stopover to other parts of Canterbury. Some of the city's unaffected draws like the International Antarctic Centre have resumed operations. The Antarctic Centre, located near the airport, simulates that extreme cold spot to the extent of recreating a snow storm, screening cool 4D films, and allowing visitors a view of rescued Little Blue penguins.

Canterbury Museum has also raised its shutters. It was here that I toured a photo exhibition called The Heart of the Great Alone - a phantasmagoric assembly of images and artefacts of the early 20th century expeditions to the South Pole led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Robert Falcon Scott. My favourite in that reliquary was a copy of Aurora Australis, the first book to printed in Antarctica. It was a compendium of serious essays, poetry and verse bound in packing crate that originally contained mock turtle soup.


Even the TranzAlpine tour is back on track. This train ride across Canterbury, from the east coast to west, provides a priceless geography lesson on the province's diversity - through farmland, gorges, river valleys of the Waimakariri River, up the Southern Alps, through beech rain forest and finally to Greymouth on the west coast, from where cruises venture out to the glaciers. You wouldn't want to miss this train.


On the whole, it's inspiring to see Christchurch regain its old cultural metabolism. While big-ticket events like the 2011 Rugby World Cup have been cancelled, websites already have a lineup of other attractions like an Arts Festival in August and The Real New Zealand Festival and Fanzone in September. Even regular farmers markets are back. (I stocked up on fragrant homemade soap and knitted brooches at the one I'd visited. ) As for room and board, at last post-quake count, Christchurch had 17 hotels, 110 motels, 77 B&Bs and nine backpacker accommodation providers. Even Phil Keoghan, host of The Amazing Race, returned to his hometown to broadcast the news that Christchurch may be down but it's not out.


The message is clear - help rebuild Christchurch by returning to it, or at least through it, to Canterbury.


I saw a bit of Canterbury when I fell in with a homesick Sri Lankan who, on learning I was a certified Indian pen-pusher, offered to show me around. We drove down to Cashmere, a suburb in the north folds of Port Hills, with an eye-misting view of the Southern Alps, Canterbury plains and the sea. As an Indian congenitally programmed to home in on 'India' abroad, I discovered that Cashmere was actually Kashmir with a C. Sir John Cracroft Wilson, a farmer and politician who lived in the vicinity, was born in another colony and named his sheep farm after its crown jewel. Following that history lesson, I had another at Governor's Bay. This was a volcanic basin with a view ahead of Port Lyttelton (point of departure for ships heading for the Antarctic) and to the east, of Quail Island, where Scott, that doomed Antarctic explorer, kept his dogs in quarantine in preparation for the long haul. The island had several lives - as a pre-Antarctic staging post, leper colony, convict labour camp and now a site of tourist treasure hunts.


From Governor's Bay, we headed to Lyttleton, a French-style seaside town with arty cafes and thrift shops, which was unfortunately razed by the second earthquake. But Sumner, past Lyttleton, still stands. At this sunny beach young boys on the boardwalk idly marked surfer chicks in bikinis, while carelessly allowing sand to grain their ice-cream.


Soon enough I was eating grainy ice cream of my own, waiting for my cab back to the airport. Idling outside the YMCA, I listened in to the travel plans of two Japanese tourists who appeared to have booked a Lord of The Rings Tour that would take them to film sites across New Zealand. They were nattering about being allowed to handle props from the film and being given souvenirs axes. I would have liked to have gone where Golum went before, but if I regretted having missed the chase, it only worsened when I spotted a photograph in the local broadsheet at the airport - of a row of PORGs (Persons of Restricted Growth), auditioning to be scale doubles in the upcoming Hobbit movie. Auditions were still on, the caption said. Not that I would have made the grade - but how often do you get to see hobbits in the flesh?

AT A GLANCE


GETTING THERE |

All major airlines have resumed connections to Christchurch but Singapore Airlines offers the only one-stopover option. Air Asia X, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Cathay Pacific are other options.


WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT |


With most of central Christchurch roped off, old crowd-pullers like the Dux de Lux pub are temporarily shut. But you could have a fantastic manuka-smoked meal at Holy Smoke on 650 Ferry Road. Their Marlborough salmon smoked over Manuka wood (an aromatic NZ shrub) is matchless.


WHAT TO SEE |


Nip down to the Botanical Garden for a Caterpillar Tour of epic redwoods and oaks. Or take a Black Cats cruise down to Banks Peninsula for a swim with dolphins.

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