Kia Kaha – “Stay Strong”

We kicked off our Contiki with a walking tour of Christchurch on the Tuesday morning. It was a tour filled with mixed emotions, after the devastating earthquake there on February 22nd 2011.

Our trip manager, Monique, told us the heartbreaking stories of people who were trapped, and of buildings that used to be where we were standing. She told stories of people in a high-rise building just over from the cathedral, who were on the top floors and had no way of getting out of the building; there was no power, no lifts were working, and the stairwell had collapsed. People created their own ropes and levered themselves down to cherry-pickers in order to survive. We stood near a building that used to be a bank which had been ripped apart, and the devastated cathedral. The cathedral had lost its spire tower in the quake, and the building hadn’t been touched in terms of fixing it, due to ongoing arguments over whether money should be spent rebuilding it when there were people down the road still living with no running water or electricity, six years after the quake. It seemed obvious to me where the money should go. Whilst near the point where the spire used to stand, I saw a message from someone going by the name of ‘Neck Deep’ which said “Life’s not out to get you despite what you’ve been through.” I think it applies to all of us and not just those affected by the events in Christchurch, although it must resonate strongly with all those who were.

After the quake, and the huge series of aftershocks that followed, people were encouraged to graffiti the walls of buildings that had been destroyed and the walls erected around the damage. The artwork was super positive and treated with the utmost respect. These walls are now being built over, and it’s pretty cool to think that if those buildings are ever brought down (hopefully not in the same circumstances) the artwork and positive messages will still be there. It’s a positive legacy to come out of such a devastating natural disaster.

We continued to walk on through the area where the clubs and brothels used to be, and where nothing now stood, and then on through Latimer Square which was used as a triage area for the wounded, and where doctors and nurses had to make the horrendous decisions as to who probably wouldn’t survive, and who should be prioritised for the rescue helicopters. We ended up at the temporary church, which was made of cardboard tubes, and provided a place of worship to those who could no longer attend services in the cathedral. Some of the old pieces from the cathedral were moved there to save them from being stolen from the wreckage. I’m not religious but I can see how important this new church was to the city, and what it meant to those who had been affected by the earthquake.

Our final part of the walking tour ended up at one of the most moving and beautiful memorials I’ve ever seen. It’s called 185 Empty White Chairs, and represents each person who lost their life in the earthquake. Each chair depicts the character and personality of the person who died, from the elderly rocking chairs and wheelchairs, to the baby carriers and toddler chairs. It was an emotional end to the tour and the coach was understandably sombre as we left the city.

We left Christchurch, and headed for Lake Ohau, stopping in a small town called Geraldine for lunch. On the coach we were given an overview of plans for the trip, and activity sheets to tick off what we’d like to do as our optional activities. I was never going to jump off a bridge or bungy jump, but jumping from a plane was my first tick! (I wouldn’t mention that to my loved ones at home until I’d done it though!)

The scenery was breathtaking as we drove through the mountains past two glacial lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) ahead of staying in a lodge at the third – Lake Ohau. The lakes were incredible – crystal clear turquoise waters set with a backdrop of the mountain ranges beyond. I’ve banked those memories as photos definitely won’t do them justice.

As we approached Lake Ohau, we lost phone signal and the lack of phone beeps just added to the beautiful tranquility of the area. On a good day we would have had a view of Mount Cook, but she was being shy and didn’t want to peak out of the clouds. We headed to the lake for a refreshing dip (it wasn’t as cold as Wilkies but it was unbelievably fresh) and I dived under to feel the full effect of the glacial temperatures. The funniest thing was that the temperature wasn’t the unpleasant thing about going in the lake (in fairness, nothing was ‘unpleasant’ as such – it was a stunning lake surrounded by mountains) – what made it so hard to get in and out of the water were the sharp and slippery rocks!

I popped back to my room for a quick (hot) shower and joined the guys for dinner in the most picturesque dining room I’ve ever eaten in! The views were just amazing. After dinner, I relaxed outside by the lake, before heading in to the lounge to join some of the guys in the warm. A couple randomly started playing the piano, playing guitar and singing Johnny Cash songs – it was brilliant until a kazoo was added to the mix…

The following morning we set off for Dunedin. Our bus song (‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout It’ by a Kiwi band called Kings) was playing and everyone was in good spirits. Monique has the most amazing singing voice and randomly bursts into song and WeeMan (our driver) is just brilliant especially his driving/dancing combinations! I kept catching him having a boogie in the rear-view mirror – it’s indescribable but it’s very very cool.

It was a cold day, and we stopped at a small town called Oomaru for a quick break so that WeeMan could refuel the coach. I had a look round the shops and stretched my legs before getting back on the coach and heading to Moeraki Boulders for lunch. We popped into the cafe and I ordered blue cod and chips – I’d never heard of blue cod before, but Luke had mentioned it when he was at Andy’s place in Picton earlier that week and I wanted to try it. For the record it’s delicious, even more so because it had been freshly caught at the bay that morning. The cafe overlooked the beach which looked stunning even on a rainy day, and once full of fish and chips we headed to the beach to see the boulders. We didn’t spend long down there as it was raining so we jumped back on the coach and made our way to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, the world’s steepest street (verified in the book of Guinness World Records).

The coach journey there was a lively one, with lots of singing and laughing, and WeeMan dropped us at the bottom of the street before we walked to the top. Some lunatics ran up, and there was a plaque at the top that showed how a man had roller-skated up in 1988. Again, lunatic. After we’d got our breath back and had a group pic, we walked back down to the coach where WeeMan was waiting to take us in to Dunedin city centre and to our hotel.

Dunedin is a gorgeous city, and we arrived into it from high on the hills, which gave us the most beautiful view. We were quad-sharing in Dunedin and all of us were surprised when we saw that there were four single beds in the room and not two sets of bunk beds! Contiki accommodation is sweet as! Once we had checked into our hotel we went to explore the city but as it was a Sunday and everything was shutting at 4pm, we didn’t have much time to nose around the shops. Instead we mooched over to the railway station – a stunning old building surrounded by beautifully colourful gardens. The flowers brightened up a rainy, cloudy day. After admiring the railway station, both inside and out, we went to the best place to grab comfort food – the Cadbury’s chocolate factory. We didn’t do a tour but instead grabbed some hot drinks and inhaled the mouthwatering aroma of chocolate.

Once out of our chocolate coma, we met everyone at the coach and set on our way to a guided tour at Speight’s Brewery. I think you have to be a certain type of person to do guided tours, and our guide was particularly odd. I swear he’d inhaled far too much malt or something stronger, and was banging around, knocking on everything that could make a sound and generally being a bit weird. I lost the plot (along with some others) after a while and barely listened as I was laughing too much at his strange ways. In fact I laughed so much that, as we walked down a staircase through a low doorway, I walked straight into the wall and whacked my head on the doorway. I should mention that Weird Tour Guide had literally (and I mean literally) just said to watch our heads as we walked through the doorway, and that there was a big sign above the doorway which also said “MIND YOUR HEAD”. Thankfully the doorframe was padded so that idiots like me don’t knock ourselves out. Unfortunately, hitting my head only meant that I cried with laughter some more, and nearly fell down the stairs. I’ve never had to duck for anything in my life and finally I was tall enough to do so. It was an achievement of sorts.

Once the tour was over, Weird Tour Guide took us to the brewery bar, where we had a 45-minute all-you-can-drink tasting of all of Speight’s beers and cider. That was the best part – I’m sure you’re not surprised at how much I enjoyed that bit.

We headed off to the Ale House for dinner, and I had already ordered the seafood chowder and ‘Blue n Gold’ (battered sole and chips). The seafood chowder was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted and was so filling that I couldn’t finish my second fish and chips meal of the day.

That night a few people headed for a drink in the Octagon area of Dunedin, but having already had quite a few drinks I decided to head back to the hotel, and get some sleep ahead of the next part of our tour; four days in Queenstown, which meant four days of surviving on adrenaline alone…

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