Saturday, 27 April 2013

Christchurch - a city with a broken heart but a fighting spirit

Demolition and bulldozers everywhere
In September 2010 Christchurch, New Zealand's second most populous city, was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 eathquake.  Although it was a sizable shake and there was damage to many buildings no one was killed and repairs to affected buildings began in earnest.  Nobody, however, expected 
the second deadly earthquake which occurred in February 2011 killing 185 people, and causing widespread devastation across the city and suburbs. Many of the city's buildings, already weakened by the first earthquake, were unable to withstand a second big shake.  The disaster was the second deadliest in New Zealand's history, after the Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931 when 256 people were killed.

What was once a thriving city centre
I live in Auckland, in the North Island of New Zealand, and my knowledge of the earthquake came from what I had seen on TV and read in the papers.  We Aucklanders knew it was major and many of us did our bit to assist through donations and support for the people of Christchurch. But TV and newspapers cannot give the full picture so it was with shock and amazement that I saw Christchurch first hand last week.  I simply had no idea how big a disaster had occurred.  Christchurch is a city I had visited often, both for work and to visit friends and family. It was a city I was fond of and where I had favourite places to stay and cafes to frequent.....they are all gone.  The inner city just does not exist anymore. There are a few multi storied buildings still standing but many of them are due for demolition soon.

The beautiful old Theatre Royal (1907)with its facade propped up in the hope that
 it may be saved and a new theatre built behind it

 When I arrived at the new temporary bus station in the centre of the city I was completely disorientated.  There were no landmarks I could recognise and I felt completely lost.  With the help of a charming old man, a long term resident, I eventually found my accommodation, having to walk a long and circuitous route due to blocked off Red Zone areas (too dangerous to enter).

Christchurch Cathedral, the heart of the city. The damage is worse than it looks.
The hotel behind it is due for demolition
A once trendy mall off Cathedral Square now derelict and overgrown
One day I took a specially licensed tour of the Red Zone and just could not fathom how much has been lost.  Christchurch had an iconic Cathedral, the centre point of the city, which is now in ruins and the subject of a fierce debate as to whether it should be restored or demolished.  There is little else left in Cathedral Square, the heart of the city.  All the main shopping streets are gone and vast areas of the city are either bull dozed waste land or buildings in the throes of demolition.  I walked through some suburbs and saw a lot of damage to houses.  At least 100,000 homes were damaged in the quake and it is estimated 10,000 of those will be demolished.  The liquefaction caused by the quake was estimated at 400,000 tons which bubbled up around and invaded homes and had to be laboriously shoveled out. As with many a disaster it brought out the best in people and volunteer groups of students and farmers quickly arrived to offer help.

Sad sign on a damaged shop

Poignant installation art remembering the 185 killed

Christ College , Christchurch
Fortunately some of Christchurch's best loved old stone buildings have survived around the fringe of the inner city.  The much loved Arts Centre is badly damaged but will be restored and Christ College, the more English than English boy's college, suffered relatively minor damage and has been repaired

 The earthquake has taken a huge toll on the health and well being of the local residents.  It is heartening, therefore, to see signs of recovery and clever morale boosting projects popping up around the city.  I was deeply impressed by the resilience of so many and the thought and creativity that has gone into cheering people up in incredibly difficult times.  I strolled past a big corporate event being held in a bulldozed uneven carpark.  Prior to the earthquake it would, no doubt, have been held somewhere swanky and upmarket....but there is nowhere like that left.  Those attending the event seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I guess, for them, this is just how things are at the moment.

Put $2 in the converted washing machine
and dance your cares away - Christchurch
A library for all to use outside someone's house

Furniture made from grass and painted daisies to brighten up the city

The funky and popular container mall
Christchurch's  old, well established, flag ship department store, Ballantynes, is in the heart of the city.  It was damaged in the quake, but not badly, and was quickly restored and renovated. It was the only shop left in the city centre.  Stepping inside it it is as if the earthquake never happened.  It is a beautiful store with a lovely cafe and must be a great boost for the locals. The main shopping street has been completely cleared and in its place is a smart trendy container mall consisting of stacked shipping containers painted in bright cheerful colours which house a number of eateries, shops and even a bank.  It is attractive and fun and although it is a temporary measure it doesn't feel that way.

Signs of recovery - the repaired New Regent Street opened for business late April
It is a strange thing to say but I really enjoyed my time in Christchurch.  I felt sad for the people of the city and
shocked at what I saw but also impressed by the air of positivity and the feeling that life and people are what is important, not bricks and mortar.   A quote I heard at the graduation ceremony I was in Christchurch to attend sums it up well : "The best of things happen if you make the best of things that happen"

Monday, 15 April 2013

Williamstown - Melbourne - Australia

City of Melbourne from the Williamstown ferry
With a few hours to spare before meeting up with family I decided to take a cruise to the town of Williamstown on the outskirts of Melbourne.  Williamstown is advertised as an historic seaport in Hobsons Bay and that sounded just like my cup of tea. The cruise takes about 45 minutes and is, to be frank, a little underwhelming.  After passing through an attractive part of downtown Melbourne it is a long slow journey through typical port industrial areas before finally arriving at the pretty boat harbour and Gem Pier at Williamstown.  The town has had a rich and colourful history from the time it was originally occupied by indigenous Australians of the Kulin nation.  It was first settled by Europeans in 1835 and saw explosive growth during the Victorian gold rush in the 1870s.  It was also the centre of the Victorian Navy and is still home to a boat building dockyard for the Australian navy.

Port of Melbourne tugs lined up ready for action
A fascinating piece of history is the fact that Williamstown was the only part of Australia to play a part in the America civil war by assisting the confederates. The warship, Shenandoah, docked at Williamstown for repairs in 1865 and stayed a month while it was repaired, the crew enjoying all that shore leave had to offer, until it finally sailed again with an illegally recruited crew. This caused huge embarrasment to Great Britain, which had remained neutral during the civil war.  The governor of Victoria refused to arrest the ship which had gone on to sink 25 US merchant ships so the colony of Victoria was seen as being an accomplice to the US south. Great Britain, as a consequence, had to make a large financial reparation to the US government.

Historic buildings, Nelson Place

Stepping off the ferry I found Williamstown to be a sleepy place, a bit scruffy around the edges and still in the throes of turning itself into an historic village.  There is an excellent information centre adjoining the reserve by the pier where you can pick up self guided walking maps and the Customs House (1874), nearby, is a fine building housing a marine themed gift shop and an art gallery. The main streets, Nelson Street and The Strand have some attractive old buildings but it was disappointing to find that they housed nothing more than a couple of non descript shops and some very ordinary eateries.

Timeball dating from 1849

It is important to get a map and to do a walking tour because the gems are well hidden amongst some very tired and run down parts of the town.  The botanical gardens are well worth a look.  Although small they are very pretty.  Walk through the gardens and you come to the lovely golden sand Williamstown beach.  Further around the coast is the rare, fully operational, Timeball Tower. This was invaluable to 19th century ships whose crews were able to set their chronometers by the timeball which dropped at exactly 1pm each day.

I wandered around for a couple of hours, seeking out the historic buildings amongst the industrial and badly run down.  One of the most bizarre things I saw was a pub called The Titanic, complete with a  replica of the ship's superstructure and funnels covering the roof.

Williamstown wasn't quite the marine heritage town I expected.  Devonport, in Auckland, outshines it on that score, however, there are signs that Williamstown is beginning to attract a new type of settler, one who values the rich and extensive history and heritage of the town, as attested by the number of  old cottages being restored.


 As I walked back to the ferry a young teenage girl fell into step with me.  She was lost and asked me the way and we walked together for some time.  She said she had arrived by train from central Melbourne to meet some friends and that her mother had been concerned about her going to Williamstown as it had had a bad reputation in the past.  She told me her mother was just remembering what it was like in her youth when it was a seedy place but that it has improved since then.  She was an absolute delight as she chatted in her disarming way....she made my day.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Funky Melbourne

I've just returned from a few days in Melbourne, Australia, and had a great time visiting familiar haunts and hanging out with family.  The main purpose of this trip was to attend a nephew's wedding which was a beautiful, joyous occasion,  however, while there, I took the opportunity to enjoy many of the interesting corners of this lively, bustling, artistic city.

Hosier Lane - the graffiti in this lane is prized and a  real tourist attraction.
  The Movida bar is atmospheric and has a fantastic range of tapas.

Melbourne is a big city, the capital of the state of Victoria it has a population of more than 4 million in mainly low rise housing that sprawls over a vast area nevertheless I spent most of my time in and around the city centre and was never at a loss as to how to fill my day.  Simply wandering the streets is as much fun as anything but the city does have a lot to offer. Here are some of my picks and hints for some of the funky things to see and do in Melbourne City.  I will do further posts looking at different aspects of Melbourne later.

Howey Place
Laneways: I love the Laneways of Melbourne.  These tiny lanes were originally access points and delivery lanes for businesses fronting onto major streets but they have since become destinations in their own right.  Now crammed with cafes and boutiques  many of them have a personality all their own. Some of the coffee shops are tiny and make wonderful coffee They are great places to hang out with a cup and watch the world go by. Hosier Lane absolutely covered in artistic graffiti is a major tourist destination, Hardware Lane, full of restaurants and cafes, has a very european feel to it while Howey Place boasts designer boutiques amongst the cafes.

I also love Block Arcade.  This is not a "lane" but a beautifully elegant arcade with wonderful architecture and home to the very popular Hopetoun Tearooms.

That's me, in white jeans, photographing me on the giant screen
in Federation Square
Federation Square: Right on the banks of the Yarra River, which flows through the heart of Melbourne, the square is  known as "the" meeting place in Melbourne.  This large sloping square is a buzzy, funky place.  It is where festivals are held, I lucked into an International Cultural Festival while I was there. It is also the location of the visitors centre.  It's a bit of a mission to get down the long staircase to it, alright for me but not for the aged or infirm, but it offers very good service  The Art Gallery at Federation Square is an absolute must.  It is a wonderful gallery with constantly evolving exhibitions.  The adjoining Ian Potter Centre is a fantastic place to familiarise yourself with aboriginal culture and art. And after all that just grab a sandwich and sit by the peaceful, gently flowing Yarra for a quiet interlude.  There is also free Wifi in the square.
The National Art Gallery at Federation Square, in front of the Cathedral
 spire on the banks of the Yarra River
An interesting and definitely
"funky" sculpture at the
National Gallery

Street artist, working in pastels, on Swanston Street

Street Artists:  I enjoyed Melbourne's street artists and performers.  There is such a variety of artists doing all sorts of things and they are very good.  Lingering for a few minutes to watch a performance always brought a smile to my face.  The good thing is if you don't like a performer you just keep walking.

Trams: Melbourne has a wonderful tram system. I've included it in my "funky" posting because some of the trams truly are old and funky....but great fun.  They are frequent and fast and get you to most places around the city and inner suburbs. The best thing for tourists is the free tram which circles the city centre in both directions and includes an informative commentary. I made very good use of this on several occasions. The city is beautifully laid out in a grid system so it is very easy to find your way around and never too far to walk from the free tram to your inner city destination.