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Keep calm and carry on – the return to Christchurch

Submitted by on December 7, 2011 – 8:22 pm 3 Comments

Joyce Elwood-Smith

After my return from 6 months in Canada (where I fled after the Christchurch earthquake on 22nd February) and a couple of weeks reorientation in Wellington it is time to continue my journey back home. The ferry is crowded and noisy but mercifully smooth. A few days rest with my sister, another few days of school holiday mayhem with six children and three dogs and I am ready to head south.

My car newly serviced after its winter under canvas climbs the hill effortlessly as Picton disappears behind me. Winding through the Koromiko valley the brightness of the spring green is soul refreshing. Lambs, white and playful revel in the newness. Clouds part as if on cue and sunshine illuminates the Wairau Plains. Fields freshly ploughed lie beside vineyards and orchards. Even the usually dun coloured Wither Hills have sprouted blades of grass.

Down the long run from Ward comes the first glimpse of sea and my heart sings. The Kaikoura coast has to be one of the most stunning drives in the world, mountains and sea, sand and snow, seaweed and honeydew.

With the winding Hundalees out of the way it is no time at all before I am at the top of the Canterbury plains, a sense of place overwhelms me, this is my home, my Tŭrangawaewae. But as the Christchurch Port Hills loom into sight a cloak of apprehension settles around my shoulders.

Which road to take concerns me I can’t take the usual one-way route through the city centre so keep to the outskirts. Progress is slow the roads after eight months are still rugged, there are humps and bumps to be avoided, traffic barriers to be negotiated. Along one avenue I notice houses are without chimneys, verandas are shored up. Security fences surround rubble strewn buildings and empty sections, a church, a row of shops, a small factory a block of office buildings. There are so many empty spaces and I am shocked to realise that although I know some places well there are many I cannot recall.

Everywhere I see scars and damage waiting for attention. The asphalt has been patched near my house but it’s obvious it is just a temporary measure. The house of friends around the corner has buckled and all but fallen down. They will never live in it again. Down the road two lovely old Victorian brick villas have gone forever. The sections are barren apart from a couple of camellia trees. No doubt if I were to look closely I would find a clump of late bulbs that have pushed their way up through the mud, oblivious to the pattern of life woven into the framework of this space.

I am thrilled that my flowering cherry has kept a few blossoms back for me. A blackbird gives thanks from the top of a Kahikatea tree at the end of the garden, another joins in. They grow fat and sleek on local pears, my plums, peaches, olives and rowan berries, they wake me at dawn and oh how I have missed them.

The mouldy carpet has been rolled away.  I move around my house like a new mother listening out for her baby constantly alert to the slightest sound, the smallest vibration. When any repairs are likely to be carried out is in the hands of CERA. In the meantime a small lake appears in my lounge every time it rains. Rooms appear to have burst at the seams and long splits and slashes down walls of the stairwell have not been caused by the three musketeers. Outside away from where the patio has slumped, a big terracotta potted rose sits in two neat halves, severed by one of the falling roof tiles. Tiny new leaves make an appearance on both portions, I am delighted, it is one of my favourites, a pretty lavender rose.

My house has not been red stickered, I am one of the fortunate ones, my heart aches for those who have lost so much more. I mourn my local supermarket, chemist, book & post shop and bank.  Regular shopping here was hassle free, comfortable and familiar and now it has gone leaving an empty grey space. I consider all the men and women who worked here and lost their jobs and wonder where they are and if they’re okay.

A row of local shops had to be demolished, fortunately newer shops up the road are okay and they are busy. People come and go, they stop and chat. There is a shared camaraderie similar to world war two days I imagine, when the motto was ‘ Keep calm and carry on’. People are just getting on with it making the best of things they are interminably optimistic.

I listen to the shouts and laughter of children in a school playground. Watch a cheery walking group of ‘oldies’ ramble by with their hiking sticks. Note the willows along the river that looked like porridge the last time I saw it, have hung out their branches over the clear water dangling strings of new leaves to glisten in the sunshine.

I visit the botanical gardens. It is obvious the ponds will take time to stop looking discoloured and the gorgeous Peacock fountain is not working yet. I’m too late for the daffodils in the woodlands and I’ve missed the magnolias but the Azaleas and Rhododendrons are flamboyant as ever. The tight budded roses may relax when they warm up and be the show stoppers they always are, a colourful chorus of poppies sets the mood, while the herbaceous borders wait for their cue in the green room.
Yes Christchurch botanical gardens put on a great performance whatever the season.

Against my better judgement I take a drive to Sumner the place I loved most about being where I live and frequented regularly with my golden retriever. We would play and paddle on the beach between Cave Rock and the now diminished and sheared off Shag rock locally renamed ‘Shag pile’.  We would sit in the sand and dream into the horizon and go home very sandy, one of us in particular with a wet doggy smell! It is a shock to see the row of rusting containers put in place to separate the crumbled cliffs from the road. I don’t know if I will walk up the steep White Wash head road again, such an exhilarating walk with marvellous views from Pegasus Bay to the Southern Alps.

White Lights: TVNZ

My son says he has something to show me.  It is night, we drive up the hills and stop at a well-known viewing spot. We get out in silence and stare at the black hole in the centre of the city.  Lights of surrounding suburbs accentuate the darkness, I begin to cry. ‘Watch’ he says and as I do two beams of light shine out of the centre into the sky rotating slowly, ‘this’ he says, ‘is the beam of hope from the heart of our city.’


Joyce Elwood-Smith

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  • Iona says:

    Very moving and a glinmpse into the heart of Christchurch. Thank you

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  • Pam Daynard says:

    thanks for posting this, i may have met this lady here in canada her story sounds similar to a new zealander i meet in a cafe on saltspring island, she came over to get away and visit her dad! what a giggle if it was her. great story. thanks pam.

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  • Joyce Elwood-Smith says:

    Sorry Pam no it wasn’t me you met but I’m sure I wasn’t the only Kiwi seeking respite in Canada, but it would have been nice to have met you. I was staying in Vancouver and had the pleasure of meeting & making friends with a lot of lovely Canadians.

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