Journeys in the Sun


It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.


A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.


I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Christchurch: Wrecking Balls, Rubble and Ruined Churches


I’ve put you in what we used to call a city view room,” said the receptionist at one of two surviving hotels in the centre. The view, now, is of endless car parks where office blocks and shops used to be: big open spaces right in the middle of town.

Christchurch was a lovely city before the earthquake. Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco buildings; heritage trams clanging through the streets, punts creeping along the Avon. But you can rip a few pages from any guidebook written before 2011, because much of the heritage is history now.

The tracks which meander round the town are filled with moss, because the trams no longer run. The Guthrey Centre, Manchester Courts, the Press Building, the Civic, all gone: crushed to rubble and cleared into piles. The tremors pushed over the cathedral’s tower, knocked Scott of the Antarctic’s statue from its plinth, ripped away walls to make public the private, tumbled whole rows. It killed 185 people.


Hardly anything taller than three or four storeys remains. Much of the rest is in ruins. Collapsed roofs, crumpled facades, smashed windows; the floors of the multi-storey car park concertinaed, cellars exposed and filling with water. Dozens of lip glosses litter the floor of a ruined shop. Dummies have been flung in a mass grave.

There are old adverts for staff in the windows of bars which will never open again. The mannequins in Just Jeans are still dressed in the fashions of early 2011. Dusty posters pretend that an Art Deco block will still sell by private treaty, that a tenant is still wanted for a showroom in a “prime corner location” which stands on its own at the end of a street full of wreckage.  Traffic lights pointlessly change where no cars go anymore.

Historic facades balance precariously, propped up with old containers. The buildings behind them have been flattened. A row of Edwardian shops along High Street seems barely damaged at the front, but it is a bombsite at the rear. “Please save High Street,” reads a grubby banner flapping in the wind.  But it looks doubtful whether much of old Christchurch will still be there when the demolition is done. Everywhere you go, you hear the sickening crunch of masonry under the wrecking ball. Even the cathedral is being demolished.


Quotidian life goes on. Businesses have moved to the inner suburbs. Shops have opened in a pop-up mall built from containers stacked and painted in defiantly cheery colours. But the post-apocalyptic pall will hang over the city for years ahead.


(c) Richard Senior 2014