My already frazzled spirits sank lower as yet another voice on a telephone from distant but ever-approaching Christchurch informed me, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re completely booked out tonight.” Before I could ask if she knew of a place with a room, the line went dead as the bus took us out of mobile phone range for the umpteenth time. Thus far on my travels through NZ, fortune had smiled on me and I'd always landed on my feet, even when sleeping in a public park. However, I was about to get my comeuppance.
Drifts of wind-driven rain mixed with sleet poured out of the leaden evening sky by the time the bus deposited us on a greasy street corner in central Christchurch. The building we pulled up to had been abandoned. On either side, weeds and puddles vied for space between piles of rubble in vacant lots. The row of shabby buildings opposite looked bereft. I had a mini-flashback to a large town in Central Bosnia half-crippled by months of sporadic street-fighting. In Christchurch, even the bus passengers scurrying for the shelter of taxis and cars looked like Bosnians running for cover from snipers.
"Christ! I'm stuck in a war zone," I thought as I pulled on every item of clothing I possessed while my breath created puffs of fog in the air.
I was getting used to the idiosyncrasies of travelling in NZ: patchy mobile and wifi coverage, widely varying standards of accommodation and antiquated transport options. In NZ, inter-city buses don’t run at night. Like a stage-coach travellers in a distant time, you go as far as you can and then pick up the journey in the morning. On a good day, these characteristics add to the country's considerable charms. However, this was a bad end to a tiring day after a near-sleepless night and I was not amused.
I was to discover that after an earthquake devastated Christchurch three years ago about 50% of the city's hotel rooms vanished. For various reasons, little rebuilding has taken place even though demand for accommodation has soared. At the same time, tour operators and travel companies blithely continue to use Christchurch as a transit hub and overnight stop.
It's like sending a fly into a spider's web. You're almost guaranteed to get stuck. Naively, I tried one last call, this time to a motor park about seven kilometres away. The voice on the other end sounded concerned. Yes, he said, we have one tent site left. He suggested I catch a local bus there as they'd had to shift their business further out of town. Unfortunately, Google Maps had not been updated.
I booked the site and set off into the rain to find the central bus station. This was not easy in a city without the familiar props of tourist signs and where Google Maps directed me into vacant lots and along streets where businesses listed online no longer existed.
Nonetheless, in the midst of post-apocalyptic destruction, Christchurch could still boast a suite of serviced executive apartments. When I saw warm golden light spilling through plate glass doors, I stepped into a polished marble and chrome foyer. The desk clerk gazed at me, apparently fascinated by my black beanie cap, glistening waterproofs, backpack and wooden walking stick. Perhaps he thought I was a lost member of a Village People tribute band. He flicked a languid hand through his immaculately-styled blond hair and beamed a welcoming smile.
I asked if he had an apartment available. His pale smooth fingers fluttered over the computer keyboard.
"Yes! One left!" he said with a note of triumph.
I asked how much it would be.
He peered earnestly at the screen. "$240," he said. "With our complimentary French breakfast!"
Would he cut a deal for a stranded wayfarer, I asked.
He pouted. Corporate rules wouldn't allow that. "I might get into terrible trouble," he lisped dramatically, widening his eyes.
"And I might get into terrible trouble with Rosa if I spent $240 for a night in Christchurch," I thought as I left this potential haven for the stormy streets.
When I eventually reached the local bus station, I found that the original building no longer existed. In its place stood a temporary shelter patrolled by a half-frozen security guard from the South Sea Islands, Tonga perhaps. We were both a long way from beaches, lagoons and palm trees.
I looked at the tangle of bus routes and numbers in the failing light. My over-tired and paralysed synapses could not make sense of them so I stopped trying. Instead, I splashed over to the security guard.
"Excuse me, is there a supermarket near here?"
He reluctantly pulled the hood of his hi-visibility jacket away from a brown ear.
I tried again, through benumbed lips.
He mumbled, "Renew".
What?" I asked, wondering if this was some kind of cryptic clue game played by South Pacific Islanders.
“Renew," he enunciated with difficulty and flapped a gloved hand toward a street before pulling his hood tight. Conversation over, definitely.
I walked down the street he'd indicated. Two or three cars hissed past on lumpy tarmac. A few derelict buildings remained standing among the vacant lots like the remaining molars in a toothless mouth. Music and bright lights blared from an Irish pub, drawing young people like moths to a flame. I felt tempted to go in and sink into endless pints of Guiness but didn't feel game enough to do it, dressed and equipped like an Arctic explorer.
Shivering, I saw more lights and the words, "Renew Shopping Centre" lit in optimistic glowing letters. Aha! This must have been the clue the South Sea Islander had given me. My pace quickened until I stood bathed in muzak and fluorescence. In the supermarket, I bought enough food to get me through what promised to be a long cold night. A kindly girl behind the deli counter microwaved a fish pie for me and filled a take-away cup with hot chocolate. An older chap stocking shelves warned me against sleeping in public spaces, undercover car parks or derelict buildings. "We've got some real mongrels living around here these days," he said.
Warmed by the hot food, I retraced my steps back to the bus shelter. I stayed there until it closed at midnight. Then I wandered the streets, sliding past small gangs of drunk youths, until I found a sheltered alcove in the university campus. There I made a mug of hot tea on my stove and chewed energy bars. "Only seven hours until the morning bus south," I thought, huddled behind a cracked concrete pillar braced with rocks held within a wire frame.
Soon the cold forced me on. I walked towards the glow of street lights and along a three lane highway. The illuminated sign for a Burger King beckoned a false alarm. It was still open but for drive-throughs only. I heard raised voices in the car park. Two men with close-cropped hair started trading punches while I slipped past in the shadows.
Further down the highway, the golden arches of a McDonald's restaurant blazed a message of hope. It was worth the effort of walking there now that my options had narrowed to freezing to death in a doorway or risking a beating.
"Open 24 hours!" the sign proclaimed. I stumbled through the doors into the heady aromas of a fast-food restaurant at 2.30 AM. The combination of grease, cleaning fluid and coffee had never smelled this welcoming before.
A pudgy security guard came over. No, it was no problem staying here until morning, he assured me. "We see quite a few travellers like you."
"That's because no-one frickin' warns them to book a frickin' room a frickin' year ahead," I thought savagely and ordered us each a cup of coffee. Later, he went into the staff room to listen to the news. "It went down to 4 degrees last night. Bit of a record apparently," he said with satisfaction.
At 7.30 AM, I lifted myself out of an exhausted stupor, partly brought on by consuming a happy meal, and retraced my steps back to the bus stop. Things looked better in the morning light but not by much. Christchurch hadn't impressed me. The newspapers in McDonalds had been full of blame and recrimination: government at war with council, council at war with itself, insurance companies at war with clients and people growing ever more dispirited at the lack of positive action.
New York had had its heart ripped out by 9/11 but then again New York had had Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Where is Christchurch's equivalent? I wondered. Surely NZ can produce a person of similar stature.
The bus waited at the stop where I had been deposited the evening before. The sprightly driver whistled tunelessly under his breath as he ticked off my name.
"How was your stay in Christchurch, sir?" he asked.
"Unforgettable," I said, mounting the stairs to warmth and escape from earthquake city hell.