Finding the Words for Christchurch

Earthquake in Christchurch

The entire impetus for my trip to New Zealand was because of Christchurch. Earlier in the year, I participated in a remarkable project designed to promote New Zealand as a tourist destination after the earthquakes in Christchurch. New Zealand Tourism liked my posts, so they sent me to New Zealand for a week to explore the country. Something I’ve been struggling with though is how to actually talk about Christchurch.

Earthquake in Christchurch

Earthquakes in Christchurch

The first earthquake took place on September 4, 2010 and was a 7.1 magnitude quake that hit 25 miles west of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. It was, without question, a devastating earthquake, but it was the 6.3 magnitude aftershock that hit on February 22, 2011 which was the monster.

The February quake was centered just six miles south-east of Christchurch and resulted in significant property destruction, particularly in the city’s Central Business District, and the loss of 181 lives. It was this quake that changed life forever in Christchurch.

Christchurch today
Christchurch Today

Since the February quake, city officials have had to deal simultaneously with the process of cleaning-up and a significant loss in tourism, an important sector in the region’s economy. I spent my third day in New Zealand touring Christchurch, escorted about town by a French expat turned tourism official named Cecile.

Cecile was frustrated, understandably. Christchurch desperately wants to get back to normal life, but it hasn’t been easy. There is no history of seismic activity in the area, and the earthquakes both scared and depressed the local citizenry. Cecile was frustrated because she wants tourists to return to the city, to enjoy what the city still has to offer, but she knows it will be a slow process.

The message I walked away with is that there are still things to do in Christchurch, which is true. I spent the morning at the Antarctic Centre and had a great lunch at a nearby restaurant. But I felt like we were both ignoring the elephant in the room until we started walking around the Central Business District (CBD).

The downtown area of Christchurch, the CBD, was very much the heart of the city. The famous Cathedral, punting along the Avon and a variety of markets and shops combined to make the downtown core a very important aspect of life in the city. Today, the CBD is fenced off, just beyond the perimeter you can see collapsed buildings, shattered glass and construction cranes. It’s as if the heart of the city has been removed, even if it’s only temporary.

Earthquake in Christchurch

That’s why I struggled with how to discuss Christchurch. I want people to visit, I had a great time and it’s the perfect introduction to the South Island. BUT, I also can’t ignore the damage both physically and spiritually done to this great city. So instead of ignoring it, I want to embrace it.

I think people should visit Chritchurch and enjoy what there is still to do, but to also walk along the perimeter of the CBD and to witness first hand both the living monument to the loss of a way of life as well as Christchurch’s rebirth.

Rebuilding isn’t going to be easy, metropolitan politics are never simple to sort through and bureaucracy necessarily slows everything to a crawl, but it will happen. In the meantime, there are stunning examples of determination and pride that everyone should bear witness to in person.

As we were walking along the fence protecting the devastated areas, there was a small cheese shop. The Canterbury Cheesemongers have what was a prime spot in Christchurch; today it is one of the few outposts along the dreary fence line. But there they are, selling cheese and servicing a dedicated clientele. That’s ultimately how Christchurch will rebuild. Not through government mandates or the lofty plans of developers, but through citizen action. The people who live in and love Christchurch are the ones who will bring back that spirit of pride and determination which still pulses just below the surface.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

11 Responses

  1. Henry Lee

    Hi, Matt – thank you for your article about Christchurch. I’ve never been to the South Island, and a number of people have spoken very highly about Christchurch and the surrounding area. As I’m planning to head out next year to New Zealand again, I would like to visit the South Island, and I’m certainly looking forward to visiting Christchurch. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Oh you definitely should, the South Island is great. Lots to do and just gorgeous

      Reply
  2. Aaron

    It’s so sad to see. I was there for two weeks and left a week before the monster. I’ve struggled on how to talk about Christchurch and also about showing great photos of what it looked like before the earthquake. I do agree with you everyone there is strong and it will be them, the individuals, not the governments mandates that brings Christchurch back.

    Reply
  3. Erik

    I’m hoping by March of next year that things have improved there significantly enough for me to not only tour the city, but to pay my respects to those who lost their lives in the quake. I want so badly to write a post next spring about the ‘rebirth’ of Christchurch.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Well like I said, there’s still plenty to do in the city and the area. It’s going to be a while though until all is back to normal.

      Reply
  4. Jessica

    I live not far from Christchurch in Dunedin. We felt the first earthquake in September, it hit about 4am and woke us up. We stayed up checking on geonet to see where it had hit. We knew that it must of been a big one for us to feel it so strongly in Dunedin. Because there was no loss of life after the first one there was a sense of being very lucky that everyone had escaped unharmed, considering the extent of the damage.

    The February quake hit at lunch time and again we felt it, only this time the thought that went through our minds was “Oh no not again”. I have family in Chch, as do many NZers. The phone networks quickly became jammed as people tried to ring people they knew to see if they were ok. It was an anxious few hours as we waited to hear from family while we watched horrifed at the news on TV of the carnage and the people sheltering in Hagley park. What was worse, once we knew family were ok, there was nothing we could do as no one could get in or out of Chch.

    The city proposal is out this week and its going to be a fantastic city once its rebuilt, they have a unique opportunity there to rebuild something fantastic. Much like Napier had after the massive earthquake hit there in 1931. Its a stunning art deco town, the architecture of the time. There are large parts of Chch that are still ok and its still a great place to visit.

    Reply
  5. Donna Hull

    A beautiful but realistic post about visiting a city after a natural disaster. From my trip to New Zealand a couple of years ago, I came away impressed with the Kiwi’s self-sufficiency. I’d love to go back to see Christchurch first-hand.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thank you Donna, I really appreciate that.

      Reply
  6. Pretraveller

    We visited Christchurch about one month after the first earthquake. We had originally planned to stay in inner city Christchurch, but we decided to cancel that booking and shift to an airport hotel. On the first night I felt my first ever aftershock earthquake which took a little while to work out what was happening.

    We had one day where we explored the city centre of Christchurch, and saw the remnants of the first earthquake, along with enjoying the lovely atmosphere. When I saw the news later on about the second earthquake I felt devastated to see the sheer scale of the wreckage and the number of people who died, knowing that only months before we had blithely wandered through the same area.

    I guess I experienced the emotional reaction to any near miss with death, especially when I did not really understand the risks that we took that day. As a parent with three young children my fear factor is much greater than if I was only looking out for myself.

    It is great to read that Christchurch is rebuilding but it will probably take a long time for the tourist market to rebuild, particularly if there are still significant aftershocks occurring.

    Reply
  7. Claudia

    I’m a resident of Christchurch, and earlier this year (2013) the last fences finally came down, However in the meantime more than 1000 buildings in the downtown have also come down.

    On the plus side, there’s still heaps to do, and it’s an amazing spirit of innovation, colour and vibrancy. I particularly recommend the Re-Start Mall http://www.restart.org.nz/, The Gap Filler projects http://www.gapfiller.org.nz/ (our family particularly enjoyed the mini-golf) and the Transitional Cathedral http://www.cardboardcathedral.org.nz/

    Oh, and we haven’t had any big aftershocks since about June 2012 (fingers crossed).

    I hope to see you all there soon!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks for sharing that! Obviously it’s been a while since I’ve been there but I’d love to revisit and see the progress

      Reply

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