Christchurch: where real earthquakes meet fake engineers.

Since we were travelling in a camper van, the only way to move between New-Zealand’s North and South Islands was to take the ferry. These ferries are not small ships; the one we took could carry well over a hundred cars, 660 passengers and a few railroad cars.


We got on last, leaving our camper van outside the “garage” (the white one with red window curtains). I wished we had been inside like 95% of the vehicles, as all the windows got covered with a thin layer of salt. The ferries leave from the national capital, Wellington, and arrive in a small town called Picton.


While we considered going glacier hiking on the West Coast, the distances were too great and I was not so keen on driving long itineraries on steep, winding mountain roads with the camper van. By comparison, the East Coast was much easier driving and very beautiful scenery, especially when the road was close to the sea.


On the way to Christchurch, we stopped for lunch and an afternoon hike in the small but very beautiful Kaikoura Peninsula. Here is the North side.


And South Bay.


Upon leaving the peninsula, I saw a sign by the road advertising twice daily sheep shearing shows. By chance, the next one was in 8 minutes, so we pulled over. The owner’s family used to keep thousands of sheep and the family owned most of the peninsula. Nowadays, they only keep 600 sheep, enough for the twice daily show. This somewhat reflects the situation of the whole industry. Falling prices for wool have resulted in a huge decline in the sheep population in New Zealand. Most of the revenue comes from the meat, as a sheep’s wool only generates roughly $20 a year (or twice a year for  some species).


Shearing that one, in front of a dozen tourists paying NZ$12 each, resulted in a lot more money (early 2013, NZ$1 is about CAN$0.80). Pros can do the whole thing incredibly fast. While this guy could probably do it in a heartbeat, he took a good 3-4 minutes so we could see the process properly. Most sheep owners never do it themselves. “Shearing gangs” move from ranch to ranch and process them in bulk (not sure if they use the term “ranch” in NZ). The same system is used in many North American farms. Most wheat or corn growers don’t own millions of dollars of machinery to do the harvest, they just pay for the service.


A few moments later, we get one naked sheep. I already regret writing the previous sentence. I will get visitors to the blog who have Googled “naked sheep”!


Apart from cattle raising, New Zealand also has a very diversified agricultural production. For example this farm produces 76.1% of all bubble gum consumed in the Southern Hemisphere. Seriously, let me know if you have any idea what this pink field may be. I sure don’t.


For logistical reasons, we drove right past Christchurch, intent on going back a few days later. Dunedin, the southernmost point we reached, was a booming town at the turn of the century, growing on par with Los Angeles. A good illustration of this boom is in this picture. “The Last Post” pub and restaurant is set-up in the old post office. Only 20 years after its construction, it was deemed too small for the city and a new post office was built, right next to it. The scale is not exactly the same.

Dunedin suffered greatly during the depression and the relative economic stagnation that followed lasted many decades, limiting the development of the city. For that reason, all the beautiful limestone buildings of the early 20th century are still standing, whereas in other places they were demolished in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, to be replaced with hideous Soviet-style concrete boxes, as we too often did in Canada.


For some strange reason, I wish I could have met the person who lives there.



The main reason we went all the way to Dunedin was to see penguins, specifically the smallest in the World, aptly called the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor). They spend all day fishing at sea and come back to their nests at sunset. You can actually see a darker spot on the water as they approach. They run up the beach and hide in the bushes. When it gets completely dark, those whose nests are further away from the shore make the final move. They are only visible for a short moment and despite the soft floodlight of the observation platform, it is very dark. I had done test shots with the seagulls, but I really didn’t think the penguins would move so fast, and my pictures turned out very bad. Oh well, pictures of fast moving objects in the dark is not exactly easy. That’s when a professional, full-size DSLR sensor and a fast lens (f/2.8 or less) become essential. Instead, I have bad pictures of penguins and I saved $10,000 in photo equipment!


Finally, we made our way to our final destination in New-Zealand, Christchurch. I certainly remembered the city had been hit by a very strong earthquake in February 2011, resulting in 176 casualties and damage estimated at NZ$15 billion, but I must admit I did not give it any thought when planning the trip. Perhaps I expected it to already be old history. Even though the earthquake occurred almost two years ago, it is anything but history in Christchurch. Our campground receptionist gave us a map of the city. The centre was marked with a large red area, the exclusion zone. Walking along this street everything seemed quite normal, but there is nobody living or working beyond this fence, except demolition crews. The area occupies many city blocks.


While a few parts of downtown seem perfectly normal, you only have to walk a short distance to see scenes of complete destruction.


Entire streets have all the buildings condemned and you can still see the graffiti left by emergency crews as they searched the structures for survivors and victims. The majority (115) of victims died in the collapse of the 6 floor Canterbury Television Building, built in 1986. Since the building also housed an English language school, over 60 of the victims were from Asia. It was odd that neighbouring buildings suffered limited damage. The Government inquiry mainly blamed the construction engineer and recommended major changes to New-Zealand’s building codes. However, the most shocking finding was that the construction manager, engineer Gerald Shirtcliff, was in fact, not Gerald Shirtcliff, and not an engineer at all. As a technician in the early 70’s in South Africa, William Fisher stole the diploma and identity of a British engineer and built a career that eventually had him involved in the construction of many major buildings in New Zealand and Australia, over more than four decades. Watch the story on 60 Minutes Australia.


While many buildings are simply being torn down, others with architectural or historical value are left in place, presumably awaiting the day funds or workers will be available to restore them. At first I though these sea containers were a temporary way of shoring the facade, but I then noticed it did not touch it at all. I believe they were put in place so that if the facade was to collapse, it would do so on itself, and not on cars and pedestrians. That’s just my guess, but we saw a lot of similar structures.


Protection from debris is not the only thing residents of Christchurch use sea containers for. Businesses prevented from returning to their buildings built a small “city” of sea containers just outside the exclusion zone. You can find all sorts of stores, cafes and restaurants inside sea containers. Last time I shopped in a sea container I was having a leather coat made by a Kabul tailor. I must say the sea containers are a little nicer in New-Zealand than in Afghanistan (if anything, less bullet holes!).


And finally, while we never got to see a kiwi bird (except a stuffed one in a museum), we did get a kiwi cloud!


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