Christchurch, Day 1
Eric and Cindy really haven’t won, because they still need to wait for us to clear customs. We meet them at the currency exchange. It’s like there’s a money sale going on – New Zealand’s economy is still adjusting to a world that doesn’t need so much wool, and every American dollar gets us two New Zealand dollars. We wonder what the prices are going to look like in town.
We step out into a hot late-summer Sunday afternoon. So much for the cold weather gear. As we weigh the cost of a cab into town Eric hails a van with a trailer, and the four of us pile in with a half-dozen other travellers. It’s like being on a cramped bus but it’s $NZ20 for the four of us, which works out to about $US2.50 per person. Not too bad.
The van passes through trim neighborhoods of short Tudor-like houses and onto a divided road that marks the northern border of the downtown area. We pull into the gravel drive of a nineteenth-century Victorian mansion.
The Hambledon B&B is a charming old doctor’s house that’s been converted into an inn with eight suites. Eric and Cindy choose the Butler’s Room off to the right at the entrance, while Melanie and I drag our bags upstairs to the Nursery Suite on the second floor. The house is all dark wood and thin carpet and smells old, but a good kind of old. The floors creak and the toilet is made of copper.
Calvin Floyd meets us at the foot of the stairs. He runs the Hambledon with his wife Jo and he has the a warm smile coupled with the slightly lost demeanor of an English gentleman. We mention that we want to get a look at the town this afternoon.
“So… you’ll be wanting to walk into town then?”
“Well, there was a flower festival and an arts fair in town this weekend, but they’ll be packing up by now…”
Man, we miss all the good stuff on this trip. We missed the Adelaide Fringe Festival by a few days and the Grand Prix by a few weeks, and now this.
Cindy had a chance meeting back in San Francisco with a New Zealander who lives in Christchurch, and he’s invited us a dinner party tonight at his home by the beach. Under the hot afternoon sun we walk along the wide, quiet streets toward the handful of tallish buildings that make up the downtown area.
Christchurch was first settled in 1850, from the outset a planned Church of England community meant to be a fresh utopia in the Southern Hemisphere. Today it’s home to about a third of a million people, making it the third-largest city in New Zealand and the largest on the South Island. Famous now as the international gateway to the interior of the South Island as well as the launch point for many Antarctic expeditions, from a distance its modest highrises crowd the centerpiece Christchurch Cathedral. Once downtown, the dark stone cathedral commands attention, isolated from the more modern structures by a broad slate plaza.
The Avon River ambles quickly through town – maybe twenty feet wide and a few inches deep, it flows rapidly through a winding block-wide tree-lined park. Sure enough, the flower festival is packing up, with a few displays still standing around (and in) the Avon.
Many of the downtown streets are brick and cobblestone, with streetcar tracks set in many of the main avenues. The arts festival has decorated many of the sidewalks with chalk paintings.
One of our guidebooks mentions as a happening spot for food and drink, and we find it in a submerged courtyard behind the Arts Centre on Worcester Street. The busy crowd has that post-collegiate hipster look – vegetarian food is one of the specialties here. We settle in at a picnic table in the sun; to the right a group is drinking pink sodas, to the left a guy has pink hair. There are a number of entrances around the courtyard, and Eric and I pick the one marked “Bar”. The pretty bartender smiles as we peruse the chalkboard homebrew menu.
“Just off the ice?”
Eric looks puzzled, but I size up the situation (Eric’s beard and my own four-day growth) and reply in the negative.
“Nah, we just came from Australia.”
Apparently this is a popular spot for researchers returning from the Antarctic stations serviced by the International Antarctic Centre just outside of town. All of the U.S. operations go through Christchurch on their way to and from the South Pole. We look like we’ve been away from home for a while. She pours us a towering pitcher of bitter, and Eric grabs a few Lemon Ruskis for good measure. Back at the table I end up downing more than my share of the bitter. It’s time to head to the beach.
We walk back over the Avon toward the city center, and Eric hails a little Nissan Sentra taxi. The driver looks to be in her late forties, with stringy graying hippie hair and purple-tinted sunglasses. The cab smells like coconut, the seats are covered in dark fake fur and there’s groovy soul music playing low. The city buildings give way to bungalows and ramblers as we head toward the low hills by the ocean. We turn onto a long road paralleling the dunes, a long line of small white beach houses. One house has a finely manicured lawn trimmed with vibrant flower beds; without looking at the number Cindy tells the driver to stop.
Christopher, our host, is passionate about his gardening. The display is stunning, better than anything we’ve seen at a private home, and yet he apologizes for the quality of the plants this late in the growing season. He’s built a wall to protect his backyard garden from the ravages of the Pacific winds. The yard backs up to his brother Carl’s property; the land has been in the family for a long time.
Christopher insists that we try his mai-tai recipe as he gets dinner ready. In the distance I hear the low huff of a steam train whistle – I scan the hills looking for a ribbon of track, charmed that this bit of nostalgia is apparently still alive here. Melanie hands me a drink. It’s pretty powerful.
There’s that train whistle again, a fresh rumble of iron on tracks. It can’t have returned so quickly. There must be a little amusement park near by, some kind of beach playground. Eric’s itching for another swim, and we head over the front yard to the dunes across the street.
This is the widest beach I’ve ever seen. Flat, dark sand stretches for hundreds of feet to the water and for miles in each direction. The Pacific is cold, as expected, but this doesn’t stop Eric, who plunges in without hesitation. The rest of us pad around in the dark glassy water, watching the plumes of sand rise from buried critters’ nests as the waves roll in.
These mai-tais are pretty strong.
There are scattered groups of people jogging and walking dogs. One woman is kind enough to take a few pictures, and she puts on a dramatic fashion-photographer act for us. The light from the falling sun is great for photos, and luckily for us the shots turn out.
It’s time to head back for dinner. We walk barefoot across the road and up to the yard, but we really need to get this sand off of our feet before we head inside. There’s a garden hose (naturally), and Eric and Cindy rinse off and head inside. Melanie and I follow, but there’s a little problem – the spigot is located behind the flower bed, and reaching in to turn it off requires stepping in mud, defeating the original purpose of hosing off. I stare at the hose for a long time, trying to formulate an efficient solution. Melanie’s not so patient with my sludgy thought process and takes control, getting her feet dirty. I have an important point to make about her shoes being nicer than mine, so I should be the one to turn off the hose. Problem is I’m having difficulty voicing consonants. I launch into an explanatory pantomime which only irritates Melanie further but in the end she sees my fuzzy logic and plays along, if only to make me stop waving my arms. I find a puddle in the lawn to rinse my one muddy bare foot. I vow to keep my mouth shut for the rest of dinner.
That train whistle again. There are voices just beyond the backyard, over where Carl’s house is. A few steps down and to the left I find another well-manicured lawn with flowers lining the yard and… a sophisticated all-weather model train set. It circles half the yard. There are stations and bridges and tunnels, plus a graded rise to challenge the rolling stock (six engines, countless cars) stored in the house. The whole thing is operated by remote and it features movable sound triggers – little trip switches set in the tracks that set off sounds like steam huffs and whistle blasts.
Dinner is excellent. A little wine goes around. Things get really weird really fast.
It’s been a memorable evening. Our cab driver on the way back into town gets an earful. The city is quiet on a Sunday night, but on Oxford Terrace by the Avon there is a block of pubs doing a surprising amount of business. We pause at and sit out beneath the propane heaters for a few Ruskis. Now it’s chilly. That cold weather gear would be great now. The always resourceful (and never cold) Eric lends me his jacket for the walk home, and it’s a godsend in the breezy deserted streets.