We spoke to the jetboat people first thing this morning to confirm that yes, the tour was canceled because the river was too high. They offered us a couple of options if we did not want a refund: (1) a four wheel drive tour of a sheep ranch, and (2) a tour of some of The Lord of the Rings filming locations. The latter seemed kind of redundant insofar as we have been seeing them all over the place in the normal course of our travels, and the former seemed as thrilling as, well, a tour of a sheep ranch. So we opted for the refund.

This left us with the problem of entertaining ourselves today, but a quick study of the mandatory Wall of Brochures in the hotel lobby, plus a couple of phone calls, quickly led to a booking for an all-day guided tour of the city and environs, where they would pick us up at our hotel. And so the day began.

The first thing that struck us was that the tour bus was nearly empty, occupied by two other American couples plus a single Brazilian woman. She, it became quickly apparent, spoke almost no English. The tour guide very apologetically said, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t speak Spanish,” whereupon all six Americans simultaneously shouted, “Portuguese!”, leading the driver to further apologize that he didn’t speak that either.

The driver remarked upon how few of us there were, saying that in the past this tour would run two full buses at a time, i.e. 80 people or so, but that Christchurch tourism had fallen off dramatically in the past two or three years since a series of devastating earthquakes. We had known about the quakes, knowing that they had heavily damaged the city, but we did not appreciate how bad things were, nor how huge a hit the economy had taken.

We were flabbergasted at the extent of the destruction from the quakes, which we could only very vaguely remember even happening, and which you might not even recall at all. But there were three, all at or near magnitude 7, starting in October 2010 and then at intervals of four months afterwards. The first and third caused damage but no deaths, but the middle one in February 2011 was a killer: 185 people died, about 3/4 of them Japanese university exchange students who were caught in a classroom building collapse.

Judging from the current state of downtown, over two years later, it must have looked like Hiroshima at the time. There is, very approximately, no downtown left: few tall buildings, and barely a single street that isn’t scarred with some combination vacant lots from since-demolished buildings; damaged structures surrounded by chain-link fences; and traffic cones marking street repairs, block after block of traffic cones. And this is two years after the fact; they expect that reconstruction is going to take another 12-15 years. We had no idea. (It did, however, answer the question they we had been asking ourselves with some annoyance, which is why we were staying in an airport hotel. All of our other accommodations have been conveniently located, and this one decidedly is not; we were going to complain to our travel agent until it became clear that there were no conveniently located hotels: there was nary a one downtown that was not destroyed or heavily damaged.)

There are a number of reconstruction initiatives going on, over and above the rebuilding itself, to try and lure tourists and shoppers back into the city. One of the more interesting of these is the so-called Restart program for businesses. On the spot containing what used to be the city’s largest shopping mall, a number of very determined and inventive retail businesses have reopened for business using shipping containers instead of buildings. You know, those 40′ metal boxes that you see stacked on cargo ships. The merchants, with assistance from the city, have opened up the sides and use them as storefront buildings. It’s very creative, but it also gives you an idea of how bad the destruction was, and how desperate the city.

Our tour took us around downtown — what’s left of it — pointing out various churches and historical buildings, all of them damaged, and all accompanied by the somewhat wearying commentary that this one might able to be restored, this one will probably be demolished, that one is being worked on…. This was all very interesting in a morbid way, and fortunately did not take very long.

Our next two stops were, literally, breaths of fresh air: a half hour boat ride along the Avon river that winds through town, followed by a tour of the city’s genuinely delightful botanical gardens.

The boat ride was proferred in somewhat medieval (or at least colonial) fashion: the craft was a flat-bottomed punt, poled like a gondola by a guy in a flat-brimmed boater hat and formal vest. The day was sunny and cool and the setting idyllic; the river is very clear, only a couple of feet deep and not much more than 60′ wide, and its course took us past the very gardens that we would be touring immediately afterwards. The boatman did not sing “O Sole Mio” — and you can bet that they are heartily sick of that joke — but rather provided some commentary on the various types of ducks and fish and the historical provenance of some of the older trees that we passed. It was very enjoyable, beautiful and serene.

Christchurch is a city of parks, something like 740 of them for a population of 350,000 people. The largest (400 acres) is Hagley Park, very well manicured in typically English fashion to the extent that it is almost indistinguishable from the much smaller (50 acre) botanical garden to which it is adjacent. The garden is beautiful, with plants that reflect New Zealand’s ridiculously diverse climate: it includes everything from temperate zone sequoia trees to a desert xerogarden. Alice, of course, was going nuts: take a picture of this! Take a picture of that!

One of its nicest features is the fact that children are allowed to climb the trees, which of course turns the place into the ideal family outing on a nice day, which today was. So it was a real pleasure to see all the activity — kids climbing trees, families playing Frisbee — in this Edenic setting.

Following the garden we cruised around the seaside resort neighborhood of Sumner. It was sort of the Malibu of Christchurch, with expensive cliffside homes overlooking the ocean (which is a stunning azure color and way the hell too cold, never getting above the upper 50s in temperature). Now it’s literally a wreck: those cliff side homes lost their cliffs in the quakes and are now variously condemned or destroyed, jutting precariously out from a crumbling cliff and manifestly unsafe. The setting is still gorgeous, but the neighborhood economy has essentially disappeared and will be quite some time returning.

Our last stop was a gondola — the ski lift kind, not the boat kind — to a vantage point above the city. (If you are getting the idea that every New Zealand city has a gondola going to the top of a nearby mountain, you would be correct.) Here’s the view from the top, looking towards the harbor:

Every New Zealand city has this view.

There were even sheep grazing on the hillside. C’mon guys, we get it.

And that was day in Christchurch, pretty interesting even lacking the adrenaline rush of the jetboat ride. It’s dinnertime now and, there being no point in actually going downtown to eat, we will do as we did last night: walk the quarter-mile to the airport and eat at one of the restaurants there. (It’s not too bad actually; there is a selection of places.) Tomorrow morning we leave South Island, traveling by bus to the port of Picton, then taking the three-hour ferry ride across to Wellington on North Island. There, we will pick up our rental car and attempt to cheat death for the subsequent six days or so.  Yes, yes, keep to the left…I know.

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