Flowers for Christchurch

It was an early morning out of Mt. Cook. We left the famous peak still shrouded in mist with the faintest hint of a rainbow glittering in the valleys. It was a full little rental bus that trundled through the roads. The real large Stray bus was undergoing maintenance. So we crammed together friends with friends.

Relationships are formed quickly while traveling. I’ve known these people for less than a week and yet the ease and conversation hinted of a longer connection. The woes and excitement of traveling forms bonds like little else. (Will these bonds last? Only time will tell…)

We drove back down the coast of Lake Pukaki, the vibrant blues of the water blinding us in the early morning sun. Next stop, the shores of Lake Tekapo. The equally vibrant waters were complimented by a small field of Russell lupins (technically classified as a weed by the government because of its nonnative status), the purple stocks forming peaks that mimicked the snowy outline of the Southern Alps in the background. Tourists were roaming around the area like hungry little bees, their cameras desperate to soak up the beauty as their nose captured the lupin’s heady fragrance. We left when we got our fill.

Back on the bus, the landscape morphed as we moved closer to Christchurch. The mountains sank back into the land as the field were stretched flat and were monopolized by tractors, cattle, and sheep. Flashbacks to the American Midwest filled my head as our group in the back of the bus chatted and sang along to the 90s hits blasting out of the speakers. (They almost all were 8+ years older than me.)

It was a long trip to Christchurch and we kept getting tripped up by the traffic. Originally Stray wasn’t going to stop in the city but outside it instead, at this little town off the map. But since the earthquake had dismantled the only road heading directly north out of Christchurch, in order to make the timing work for the new, longer route, the bus had to move a little farther north and stop in Christchurch. Since none of us had planned to see the city anyway, and this was now our chance, we weren’t too disappointed in the change in destination.

Our driver began to give us an account of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that had devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people and leaving hundreds homeless. We all looked out of the window out of morbid curiosity, hoping to see some of the lingering damage or at least the approaching city. But all we saw were newer houses, all characteristically short and flat. Where was the city? The tall buildings? The people?

When we arrived at our hostel, the clouds were creeping in, covering the brilliant sun that had followed us all day. But the warmth remained and the resulting humidity plagued us as we went out to explore the city. It looked like we were out in the middle of suburban isolation, with uniform(ish) houses and tree lined streets, but one look at the map told us we were only 10-15 minutes away from the city center.

I had been warned about Christchurch, particularly by one of my roommates who did a road trip around the South Island during Spring Break. She said the city center is a bit lifeless and everything is very spread out, so it can be hard to navigate on foot. She said it wasn’t worth the effort (a thought Stray seemingly also shared if their original route is anything to go by). Yet the Lonely Planet guide book had pages on the city and there was certainly a lot to see on the tourist map they gave us at the hostel.

When we got closer into the city center, the construction fences and phosphorescent orange cones began to pop up like mushrooms. Murals brought color into the concrete buildings and empty lots that began to replace the houses.

As Rosie and I stopped for pictures, the kiwi and fellow Stray passenger we were with, Chris, began to point out sights and things he knew about from the news and stories and his previous trips here. That lot there was the building that collapsed and killed 100+ people. There’s another still damaged office block. Turn here if you want to go to Quake City.

Quake City is the small but poignant museum dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of the 2011 earthquake. Rosie read about it in her Lonely Planet and had put it on the top of our sightseeing list. We managed to get there 30 minutes before closing time and were only just able to convince them to let us in (they ended up giving us a discount in the process for our limited time).

Pictures mounted on wooden boards and the occasional television screen displayed the destruction before, during, and after the quake. There were also documentaries conveying accounts of eyewitnesses and clean up volunteers, bringing a voice to the natural disaster. The voices carried into the various rooms where artifacts from the rubble sat, giving the event an even more emotional presence. Something stirred in my chest at the sight of the cross of the damaged cathedral trapped in a glass case, surrounded by a wall-sized photo of the rubble. The museum then ended on a light note, however, with plans for the new Christchurch, giving one a message of healing and hope. I only wish I could’ve stayed longer to linger.

We then wandered through the now famous shipping container mall Re:Start, and then over to the cathedral. We hung around the square as we waited to meet up with another Stray passenger (an American named Phil). Chris and Rosie roamed as I tried to capture the gapping maw of the half-destroyed church, watching other tourists attempt to do the same. It felt weird, especially after coming out of the emotional weight of Quake City, that something so painful to the residents of the city could become a tourist attraction. But I guess if it’s unusual or pretty and can be photographed it will eventually attract tourists like flies to honey.

Phil finally joined us and we began strolling around again, picking up some gelato before checking out the Botanical Gardens. Rosie and Chris left us in the blooming rose garden, having other plans. So Phil and I roamed around the flowers for a bit before heading back out on the streets, talking of Austin and Trump and future plans.

As we were exploring the nearly empty streets, hints of emerging modern architecture and the occasional murals/graffiti bringing life to the grey world under the golden light of the setting sun, I began to feel a deep respect and sympathy for the city. Holes, figurative and literal, are still present in the city and there is more construction orange and builders’ banging than should be possible in such a relatively small place. But the city is clearly trying to bring itself up again. The murals/graffiti are signs of that, so is the shipping container mall and the replacement cathedral made out of cardboard and recycled materials. They might’ve been half destroyed and might not have much going on because of it (in those few hours I spent on the streets, I saw the majority of the city), but the city is healing and trying to make the most of it.

Alongside the Art Gallery is a neon instillation with the words: “Everything is Going to be Alright.”

I tried to keep that in mind as I headed off to eat my last dinner in New Zealand.

Trecking to Mt. Cook

Despite my experience the day before, after sleeping ten hours, I was ready for some more walking. I couldn’t help it. The sunshine was calling me, and plus there’s really not much else to do here. The hostel, if you can call it that, is really just an out of date hotel with bunk beds in the rooms and a “T.V. Room” tucked into a dark corner on the ground floor. There’s nowhere really to hang, which I guess is even more an incentive to go out and enjoy the scenery.

This time I checked with the front desk to make sure I knew where I was going (the free map was crap) and packed enough food and water for the day, and headed out into the windy sunshine. Today’s adventure: the Hooker Valley track with an end point at the Hooker Glacier Lake. Return time = aprox. 3-4 ½ hours.

I started out at the glamorous and imposing Hertmitage Hotel, situated at the top of the hill Mt. Cook Village is settled on. The building overlooks the whole park and serves as the starting point for most of the treks. And so I walked down through the shrubs, moss, and rocks into Hooker Valley. The track picked up more and more people the farther I went. They stood like bright specks in the landscape as their colorful coats and gear picked up the light.

The dark looming mass of Mt. Wakefield blocked Mt. Cook from sight for a good chunk of the walk as the wind rushed through the valley. More than one Asian tourist clung desperately to their hat. Cameras were pulled out the moment Mt. Cook came back into view, its white heights staring coldly down at the green expanse at its feet. I was asked to take a couple group photos.

Three suspension bridges were crossed, each gently rocking in the furious wind. And small hut was explored, the inside full of graffiti spanning 20+ years. (I of course left my own mark.) All the while Mt. Cook stood on the horizon and the wind continued to rage, as if the mountain had partnered up with the air to try and push the tourists back. But still they came, all types and ages in their bright parkas with cameras desperate for a chance to gaze at the famous peak and the lake in its shadow.

After almost two hours, I arrived at those cold waters. Remnants of glaciers drifted upon the blue-grey surface and above it all Mt. Cook looked with its chilly stare, aloof yet awe-inspiring. The wind was more monstrous here, whipping clothing and throwing children off balance. It came in bursts that surprised people as they attempted to eat their lunches and take the perfect photo. I quickly ate my food, snapped a few pictures (I swear I took at least a hundred photos of Mt. Cook that day) before the wind became too much and I moved on back towards limited civilization.

Through Canterbury Heights

After Stewart Island we spent a night in Queenstown before heading off through Canterbury.

9:20 am = And we’re off with a quick travel update post-earthquake.

9:33 = A truly mirrored lake makes everyone turn their heads.

9:40 = Bungy bridge spotted, passed out of view just as someone was about to jump.

9:44 = An attempted sing-along to Coldplay.

10:04 = Stop at a fruit stall (Jones’s). Chinese tourists and heaps of apples and kiwis.

10:23 = On the road. Spotting orchards and making rafting plans. Outside: Snow caps and grape vines.

11:07 = Flowers and rocky outcroppings in Lindis Pass.

11:25 = Lindis Pass Summitt. The highest Stray bus stop. Waving shrubs, photo taking, and thin air. A growing heading and a full memory card.

11:35 = Stories of Shrek the Sheep, a local celebrity and “national treasure.”

11:51 = A river snakes peacefully through shrubs and vibrant purple flowers. Small yellow flowers also pepper the foreground as the snow-tipped blue peaks paint the background.

11:58 = A history lesson about Omarama and their gliders and All Blacks fame.

12:02 pm= Lunch stop. Stale roll and peanut butter. Conversation about college tuition rates and over-priced chips.

12:47 = Back on the bus with more fun facts.

1:02 = Salmon farms with turquoise waters (dyed by “glacier flour”). Passing Twizel. Maori stories about the naming of Mt. Cook or “Cloud Piercer.”

1:09 = Amazing views of flat fields spotted with yellow flowers and a line of be-snowed mountains. More turquoise waters. Pine trees.

1:16 = Lake Pukaki. Bright blue waters surrounded by dead tree limbs.

1:20 = Photo stop. A lake the color of the sky. In the distance, with a “cloud hat,” Mt. Cook.

1:43 = On the road. Still taking pictures of Mt. Cook.

1:55 = In Mt. Cook National Park. Accompanied by fun facts and stories about the mountain.

2:02 = Arrive.

Exhausted (I didn’t get much sleep at Queenstown), I felt like shit getting out of the bus at Mt. Cook Lodge. The sun was shining and the others were excited, so I felt bad leaving them, but I had to take a nap. Somewhat refreshed afterwards, I decided a short walk was necessary. Take in the day and the nature and all that.

I simply couldn’t believe the beauty, yet again. (Is New Zealand, is nature in general ever short on beauty?) The glaringly white peaks of Mt. Footstool brightened the whole plain full of pale green grass and shrubs. The wide skies were peppered with large clouds and in the distance the bright turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki shone ethereally. I think my disbelief and excitement at the scenery woke me up quicker than coffee would’ve.

So I took pictures and walked and walked and walked. I moved through the plain, across a bridge, down a road and partially up the side of Mt. Wakefield before I began to think: “Gee, this sure doesn’t seem like the one hour walk advertised on the free map.”

I look at the piece of paper again. Upon rereading the description of the one hour return walk to Tasman Glacier, I noticed it started at a car park, which was a 20 minute drive away. God I felt stupid…and tired. Needless to say, I turned around and headed back.

It was a much less pleasant trek toward the lodge. The sun was waning, beaming straight on my shoulders with an intensity that only New Zealand’s sun could give. And so I walked. I didn’t bring a lot of water, thinking I wouldn’t need much for a “short” walk, so my throat began to itch with thirst. And so I walked. When I finally returned to the plains, the wind picked up and blew at monstrous speeds, whipping my clothing against my body as I moved against it. And so I walked…

By the end, I was literally shouting at the wind and those wide blue skies in exhausted anger. The mountains just looked on and said nothing. My supposedly easy, one hour hike turned into a two and a half hour haul. Needless to say, I was not happy as I stumbled into the shower practically the moment I returned to my room.