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Mount Alford

I had the whole mountain to myself. Pulling in to the little area demarcated as a car park, I was surprised to find no other vehicles, on a summer Sunday. It had even been a fairly traffic-free drive from Christchurch, along the Inland Scenic Route past the Rakaia Gorge and the bottom of Mt. Hutt, considering the tourist season is in full swing. Past the turn-off to Methven and a little further down the road, is the turn-off to Alford Forest and the road that leads to the start of the Mt. Alford summit track. Parking up next to a large field crammed full of sheep, the DOC sign marks the entrance and maps the route up.

DOC Sign at the car park

Map of the walk

 

The walk starts on private farm land where signs repeatedly note the importance of closing gates and sticking to the path. It is generally a case of follow the orange poles, but most of the track is well trodden and quite obvious. Leaving the sheep behind, the path crosses a private track and heads deep into the forest where it stays more or less for the best part of an hour. It was very muddy underfoot thanks to some recent heavy rain but the vegetation in the forest hints at frequent rainfall here, so no matter how good the weather is, this is a walk worthy of good boots.

DOC sign at the transition between public and private land

Sheep at the foot of the mountain

 

I’m not always a fan of forest walks due to the lack of view, but this forest was teeming with birds which made it a really enjoyable place to be. In fact the whole hike was really enjoyable, and the forested section reminded me of the Kepler Track in Southland. At times, the birdsong was interspersed with the bubbling of a nearby stream, which at one stage needed to be crossed. There is only a slight break in the trees where a private track cuts through, and the next section of forest was particularly boggy in places as well as having lots of tree roots underfoot.

Alford Forest

Stream crossing

Mt Alford summit track

 

Finally, there is a break in the trees, and the first proper look back over the expanse of the Canterbury Plains is possible. Whilst the clouds were high, there was almost a haze over the plains, and it looked suspiciously like the weather man had got the forecast wrong. At least the sky looked promising in the direction of the summit and I remained hopeful of getting a decent outlook at the top. Through another brief section of forest, I emerged at a gate into a field of cows who all turned round to look at me as I proceeded to hit my head on the fence whilst passing through the gate.

Ashburton River

Canterbury Plains

 

Having worked on a farm in my younger days, I feel confident around stock, but as beef cattle are handled a lot less than dairy cattle and therefore more prone to be inquisitive or seem aggressive, I could see how someone of a fainter heart would not be thrilled about negotiating a field of cows. The orange markers mark the path along the edge of the field, but I had a hundred pairs of eyes on me as I negotiated the quagmire in places. By now the sun was beating down from above and without realising it at the time, I was approaching the half-way mark.

Mt Alford behind the cows

The gate into the cow field

The cow field

 

At the top of the field and through the gate, the track very briefly follows a 4×4 track before veering off across the field and for the first time, losing an obvious route. The track is not well worn here and at one orange pole it really was not obvious where to go. As I knew I was headed up, I simply picked my own way up the hillock until I came to the next fence line where I found the next gate. On the other side of the gate was a picnic table overlooking a stunning view across to the neighbouring mountains. This would have been a sensible place to stop for a while, but I opted to push on, aware of some clouds creeping over the summit, and not wanting a repeat of Mt. Thomas a month prior.

Hiking the Mt Alford track

The 4x4 track

Table with a view

 

From here on though, it is a relentless uphill slog. The vegetation changes to a more tussock or alpine plant, and the path underfoot is quite stony. There are several alpine plants that have spines, and I repeatedly got stabbed in the leg or the hand as I negotiated my way up the slope. But the pay-off was the view which was spectacular from this point onwards, with one side of mountains visible to begin with, then eventually another side opening up as the ridge drew nearer. Finally, the lower ridge was reached, and then it was an easy walk up to the summit (1171m/3842ft).

Mt Hutt beginning to appear in the distance

Mt Alford track

View from Mt Alford track

Mt Alford summit from the lower ridge

 

Unlike other walks maintained by DOC, there is no summit sign or trig point. A man-made stone cairn denotes the top of the mountain and for 360 degrees, there is an amazing view of mountains spreading out in an arc behind and to the side, with the expansive Canterbury Plains opening up below. I spent an hour at the summit, just me and a few bees for company. Many of the alpine plants were in flower, and despite the high cloud, there was still an impressive vista to soak up. The sun teased me, threatening to break through, but it never did. Instead, I watched as clouds formed on the neighbouring mountains and swirled around and up the valleys.

Mt Alford summit

Yellow flower

View from Mt Alford summit

Mt Alford summit

Clouds building up

Alpine plants

 

In fact I was so mesmerised with the clouds that I didn’t realise how much they were building up. I had been so busy ogling the landscape and the clouds in one direction then the next, that suddenly I looked round and realised that both neighbouring mountains had been partly engulfed with clouds, and there were a cluster threatening to obscure the face of Mt Alford. With my descent purely visual based on following orange poles, I came to the sudden realisation that if I didn’t get my ass off the summit, I may lose visibility to get back down again. Supposedly, the afternoon was supposed to be better weather than the morning, but by 1.30pm, it looked the opposite.

Clouds creeping up neighbouring Mt Hutt

 

Pausing briefly to study some more alpine plants and to photograph my descent past the clouds, I made it back to the picnic table in no time at all. In the end, I needn’t have worried, because it wasn’t long before all the cloud dissipated and the sun appeared. Retracing my steps, I passed through the gate and picked my own way down the hillock before joining the cows once more. Again they watched as I passed by, and soon I was back in the forest where I came across the only two other people out on the track that day. Back through the forest I picked my way down, being ever careful of my footing, but once again surrounded by birdsong. The sun was out with gusto when I reached my car, still alone in the car park by the sheep.

Pretty alpine plant

Ashburton river

Cow & calf

Little waterfall

 

Walking at a reasonable pace, it took about 2hrs 15mins to reach the summit and about 1hr 45mins to get back down. With the start of the walk being roughly 1.5hrs drive from Christchurch, it is a very accessible and very enjoyable day trip away from the Garden City.

A Right Royal Christchurch

Eighteen months after the excitement of seeing his father, I found myself thrilled to discover that my scheduled weekday off work coincided with the visit of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge to Christchurch. I had previously been present when Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited the city, and despite not being a Royalist, nor to the pleasing of my partner, I took great thrill out of following them around the annual A & P show in an effort to get up close for a picture. It made my day to shake hands with Camilla, and the giddy child within was even more excited that my handshake made it onto the national news.

 

Fast-forward 1.5 years, and I found myself getting up early and heading down to Latimer Square at 8am to stand by a fence for 4 hours as a gathering crowd arrived. My patience was rewarded with a greeting and a handshake with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge as she made her way down the crowd, speaking to as many people as she could. She is an exceedingly pretty and amiable person, and across the walkway, her husband, the future King, William the Duke of Cambridge, was greeting the people of Christchurch too. As they made their way towards the centre of the square, they started the countdown clock for the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2015 before both of them took their turns batting with some local kids. They chatted with many of the kids as well as some cricket officials before smiling and waving to the crowd, and getting back in their car and leaving. It was a brief visit, but they left a very satisfied crowd behind, including myself.

Mount Richardson

It is a good 1.5hr drive north-west of Christchurch, to the car park that is effectively in the middle of nowhere. In February, I was still in training for the upcoming Kepler Track, and was making use of the good weather on weekends to get some walking in. I had read about this walk and was keen to get up there. In the Waimakariri District north of Oxford, lies the Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area, within which lies Mt Richardson. The track starts at the Glentui Picnic Area, a hilly grassland surrounded by bush at the end of a gravel road. By the time I got there mid-morning, there were already several cars parked up.

 

The only toilet on the walk is at this picnic area, and the typical back-country drop-toilet is well hidden amongst the trees. The walk itself starts off as a stroll through forest land, along the same path initially as a loop track that stays lower down in the valley. After a brief walk, the two paths go their separate ways and after a while, the Richardson Track starts to climb upwards. The path is rocky and uneven in places as it continues upwards, and the forest is thick, hiding away any view of how far up you’ve climbed. In February, still in summer, the wasps were everywhere. They buzzed round my feet as I walked, and flitted round my head and body as I continued uphill. This is not a walk to be done if you are afraid of wasps, at least not in the summer time anyway.

 

Eventually the trees open up a little and a first glimpse over the Canterbury Plains is seen. The path flattens out for a while in a false ridge, making a nice break from the tedium of climbing uphill. From here on in, it was fantastic. The trees were more open allowing the sunshine to beam down from above, and allowing more of a view of the surrounds. Where it hits the final incline, the path is particularly unstable – not a big deal on a good day, but worthy of caution after a rainfall. Finally the treeline broke open and I was at the summit, at 1048m altitude. The plant life was noticeably alpine, but still quite thick, and there was a slight chill even on such a sunny day. I soaked in the view whilst enjoying my lunch. The only other people I came across on the walk were some hunters who appeared at the summit at the same time as me, dressed in camouflage, carrying a rifle, and with their retriever dog in tow. This was not a typical pig-hunting dog, so I’m not sure what they were in search of, but they merely passed by and headed down the track.

 

Looking west from the summit, the Lees Valley and Puketeraki Mountain Range provide a stunning backdrop, and the mountains roll across the horizon as far as the eye can see. A few of the distant peaks had a splattering of snow following a recent cold front, or Southerly as they are referred to here, that had passed through. From the summit there are a few hiking options: return the route you came up, or continue along the Blowhard Track, coming out at an entirely different road, or splitting off from this track, down the Bypass Track to return to the Glentui picnic area. The Blowhard track started off initially through similar forest, but quickly it changed into a drier, almost desert-like soil with sparser vegetation and some steep sandy slopes to negotiate. In a few places where the soil had eroded down steeper sections and plants didn’t grow, the true path was a little bit ambiguous. In one particularly eroded section, someone has created a stone arrow to indicate where to go. When I reached this intersection, I was down in a dip and did not immediately see this sign, but on the bank it was clearer.

 

Further along the lower ridge, the view was mainly over the Canterbury Plains to Pegasus Bay in the far distance and the vague outline of Christchurch’s buildings evident through the low haze. This section is a pleasant exposed track and continues like this for some time until the tree line is reached again. Those trees near the summit contained a large quantity of Old Man’s Beard, which of all the lichen species, requires the purest of air to grow. Shortly after returning to the trees, the turn off for the Bypass track is found. This is the steepest part of the whole walk, and the reason that it is recommended to do this circuit in a clockwise direction. It is through forest the whole way down, and eventually joins up with the Glentui loop track. From the intersection, you can head back to the car park in either direction of the loop. I chose the longer route which involved a bit more incline as it looped along the embankment. It seemed a poorly worn track in this section, and at one point there was a rather large fallen tree blocking the route which had to be climbed over. Eventually, it cuts down to the river where a bridge crosses over it, and then there is a final winding climb back up to the bottom of the picnic area.

 

On various websites, I read quite a variety of times for this walk. The Department of Conservation signs can be variably generous with their guides on what to expect time-wise. I took 2hrs to summit, and completed the whole walk in 4hrs, including a lunch stop. On the DOC website it recommends allowing 4-6hrs for this walk. I enjoyed this hike, and preferred it to Mt Herbert, probably because I found it an easier walk, although the views from both are equally fantastic.

New Beginnings

As circumstances have prevailed, I have found myself making a new beginning in the city of Christchurch. When I arrived here over a year ago, I was shocked and a little bit dismayed at the state of my soon-to-be home city. Sixteen months on, and I am now proud to be a part of the city’s new beginnings whilst I strive through my own. It seems somewhat fitting to make a leap of faith with a new country, a new lifestyle, and a new partner in a place that is making itself new too, albeit after a much more dramatic upheaval than my own.

I arrived in New Zealand with no set plans of where I would end up, how long I’d stay, or how easily I’d get work. As I travelled round the North Island of New Zealand, another story to my life was unfolding, only this one was unplanned and unexpected. For this one was a love story. I had been in contact with an Aucklander, thanks to a mutual friend, who had moved to Christchurch prior to me arriving in the country. As time went on, our communications evolved into a meeting and a shared life in this changing city.

In September 2010, Christchurch was rocked by an earthquake which was followed by a series of aftershocks, the most devastating of which struck at 12.51pm on February 22nd 2011. Multiple buildings collapsed, trapping and killing people within, and bringing the city to its knees. Over the successive 2 years, the city has battled to restore order and business to the devastated city centre and crumbling suburbs amidst a mess of red tape, cordons, and dissatisfied people.

When I first arrived in Christchurch, it was an overcast, rainy day in February 2012, and honestly, I thought I’d made a big mistake by agreeing to live here. My tour guide and new partner, drove me round the edge of the ‘red zone’, the cordoned-off city centre, and out to the suburbs to show me the damage. I was shocked and unprepared to see the empty plots of land, the half-demolished buildings, and the abandoned houses overgrown at every turn. There were pot holes and cracks in the road all over the place, and streets that were supposed to be flat were full of uneven humps and bumps. Even the bridges were out of alignment.

 

Those first few months, the aftershocks were very regular and took a bit of getting used to. They varied in strength and depth, and many of the first ones were early in the morning, so I would be woken by the bed shaking gently from side to side. As time went on, I got used to the little ones, but every now and again something stronger would rock through the ground, and it was more unsettling to be sitting on the couch when the television and the balcony doors started rattling whilst the couch jerked underneath me. I haven’t experienced anything stronger than a 4.8mag aftershock, but after starting to work in the city, I regularly came across people with all sorts of stories from that day in February. Even the gentle shake created by a truck driving past was enough to set off palpitations in some people.

When I first arrived, the ‘Red Zone’ encompassed a large part of the city centre. I could see through the fences, but not very far, and having never seen the city before, I had no idea what was gone, or what I was missing out on within. I was very curious though. Looking at images on Google street view and relaying that onto what I saw in real time, didn’t help me. One of the poshest hotels in the city, the Crowne Plaza which stood domineering the corner of Durham St and Kilmore St, began to be demolished a couple of months after my arrival. Not yet having a job to go to, I spent many days at the fence line watching it being nibbled away by ‘Twinkle Toes’ the largest ‘claw’ of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. A year later, and it is hard to remember how it looked when it was entire. In its place, the large empty foot print has been converted into a quirky bar and cafe, made out of wooden palettes. At the time of writing, a large archway had just been constructed on the site too.

 

In August 2012, the Newstalk ZB building became the first, and to date, only building in Christchurch (and indeed New Zealand) to be brought down by implosion. After its neighbouring buildings were demolished, an auction was held for charity to win the right to press the button that set off the charges. It was a cold, grey Sunday morning, but myself and my partner joined the massive crowd that gathered to watch New Zealand history in the making. It was a proud building where it stood, but it took only seconds to slide gracefully to the ground in a pall of dust, its crumpled shell looking mournful where it lay. It was the most people I had seen in one place within the city, but amidst a quiet jabbering, the crowd dispersed afterwards into the surrounding streets like a mist.

 

The ‘red zone’ shrunk in little patches, each new area being filled with nosy citizens wandering in a daze through streets they no longer recognised. Many of the empty areas have become temporary car parks, and thanks to a charity project called Gap Filler, temporary art works pop up in various spaces to give colour and interest and joy to the beleaguered people of Christchurch. Where once there was a building there would appear a football pitch, or a mobile dance mat, or a sculpture, or a painting, or a square from a Monopoly board. Where once there was a business, there appears mobile cafes and takeaway trucks to offer somewhere to eat when many eateries are closed or out of reach.

 

Initially, there was no way to see inside the ‘red zone’ but in the winter of 2012, a tour bus was allowed exclusive access. On signing a disclaimer, it was possible to go ‘beyond the cordon’ and drive through the deserted streets of the city centre. It was eery, and strange. Many locals were on the bus with me, and I could overhear them discussing their sadness about one business or another being missing, or how they couldn’t orientate themselves without the usual landmarks or street names to guide them. Then we reached Cathedral Square, the biggest issue of contention with the rebuild. The Christchurch Cathedral is the iconic building of the city, and probably the building who’s future has caused the most debate. When I first saw it (albeit through a fence), the tower had lost its top. The second time I saw it, on the bus tour, the tower had been nearly completely pulled down. Before anything else could be done, the political debate had flared up so much, that the demolition was halted whilst the various parties fought it out. A year later, and there has been no perceivable progress. The experts can’t agree on the safety of the building, and the safety of a rebuild, and there are those traditionalists who want it restored brick by brick. Then there are those who want a tasteful replacement built that will be safer whilst still providing the city with an iconic building.

 

In 2013, things have progressed so much that the ‘red zone’ barely exists anymore. Most of the streets are now open to at least pedestrian access if not traffic as well. There were around 1900 buildings earmarked for demolition in the city, and now the city is a patchwork of empty ground and lonely buildings stood solitary where once it had neighbours. I can’t imagine this city in any other way, and in some little way, I feel sad that the city is to become built up again, as it is currently nice and ‘open’. Part of the plans for the rebuild involves keeping buildings capped at a 7 storey maximum, and there is to be a lot more green space created within the city limits, so I for one, hope this is enough to keep some fresh air in the place, and allow light to get into the streets below.

 

Every few weeks, myself and my partner take a walk round the city centre to see the progress and the changes. Some streets are so empty now, but finally, the hotels are starting to reopen and businesses are returning. Cashel Street was previously one of the main shopping precincts. Half of it is now devoid of buildings, and the other half has been transformed. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and its two city icons were probably the Cathedral and Hagley Park. Now, the city is famous for cranes and shipping containers. Where once the skyline was dominated by tall buildings, it is now dominated by tall cranes, and in many places, shipping containers have been collected for use in all sorts of ways. Cashel Street is one example. When there were no buildings to trade from, shipping containers were stacked together, painted in vibrant colours and kitted out to allow a shopping ‘mall’ to be created, and this is the Re:Start Mall on Cashel St. Here, you can buy food and coffee, and shop for souvenirs, clothes and homewares. On weekends, there are often street performers drawing a crowd, and it has become a popular place for locals and tourists to go.

 

Away from the city centre, the shipping containers have been used as storage, but more importantly, they have been used for ballast and support. On the road to Sumner, a beach side suburb round the coast, the cliff crumbled during the earthquake, taking homes and large rocks with it. Parts of the cliff are still unstable, and so the roadside is stacked high with shipping containers to protect road users against any falling debris. Many of these have been painted with murals to detract from the ugly reality of the container’s presence and purpose. Within the city, some of the facades of old-fashioned buildings are currently being supported by these same containers whilst the building is resurrected behind them.

 

The housing situation is an entirely different matter. Whilst, in my opinion, the city centre is progressing, the reality of suburban rebuild is causing a lot of distress. I have driven down ghost streets, where every house has had to be abandoned, or streets where only solitary houses remain where all its neighbours have fallen down or been pulled down. There are streets in the suburbs of Christchurch which look like the Apocalypse struck. The term liquefaction was a word I had never heard before moving here. Having spoken to people outside of New Zealand about it, it appears to be a little known effect of earthquakes in the general public. Most people think of the ground shaking causing cracks and buildings to fall down, but in areas such as the eastern suburbs which were built on marshland and sandy soil, they suffered another problem: liquefaction. Water-saturated sediments in loose soil fragments act like a liquid in an earthquake, and essentially push up through the path of least resistance to bubble or pour up through the ground. The result is pools or waves of silty thick liquid coating the ground in surprising depths and then drying like clay. It also undermines the ground surface creating hidden sink holes that claimed many vehicles. People had to dig out their homes and cars afterwards. The sewage, water, and storm pipes took a hit, and many people were left for months without plumbed-in sanitisation, having to empty their toilets into silos in the street, and to this day, many of the drains still struggle on a rainy day leading to flooding. The water table also shifted. Christchurch has two large rivers flowing through the region, and under the ground are multiple streams. On an aerial view of the city, you can almost map out the path of these underground streams based on the pattern of damaged buildings. In the suburbs, the river bed rose, and the banks dropped, meaning that many streets now sit below the water table. This can be seen on a drive round the streets that line the Avon river where many of the houses sit on a lean.

 

Things are starting to return to a level of normality though. Homes are being fixed, new homes are being built, and as much as buildings are still coming down in the city centre, new buildings are finally going up in their place. There are now more and more cafes, bars and restaurants to visit. Businesses are slowly beginning to return to the city centre, and whilst roadworks are still the norm, traffic is finally starting to move through the city centre again. Importantly, the tourist attractions are re-opening as well. In Cashel St is Quake City, a relatively new museum set up to commemorate and inform about the earthquakes of the region. The Gondola up the Port Hills to the south of the city reopened earlier this year, and the view from the top is amazing. On one side is the beautiful Banks Peninsula with Lyttelton harbour, and on the other is the expanse of the Canterbury Plains with Pegasus Bay, and the Southern Alps on the horizon. It is a popular site for paragliders. On the ride up, it is possible to see some of the damage created by rockfall from the earthquake, and at the summit are various walking routes to explore.

 

In the city itself, there are now various guided tours around what used to be the ‘red zone’ giving the history of the place. The river Avon offers the chance to go punting, and the magnificent Hagley Park with the Botanical Gardens are perfect on a sunny summer’s day for a wander or a bike ride. The Gap Filler mini-golf is a city-wide golf course, taking you on a wander through the city whilst playing some ridiculous holes of mini-golf, 1 of which is creatively made out of material to resemble the rebuild of the city. Outwith the city is the fantastic International Antarctic Centre, all about Antarctic exploration as well as a blue penguin rehabilitation centre, and beyond there are all sorts of parks and recreation areas such as McLeans Island and the nearby Orana Wildlife Park. There is plenty of reason to come to Christchurch, and with an ever-evolving city centre, and an optimistic blue-print planned for the new City of Christchurch, I am hopeful and excited for the future of the city that I now love and call home.

 

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