Restart Christchurch

CLOSE UP: Cycle tourists get to feel the vibe of what’s happening in the ‘exciting new city’.
CLOSE UP: Cycle tourists get to feel the vibe of what’s happening in the ‘exciting new city’.

Spring bulbs and crystal-clear water on the Avon make Central Christchurch look fresh as we saddle up for a cycle tour of the resurgent southern city.

But chirpy actor and cycle guide Glen Tregurther leads five curious pedallers away from the pinstriped Antigua Boatsheds with a warning: you will be shocked.

Revisiting quake-torn Christchurch is a poignant and moving experience, a realisation of the devastation caused by the earthquake two years ago.

But Glen promises to show us the spirit of the rebuild, the exciting creativity that will create "the world's most exciting new city".

We're all safely in costume: "Safety orange is the new black around here," says Glen, and, from under the bike helmet he was pleased to be wearing during the massive February earthquake, he spouts the contemporary history of the restart.

The grey stones of the gothic Arts Centre are swathed in scaffolding as masons repoint the three-storey walls and prepare the pitched roof to receive its witchy turret - now parked on the grass verge as if it's queuing to see a play.

The 120-year-old buildings, mirrored across the road by the halls of Christ's College, look defiant and strong.

So, too, does the massive, curving glass facade on the Christchurch Art Gallery. Although it survived the shakes, the building is still closed, its collections stashed in safe havens around the city.

It's easy to see the hope in these solid structures, but every sightline leads to a block of rubble, a pitted tilt-slab concrete wall, a burnt-out villa or a weedy jungle devouring a building's carcass.

"It's amazing how fast nature colonises a wreck," says Glen as we roll to a halt across the river from the red-stickered brutalist town hall, once the pride of the city, now threatened with demolition.

Ivy, grasses and weedy vines sprout from its riverside brick terraces and climb the concrete cubes. "We hope we can at least save the auditorium," says Glen.

His personal stake in the rebuild - as a native and an agitating citizen - enthuses his touring clients, and he leads a snake of orange cyclists around the streets most days, often twice a day. "It lets you smell and hear and see the red zone from street level. You can look in the windows and talk to the people."

The chunky white bikes are easy-pedalling 18-speed comfort- saddled cruisers, agile enough to negotiate curbs and cracked pavements and scoot around hurricane-wire barricades.

In a city where GPS is useless - road closures and detours change daily - touring on a bike is the perfect way to cover the ground and feel the vibe.

Past the blue Pallet Palace and the soaring sculptural laminated wood market arches, coffee carts and pop-up diners fuel gangs of workers throughout the 9-square- kilometre "munted zone".

Some have sprouted pebbled gardens and outdoor furniture and they're humming at smoko time. In other spots, micro-churches and contemplative spaces offer refuge and a spot for reflection.

In Peterborough St, at the site of the old convention centre, we pause at the Temple for Christchurch, an intriguing amorphous mass of planks and beams that's taking the shape of a . . . what?

"The Burning Man folks are creating this massive sculpture out of salvaged wood to commemorate the first quake to hit Christchurch - September 4 three years ago," says Glen.

"Once it's built, it's off to Motukarara Racecourse to be ceremonially set ablaze and burned on September 21. Awesome!"

St Luke's labyrinth is a circular maze created from 185 bricks - one for each life lost - on the site of the church of the same name.

"There's the old church," says Glen, pointing to a pile of rubble behind.

Standing nearby like a burning bush is a massive plane tree, its trunks wrapped in orange safety material and glowing like a beacon of hope.

Peter Majendie and his wife Joyce are behind the Christo-like creation, and part of groups of artists such as Gap Filler, Arts Voice and Life in Vacant Spaces, who are kickstarting the creative life of the city.

Majendie is also the creator of the stark and poignant 185 Chairs - a collection of white-wrapped seats of all shapes and sizes; a baby's carseat included - that sit vacant, staring at the Cardboard Cathedral.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's paper and polycarbonate supertent is open to all denominations and started holding services a fortnight ago.

We pass the Isaac Theatre Royal, the dome-topped spiritual home of acting knight Sir Ian McKellen, who has managed to raise the more than $10 million the renovation will cost.

It's a slip around the corner to another theatrical set - the Portmeirionesque New Regent St's pastel mission facades.

Next to the cafe they designed, the creative designers behind Rekindle are producing furniture and jewellery and toys from salvaged recycled timber and, with more than 1000 pieces sold, Juliet Arnott's social enterprise has become a recognisable style icon for the rebuild.

At the end of the ride, it's time to find a hot feed in one of the city's eateries - Bodhi Tree or Tequila Mockingbird - but they're full to bursting.

It's a great indicator that the city is on the mend.

The writer travelled courtesy of Heritage Hotels and Christchurch City Bike Tours.

The Dominion Post