Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Back in the saddle: A personal journey of rediscovery

Two days after the February 22 earthquake in his city of birth, Phil Taylor took a bike ride around the ruined east he knew so well. Five years later, he went back to see how those he met had fared.

Two days after the earthquake I biked around the part of Christchurch I knew so well growing up, my neck of the woods - the east and the hill suburbs. The city was a broken mess. There were places no car could get to, but that a bike could. That story was about horror and wonder and despair and strength and unity and death and life. There were new words. "Munted" was the adjective of choice of owners whose homes were ruined. We got to know what liquefaction meant. It meant shovelling, after the earth shook itself to liquid and oozed through its pores.

Video

Last weekend's Valentine's Day 5.7 "wobble" - as one geologist described it - caused that blackish goo to surface again in a few places such as Parklands in the flat sandy east, but I didn't hear the word munted this time. Five years on, the theme is renewal. There are fleets of white vans full of tradesmen, scaffolding in all directions on the hills towards Sumner.

There are still houses to be pulled down but there is much more going up. There are scars - 185 people from 20 countries died - and the frustration of the imperfect process of recovery should not be discounted.

Five years ago, my base was my mother's house in Mackenzie Ave, Opawa. The power was on and I didn't mind having to visit the Portaloos distributed along the street. I'd flown in in darkness and woke to another world. Near the end of the street, a massive hole had swallowed cars like they were toys. Now, it's as though that never happened. The road is repaved, recurbed; order restored. It took 18 truck-loads of gravel to fill that void, resident Darren Rigden tells me.

Rigden ran from his house with his video camera that Tuesday just after 12.51pm when the city shook to hell. "There were four cars in the hole including a four-wheel drive that went to pull a car out and it just sunk," says Rigden. "It was something that you don't expect to see in your street. It was bubbling. It was a river of sewage through here."

Half a decade ago I found Martin Ward living under canvas in his backyard on Moncks Spur, Redcliffs, with his wife, the Port Hills electorate MP Ruth Dyson. Bricks were strewn about. The chimney had disintegrated. "Munted," said Ward.

An abandoned car rests in a massive hole in Mackenzie Ave in Christchurch after the 2011 6.3 earthquake. Photo / Greg Bowker
An abandoned car rests in a massive hole in Mackenzie Ave in Christchurch after the 2011 6.3 earthquake. Photo / Greg Bowker


The same spot five years on. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The same spot five years on. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Now here he is in a brand new house built on the same footprint. The old house jumped off its foundations and resettled askew in the February quake, and then was knocked right off its perch in the big one that followed that July. That was lucky, he says. "We were so unequivocally stuffed that we had the confidence to engage an architect. Those at the limbo end were in the worst position. Maybe a repair, maybe not." On such maybes, years can tick by. He and Dyson are surrounded now by houses under construction. "We have a different streetscape now," says Ward. "It's full of concrete trucks. We had in our mind that we were coming home but we weren't coming home. We were coming to a new house. It took six to eight months before it felt like a home."

Dyson was in Wellington when the fatal quake hit. With the airport closed, she got the ferry and drove through the night to arrive at 2.45am. The next five nights were spent in a tent. Then three weeks in a motel until they found a cottage near enough to return to tend their garden and chickens. They were back on their piece of dirt, in a new building two and half years later.

"It's turned me into a Cantabrian in an odd sense," reflects Ward, who moved from Wellington 20 years ago. "It's given me a connection I'd never had. It was unifying."

Nathan Timbrell walks past subsidence caused by the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nathan Timbrell walks past subsidence caused by the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Mark Mitchell


Mark Mitchell revisits the site five years on. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mark Mitchell revisits the site five years on. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Many people talk about insurance, the fights, how insurers will want to replace the rich tongue and groove kauri with a cheap option. Ward: "They are investment companies for their shareholders. It's blindingly obvious when you say it but our perception is that they are looking after us when we are the means for them to look after their shareholders. It's not a criticism, it's just the way it is."

They seek to keep costs under control and to manage the outflow of money. "You can't demolish your house until you have settled with the insurance company."

That is the situation up on Santa Maria Ave, Mt Pleasant, for the family of Annette Thomson and husband Emlyn Wright. They visit the dream family home they designed and built, walk among the native trees grown from left over seeds given to guests at their wedding 20 years ago, and tend their little orchard, its pear trees heavy with fruit. It's like mourning.

The Herald took a photo of the family in front of their damaged house in the days after the February quake. Five years later nothing has changed. "It feels like in the last five years we haven't owned the home," says Thomson, "they [insurance company] have owned it."

Over on Clifton Hill, it is a nice surprised to find Robin Judkins' home looking good. Five years ago I'd found the creator of The Coast to Coast in his broken mansion upon the hill overlooking Cave Rock and the beach where the race finished for 33 years. There was smashed glass everywhere, chimney rubble, cracks in walls. He'd feared for the fate of his 1904 kauri and rimu home with its turret and matching tree house. Now there is fresh paint and new concrete paths. It looks shipshape, but there is no sign of the indomitable Judkins.

Video

I track him down to Los Angeles airport where he is awaiting a connecting flight to go skiing in Colorado. His house was written off and he was paid, but leaving wasn't an option, he says. "It would have torn my heart out and some. I absolutely refused to leave. Four years waiting to find out what the result was. The land turned from white to green, so I knew I could live there."

The red line, as he calls it, runs through just down the hill from his property towards the cliff on Clifton Terrace. "My neighbours are all gone on the north side." For about two years he had no near neighbours. He estimates that 15 of about 300 families stayed throughout even though there was no running water or connected power. Being an outdoors sort helped. "I'd happily camp there in a shed. It's too nice [to leave]."

A large rolling rock destroyed a house in Rapaki Bay, Lyttelton Harbour. Photo / Getty
A large rolling rock destroyed a house in Rapaki Bay, Lyttelton Harbour. Photo / Getty


All that remains of the house five years later. Photo / Mark Mitchell
All that remains of the house five years later. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Judkins was one of several walking their dogs that February 22 on Sumner beach as adjacent cliffs collapsed. "We all meet up and we shake hands. It's bonding."

Ward understands. "The people you would nod to you now say hello to. Those you would say hello to, you now have a conversation with. You are more likely to drop in on someone than you were before. It's amplified all levels of connection."

At the back of Sumner I meet two guardian angels in high-vis jackets. Dione Stewart and Juan-Luc Van der Velden are rock-spotters. They spend their days scanning cliff-faces. If a rock falls, they radio a warning to demo crews working in houses just below. It's important work. Just down the road a man building a retaining wall at the local RSA died five years ago, crushed beneath a boulder.

"I've been incredibly lucky," lanky and droll Van der Velden, says. "None of the cliff faces on sites I have been on have moved. The most I have seen is a couple of puffs of dust." That, he says, is "boring".

But it's better for a job like this to be boring than exciting," he says. "Boring is safe." He drinks four coffees a day. "It takes a lot of concentration staring at those cliffs, which takes a lot of coffee."

Scope demolition rock-spotter Juan-Luc Van der Velden during his shift in Sumner. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Scope demolition rock-spotter Juan-Luc Van der Velden during his shift in Sumner. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Companies like theirs work on contract to Land Information NZ. To date, 208 out of 527 Crown-owned properties in the Port Hills red zone have been cleared, with demolitions underway on another 109 properties. Final numbers won't be known until after the Crown purchase offer deadline expires at the end of March. How many privately-owned homes have been pulled down is anyone's guess. That 339 houses (private and Crown-owned) had been demolished by January in Mt Pleasant alone suggest the city tally will be well into four figures.

We head over Evans Pass Road to where the cliff-edge road down to Lyttelton remains closed. Through the fence that blocks our progress under pain of imprisonment (and a fine not exceeding $5000), a boulder the size of a car sits on the road 100 metres beyond. I rode this climb up from Lyttelton hundreds of times. It's on what was the most popular circuit in the hills among racing cyclists who would love to have it back.

Whether that will happen has been in doubt but I learn that Christchurch City Council has called for tenders and, before last week's jolt, the aim was to make it safe to reopen in 2018.

There are people checking to see if the Valentine Day's shake has changed anything. Claude Midgley is about to fly a drone-mounted camera above the cliffs overlooking the road to gather information for a 3D model that will help those tendering. An environmental scientist, Midgley was on nearby clifftops above the Lyttelton's port when Sunday's jolt happened. "Oh it definitely wobbled. You could hear all the containers shaking. I didn't know if the rocks were going to come down. It's a lottery I suppose. All you can do is try to avoid the danger areas and move quickly when you are in them."

On these shaky isles and around this volcanic peninsula risk is part of the deal. I loved that road up from Lyttelton and so admit my bias. If it can be reopened, that would be a another significant example of a resilient city that is piecing itself back together.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 26 May 2017 20:30:34 Processing Time: 981ms