In 2018 I did a travel writing course through Massey University. One of our assignments was to take public transport somewhere and write about the experience. I chose the Christchurch Red Zone.
Gone to the Dogs
Do you remember? Before the city was broken? The girl in front of me is speaking to her friend as they cross the street. Half her life has been spent in this cracked city, where the children learn the turtle pose in school to protect their heads from falling debris, and can estimate the magnitude of the most recent aftershock to the nearest decimal point. I wonder if she remembers some golden age of childhood, before all the heart-pounding minutes spent huddled in doorways or under tables in a shuddering house shuddering. The girls turn right into the echoing expanse of the bus exchange and I turn left. I’m catching a bus to the Red Zone, part of the city that has been literally wiped off the map.
Each of the patches now coloured red on the map was once just another scruffy Christchurch suburb, neither notably rich nor poor. There was nothing particularly distinctive about them except their proximity to the endless loops of the Avon River, which showed in their names: Avondale, Avonside, Wainoni (a bend in the stream). The streets were lined with neat grids of modest three bedroom homes with 20-year mortgages, seemingly solid and stable until the earthquakes shook thousands of years’ worth of riverbed-silt to the surface to mix with raw sewage from fractured pipes and turn the ground to grey porridge. The process is known as liquefaction, but in the local dialect the word became a noun. It swallowed up cars and burst up through the floorboards of houses. 300,000 tonnes of the stinking muck was dug up and trucked away. The ground, now half a metre lower in some areas, was deemed permanently unsafe for housing. The government bought up whole suburbs, and the demolition crews moved in. They ripped out the houses and the driveways and the fences, put wire fences around each neighbourhood, barriers on the broken streets to stop people driving in, and began mowing the grass as it merged into one vast lawn. These days the area is visited largely by fruit foragers, late-night fly tippers, and makers of low-budget post-apocalyptic zombie web series, but suggested future uses for these 600 boggy hectares include a lake for water sports and white-water rapids, an urban sheep farm, a bio-dome (similar to the Cornwall Eden Project), nature reserves, tiny house communities, market gardens, orchards and amphibious housing. For now, the land stands empty.
I have the orange bus to myself on this late-winter morning. It heads east under a sky the luminous blue of a Grahame Sydney painting, passing half-demolished buildings and a collapsing mansion. A hand-painted sign in a community garden announces in red that these are Natalie’s leeks. A corner dairy is a sudden punch in the eye, decorated in panels of orange and purple and green. The bus deposits me beside the river, swollen here to many times the size of the scenic stream that decorates postcards in the inner city. Rowers race upstream, and a flock of Canada geese bob in their wake. A whitebaiter arranges his nets at the water’s edge.
I cross a bridge over the stream that runs under the road to feed the river. The stinking water is the colour of milky coffee. My plan is to follow the trail that leads around the southern side of the Horseshoe Lake nature reserve. According to my map, this trail starts right here beside the stream, but there’s no sign of it, just a little swamp, full of bulrushes and clumps of reeds. Mallard ducks paddle through pink pondweed and blue pukekos stand on tiptoes to watch me pass, flicking their tails. Signs on the boundary fence warn me to beware of ‘Seasonal Water Pooling’. I turn down a side street past the barriers erected to stop motorists—largely ineffective, judging by the deep muddy ruts around them—and take the first side street that leads toward the lake.
The streets are lumpy and uneven. Holes the size of a child’s paddling pool have been roughly patched. Remnants of the original footpath appear in patches through the grass. Rabbit scrapes and droppings are everywhere. There’s a gap in the trees at the end of the street. Through them, I find the tail end of the lake. Despite not being far from a busy road, it’s deeply quiet here, with only the sound of trickling water and a distant bellbird to break the silence. The part of my brain that is always looking for a place to dump a body wakes up and starts taking notes. If there ever was a trail here, repeated flooding and fallen trees have completely obliterated it. I squelch back to drier ground on Alice Street, followed by a pair of squeaking fantails. All the streets still have their signs, although no-one is here to read them. There are 30 km speed limit signs, on streets no-one is allowed to drive on, and Neighbourhood Watch signs for a neighbourhood that is long gone.
At first glance you might mistake the residential Red Zone for a huge park, where the trees and shrubs were planted by someone with an odd fetish for straight lines. This is all that remains of suburbia when you take away the houses and the fences: the lines of trees that used to mark the boundary of each section. The residents of Alice Street seem to have been very fond of pink camellias. Also pink blossoming plums, and pink flowering cherries, with an occasional splash of rhododendron red for variety. I’m admiring a bank of Agapanthus so indestructible even the demolition crews couldn’t break it up, when the dog materialises on my left. The huge Rottweiler plants his feet and growls at me. His humans are calling him, but they’re blocks away. They’ll be of little use if this monster decides he wants a new chew toy. I greet him cheerfully and avoid eye contact. With a parting growl, just to let me know whose territory this really is, he turns away. I head in the opposite direction.
Down the end of the road a pair of Paradise ducks are swimming in a pothole pond. They begin a duet of honking alarm calls, heads bobbing. I assume this is due to my approach, but the ducks are more observant than me. An Alsatian suddenly streaks out of the bushes and charges the ducks, who take to the air. The dog continues down the road after them at an incredible speed. A pair of plovers join the ducks to fly in circles and scream insults at the dog below. I change direction again and go cross-country this time, walking over the undulating rectangular depressions that mark the ghosts of houses.
I don’t have to try hard to imagine what these streets used to look like—I have a time machine in my pocket. On Google Street View it is the winter of 2012, six years ago. After the quakes, but before the demolition. The houses still stand, but they’re mostly empty, curtains open so you can see straight through the empty living rooms to the backyards. Blue pipes run along the footpath, delivering the emergency water supply. The sky is overcast, the street half flooded. Maybe the camera car didn’t want to drive on through the water, because a few metres further on, the image jumps back to the summer of 2007. Now there are cars parked on the street. The lawns look in need of water. Crimson roses bloom in the front gardens. A man is up a ladder, painting his house. Nobody here has any idea of what is to come. And there, at the end of the street is the entrance to the trail I’ve been looking for, a paved path lined with toetoe and tussocks. I look up from my phone, and the trail vanishes, buried under encroaching swamp and an impenetrable layer of bush. A couple more hellhounds are approaching fast, big black beasts, barking and snapping at each other. It’s time to leave this land to the dogs. I back away, trying not to look like fleeing prey.
After all that underpopulated space, the mall just a few blocks away seems to heave with people. I sip hot chocolate and study the map on my phone, looking for another piece of red zoned land to explore.
“Are you kidding?” the girl at the next table says to her brother. “It’s no good asking me for directions. Until I was ten I thought Australia was the capital of New Zealand.” My phone abruptly loses its connection to the coffee-shop Wi-Fi. The map on the screen now covers large sections of the neighbourhood in blank beige terra incognita. I give up on further exploration, and run to catch a bus back home before the streets around me completely unravel.