Sunday afternoon at the Brisbane airport, I could barely sit still I was so excited. I was going to New Zealand! I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and couldn’t believe I was finally on my way to a 12-day campervan tour of the country. A few months ago I watched a BBC special about a Kiwi company called Escape Rentals. They employ graffiti artists and maintain a fleet of custom designed campervans. How can you turn down the chance to tour New Zealand in a Dr. Seuss, Jimi Hendrix, or Bruce Lee themed camper? They offer one-way relocation specials from Christchurch to Auckland at deeply discounted rates if you’re lucky enough to snag one. So I emailed them and got lucky. $399 and I scored one of their pimp rides for my trip. Awesome!
I arrived late in Christchurch and settled in to a simple hotel room near the airport, then made my way to the depot the next morning to get acquainted with my van. The folks at Escape were incredibly friendly and enthusiastic and told me that a girl such as myself, traveling solo in New Zealand, couldn’t set off with anything but a van called the Wild Cat. I love them!
They sadly said good-bye to their rig since I was taking her one way to Auckland. I was only her second hire and she was brand new. I guess the Auckland depot owes them big now. I promised I’d take good care of her. Their vans are simple but nicely outfitted: a 10-liter water tank for a sink, a chilly bin (icebox or cooler for those of us in the States), lots of cutlery and dishes, folding chairs, an electrical outlet strip, propane burner, portable heater, desk lamp, and lots of storage. The entire back of the van folds into an extremely comfortable bed and doubles as a nice lounging area.
I planned to spend the day in Christchurch before heading south along the eastern coast. I really wasn’t sure what to expect after this year’s earthquake. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I thoroughly expected Christchurch to be bustling and rebuilding. A mere 5 minutes into the city and it was clear my expectations were completely wrong. I couldn’t believe how much damage remained. Buildings were roped off and piles of rubble laid seemingly untouched. Windows were broken, sidewalks were cracked, fire escapes barely hung to the sides of buildings still crushed from debris. Once I parked and walked a few minutes to the city square, my heart sunk again. You couldn’t even get there.
Mostly hidden from view behind safety tape and walls of construction plexi-glass, the entire center square of Christchurch stood in shambles. Except for the “pop-up” shipping container shopping mall with nicely manicured landscaping, most businesses stood deserted; closed behind piles of rubble. Products were still scattered over the floors and shelving of a small grocery store. A bike lay twisted under a pile of bricks.
I guess the earthquake wasn’t that long ago, but it’s shocking to see what I could only imagine to be such a beautiful city reduced to rubble. The amount of damage and cleanup still left is disheartening. I sat there for a while in a bit of a stupor, trying to imagine being here for something so tragic. Then suddenly a tourist asked if I could move so they could take a picture in front of the city. They said they were taking a bus tour of the “red zone”, the area of Christchurch condemned in the quakes. A bus tour? Really?
I couldn’t believe anyone would want to take pictures of themselves in front of this, let alone a bus tour through the red zone. To see people running around, taking photos of themselves in front of the damage and the little pop-up mall that just opened a few weeks ago seemed so sad. I couldn’t even bring myself to take but one or two pictures. It just felt slimy somehow. It’s a tragedy I honestly wasn’t prepared for.
I found a cafe, one of only a few restaurants open in the area, and sat down for some lunch. I asked the waitress about the rebuilding. She made it clear, politely, she didn’t want to talk about it. She told me the sadness over the destruction combined with anger and frustration over the lack of progress made it tough for the locals. I asked if there were donation funds to help and I’d love to suggest a few here, but sadly, most of the funds have suffered from misuse or failure to actually help pay for repairs. She said the biggest help is just sharing the sad news about the difficulty Christchurch faces. She’s confident, as were most Kiwis I chatted with, that Christchurch will return, but it has a long road ahead of it.