Christchurch - the second largest city in New Zealand and the largest by far on the south island. A city associated with its beautiful cricket ground, its rich local agricultural economy and its proximity to some stunning coastal landscapes on the Banks Peninsula.
And also a city linked with disaster.
In September 2010 the 7.1 magnitude Canterbury Earthquake struck, causing damage to the city but no fatalities. Then, six months later in February 2011, the 6.3 magnitude Christchurch Earthquake devastated the city. The ground shifted violently, almost like the old yanking of the tablecloth trick, and everything changed. Nearly two hundred people died. Thousands were injured. Aftershocks continued throughout the year.
Four years later (nearly to the day) I arrived in Christchurch on a coach from Kaikoura to a strange city. A friend of mine who I had met for a drink in Wellington is still doing work in Christchurch to help with the recovery from the disaster and he had warned me that large swathes of the city were still rubble, and that insurance claims had dragged on and slowed the rebuilding process. It is estimated that the earthquakes of 2010/11 will cost insurers NZ$40 billion.
I got off the bus at a crossroads. In all but one direction the land was empty, flat and with no buildings standing. The bus terminal was a lone porta-cabin. In the near distance I saw trees and a few buildings, some of them clearly empty and condemned. Nothing could have prepared me for this. It was as if vast swathes of the city had just been picked up by a giant and taken away the previous day. I couldn't believe my eyes.
As I walked towards my hostel I found some pockets of buildings that were either new or restored, which was comforting. Once I dumped my bags I had a stroll back to the city centre, past more empty office blocks and beautiful yet badly damaged townhouses.
Eventually I reached the cathedral, which had been the architectural pride of the city before the earthquake. Now, it stands behind chain-fences, a large part of it completely gone and what walls remain marked with large scars and gaps. They are seeking donations to rebuild it to some of its former glory.
I didn't spend much time in Christchurch. It seemed a city that is slowly but surely on the mend. It hosted some cricket world cup matches and new buildings are sprouting up here and there. The people are a resilient bunch and have set up things like a temporary shopping centre made from shipping containers. I felt awkward taking photographs of the damage and destruction left in the wake of the 2010/11 earthquakes and to be honest, I was glad to get onto the Tranz Alpine train across to the west coast. Having said that, I did have an amazing gin cocktail that I wish I made a note of!
I would love to visit the city again in a few years' time, when some recovery should be more noticeable (at least cosmetically). I read somewhere that it is predicted that it will take the New Zealand economy 50-100 years to fully recover from the earthquakes of 2010/11. At the time of my visit it was a place of reflection and determination to get back to "normal". I really hope this happens soon and I look forward to one day having that cocktail again in a buzzing and vibrant city that I know Christchurch will be once more.