Christchurch and Dunedin

The two larger cities we visited on the South Island, Christchurch and Dunedin, are funnily enough both touted for their Britishness.  'Dunedin' is actually the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and the city is also nicknamed "the Edinburgh of the South", while Christchurch was planned as an English city, which can particularly be seen around Hagley Park.  I could definitely see this not only in the architecture and city planning of these two places, but in the attitudes and speech of the people who lived there.  However, this being New Zealand, there was always something to give it a through-the-looking-glass feel.

Our first stop in Dunedin was Baldwin Street, supposedly the steepest residential street in the world.  I was a bit nonplussed by this, having worn my calf muscles to death up and down the hills of San Francisco, but certainly this isn't a road I'd choose to live on.  I can only imagine that the people living at the top either have very strong legs or just drive everywhere.  Dunedin was built roughly to the plan of Edinburgh, and while both cities are notorious for their topography, Dunedin's streets seem to jut at awkward angles that don't really conform to the landscape - just goes to show you can't just copy and paste city layouts onto different landscapes.  An attraction that's less one-note is the Botanic Gardens, featuring an aviary of exotic birds, numerous planned gardens, a duck pond, and events throughout the year.

Onto my favourite thing in Dunedin - Te Papa Settlers' Museum.  This was a great (free!) interactive museum with many stories and insights into the diverse people who came into the South Island and created the city, from the original Maori tribes to the Scottish who founded Dunedin itself, to the many other nationalities including a large Chinese population that made the city what it is today.  Best part: lots of opportunities to play dress-up.  Loved it.

The Dunedin Railway Station is a grandiose building very reminiscent of Edinburgh with its grey brick and stolid form.  On the second floor there is an art gallery featuring works of many local artists, which is free to enter and browse around, as well as a small sports museum which costs little to enter.  There is a famous mosaic in the main lobby of a train, apparently the largest mosaic of a train in the world but I really don't care enough about train mosaics to verify that particular claim.

Dunedin does not have a Chinatown as such, but what it does have is a lovely Chinese Garden which was designed in Shanghai to evoke the traditional style.  It is a tranquil spot, unpretentious yet beautiful, and a good place to stop for a pot of Chinese tea or a game of Go.

We'd originally planned to visit Taiaroa on the outskirts of Dunedin where there is an albatross sanctuary, but we felt $30 was too steep and we got caught trying to sneak into the tour.  As it happens though, there are loads of fur seals just lying beside the path outside the sanctuary, much cuter in my opinion anyway.

Christchurch was the very last stop on our New Zealand itinerary.  We weren't sure what to expect, knowing that the earthquake in 2011 had decimated much of the city centre and up to 13,000 aftershocks in the years since had continued to wreak havoc on the infrastructure.  Sure enough, there were many road closures and uneven surfaces as we traversed the city.  But what I found was actually much more hopeful than I could have expected.

Aside from the trams being up and running again, apparently a recent development, there were many things going on in the city to distract from the earthquake damage.  The Ellerslie International Flower Show was being held in Hagley Park, bringing a real vibrancy to the area, and floral displays throughout the city centre made a beautiful contrast to the collapsed buildings all around.  Construction sites are everywhere, but in many places brightly coloured blocks have been added to the wire fences, and street art livens up the place to create a feeling of change and uplift rather than dilapidation.

In the years since the earthquake, it has been a big incentive of many public institutions and local businesses alike to encourage people to remain in the city.  A man I met who worked in insurance claims told me about several people he visited who were traumatised by the quakes, some not having cleaned or moved anything in the house since the first big hit, and how a big part of his job was to show them that the answer was not to move away but to rebuild.  This can be seen all across the city.

Several businesses closed in the aftermath of the earthquake.  The big department store Ballantynes and many others in the shopping mall were destroyed, but after some innovation found new homes thanks to the Re:START project that transferred all these businesses to shipping containers, creating a unique and exciting shopping area.  The lease with the landowners means the shipping container mall will be there until at least next Easter, with hopes that it might continue for years.

Christchurch was a good place to end our trip, which already had a bittersweet note with our impending return to reality (as much as living in Sydney is a return to reality).  But it was also a feeling about the city itself, as the new exciting projects, bars and businesses sit alongside the ruins of what stood for generations before.  However, when placed in a global context, Christchurch has made a remarkable recovery.  My own experience was to see the 9th Ward of New Orleans six years after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina yet still damaged, not to mention stories of Papua New Guinea which international aid did not reach after the Boxing Day Tsunami and bodies can still be seen in the trees.  It is uplifting to see a city like this bounce back so strongly after such a devastating occurrence.

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