Christchurch Just Before The Earthquake

Roam Chronicles

A couple of months later, everything would be different.  But for today, we took a quick drive down to the beach in Sumner to paddle out and catch a few waves.  Sumner is just outside of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand and a friend that I had grown up with in Houston and had also migrated to the West Coast were living there, coincidentally taking their little kids to this far off outpost at the same time that we had pursued the same opportunity.  

Christchurch was already in rubble from the massive earthquake that had shook the land and liquified the soil in September.  Large areas of the city were fenced off and residents were already being relocated outside the city, even over to Australia.  We were visiting Christchurch in December, one last stop on our tour before heading back to Seal Beach, California, USA.  We had been all over the North Island with our central locatin in Hamilton making it easy to hit either coast for a weekend.  This was our one effort to make it to the South Island and visit friends, a chance to stake a flag just that extra bit further South, further away from our home.

We didn’t realize that our timing would be prescient, seeing the iconic spire at the Anglican Church before an aftershock would take it down in February and setting off a desperate attempt to redefine what Christchurch would be in the future, indeed where it would be, if it would be.

It was the perfect time to visit the South Island, waiting until the latest part of our trip, deepest into summer, when the temperatures were warm and the water was still cold but not in an extreme way.  It’s always wetsuit temperature in Sumner, but the small summer waves had drawn a fun, unaggressive crowd to the beach for the day, locals catching waves after work.  We drove around the cliffs to Lyttleton, the little port made familiar by tales of Shackleton and Scott making final preparations for their journeys to Antarctica.  I imagined the masts of the schooners in the bay while tons of supplies were loaded up, the men in their wool clothing that you look at and can’t believe they could survive the cold even a minute.

I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Antarctica.  This may be as close as it gets, but being on these same docks that were the final send off point for these expeditions, you feel like you’ve made it pretty close.  Of course, this last leap being the one that counts, the one where adventure began.

As with every other beach we visited in New Zealand, you were constantly in awe of the view, the drive in being the most spectacular you had taken, the feeling of being at the end of the world even more magnified by the fact that we had taken a flight to another land south of the main, larger, more populated land.

The surf was small, 3 ft and forgiving, beach break, but enough to get some fun rides in the brisk water.  Being just 15 minutes away from the main city, you didn’t feel that you were so close to the biggest city in the south island with a population approaching 400,000.  With plenty of other beaches to choose from in the area, the same distance away, there’s no need to crowd any one of them at any given time.

If there was anything we had gotten used to after three months in New Zealand, it was the spoiled lack of crowds, the feeling that you always have the place to yourself, that it’s just yours.  Flying inside the country, we were shown that not everywhere treats people traveling with kids the way we do in the states, ignoring them or tolerating them at best while they wait in the same long lines kids screaming, tired moms with bags hanging off their shoulders and kids climbing the walls.  Here we were always pushed to the front of the line, a security guard waving holding open the rope and pushing us through, everyone in agreement that getting a family with two little kids out of the way isn’t just better for them, it’s better for everyone.   We would come to miss this treatment when we returned, another wonderous realization that our priorities are completely out of whack.

Even a beach close to a city is practically empty, especially relative to the Orange County circus that we were about to head back to. It would be difficult to have to find parking and step around other people’s beach blankets when you know there are places in the world where you can just walk miles of sand without seeing another footprint.

We left in December, Christmas Day, to head back to the states.  In February an aftershock would again rock Christchurch and bring the downtown area to a halt.  People would wonder if it ever would come back.  It’s always wild to see something that has been there for so long that everyone assumes it will be there forever until it isn’t.  I’ll make it to Christchurch to see that famous spire one day, we say.  The it’s too late, it’s gone.  Who knew the same thing would happen to Notre Dame two decades later.

Things go, things are gone.  It’s important to go see them while you can.  Assuming that the world and its wonders will wait for it to be convenient for you is an exercise in playing odds that are impossible to quantify.  

Second eq – Feb 22, 2011   6.3

First eq – Sept 4, 2010 7.0  

180 died

it was believed that by the time of the June 13 aftershocks, some 50,000 former residents of Christchurch had already moved permanently to other places in New Zealand or to Australia. In March 2012 it was announced that because of additional damage it had sustained in the aftershocks, the Anglican cathedral was beyond repair and would be demolished.

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