On my first night in Christchurch, I woke at 3.32 a.m. to what felt like an explosion. My bed was rocking, and a few things fell off the shelves. After my initial panic, I realised what it was: an earthquake, of course. The next question: what to do? Being an earthquake virgin, I had no idea if this was a big ’un or a small one — so I stayed put. I would listen to what was going on outside, I decided, and if people seemed to be panicking or moving, I’d join them. Fortunately the shaking soon subsided, so I resorted to Google. It was true. On Sunday 28 March, there had been a ‘rather strong’ 4.27 magnitude earthquake just outside town. Welcome to New Zealand.
Given where I was, I should have worked out more quickly what was going on. After a 28-hour journey, my senses of both location and time were a bit off. Christchurch is, however, well known for earthquakes — most famously the 6.3 magnitude one that flattened much of the city centre five years ago, on 22 February 2011.
Five years might seem a long time, but the effects of that quake on the city are still obvious. Wander the residential areas and every couple of hundred metres you’ll come across an empty lot with hoardings around it, where a demolished building waits to be rebuilt. The centre is the most visible reminder of 2011; modern, multi-storey buildings are under construction, and building sites surround the half-destroyed cathedral, which no one can decide what to do with. (Except Christchurch’s pigeons, which have found themselves a perfect roost.) Since many shops, bars and restaurants were also destroyed, a temporary solution exists in the form of the Re:Start mall, made from shipping containers and sitting slap-bang in the middle of the rubble and building works.
Though almost six million people pass through Christchurch airport every year, not many stay for long. On the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it’s more usually a stopping point for people travelling onwards to places like Queenstown, the adventure capital of the country (and birthplace of the bungee jump) and the gateway to New Zealand’s famous fjords, Kaikoura with its outstanding aquatic wildlife, or up to the mountainous Lord of the Rings landscape of North Island. Although the country is a similar size to the UK, the population is around four million, so there’s plenty of open road to explore. Hiring a car is the most practical way to get around — and if you rent yourself a campervan, the country is your oyster.
But that’s not what I’m here for. New Zealand is also a horse-lover’s paradise, and my trip has one aim: to sharpen up my polo before the summer starts. We’re playing at Waireka, a 40-minute drive from Christchurch, where Roddy Wood, the former manager of Guards Polo Club, has set up his polo pony training centre. Monday to Friday means all-day polo — leaving two days to get out and about. Saturday to relax on the beach where earlier this year the cliffs collapsed due to another earthquake; Sunday to drive to sleepy Akaroa to swim with the wild Hector’s dolphins in the harbour. Yes, the flight to New Zealand might be a long one — but I can assure you that it’s worth it.