It was all going right until it all went wrong.
There had been some close calls, but so far I had managed to avoid falling into the tea brown depths of the Avon River.
But this was it, I was going in.
The kayak was listing to the left and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Time slowed and then I was fully submerged in Christchurch’s main river.
It was cold and dark. I slipped out of my kayak like a newborn and burst to the surface, gasping in shock at the cold.
And then I started laughing. Standing up to my knees in water near where the river curves beneath Barbadoes St in the Christchurch city centre.
Why was I doing this?
I was wading and kayaking the length of the Avon, from its source in a suburban backyard to the windswept Estuary, to gain a unique perspective on Christchurch from the river that runs through it.
Myself and photographer John Kirk-Anderson waded the first 9 kilometres from the source to Mona Vale on the western edge of the city centre over about six hours on the first day, then kayaked about 22km through Hagley Park, the broken city, the residential red zone and the Estuary beyond for about six hours on the second.
It was an up close and personal exploration of our river. A little too close at times.
On our journey we would discover a secluded and secret rural idyll, a city that had withdrawn from the river’s banks and a suburb transforming into a wilderness. We also found a gun.
The Avon River is central to Christchurch identity. It coils around Christchurch’s pioneer past, troubled present and uncertain future, telling the story of a city as it flows.
In the past, Canterbury pioneers built their homes on its banks. Recently the river has shaped the city’s fate through the floods and earthquakes, while in the future the river may help regenerate the city centre. The river was also important in pre-European times with two large Maori settlements on the banks of the Otakaro in what is now the city centre.
But, given the river’s central role in Christchurch life, it was hard to find the source of the river. On Google Maps, the Avon stops at Peer St just west of Ilam Gardens. But the true source was further west.
The river starts its journey to the sea in an underground concrete pipe. It originally emerged from a spring near Russley Rd, but was diverted underground during the construction of a new subdivision in the 1960s. The river now appears above ground for the first time in a suburban backyard on Nortons Rd in Avonhead. The pipe is about the circumference of a bin lid and emerges into a narrow creek about a metre wide.
The small unassuming creek winds through a couple of backyards and then passes beneath Balrudry St in a thin pipe. We started wading the river from where that pipe emerged into a small pool. At this early stage, the river is sometimes so narrow that I have to turn sideways just to make it through.
The river is crystal clear and is overhung by mature trees, bamboo and ferns.
Within moments we find ourselves in a secret world.
The canopy forms a small serene chapel animated by the sound of birdsong and rippling water. The sun dapples the water through the branches of willow trees.
The only indication we are standing in the suburbs of a city is the faint hum of traffic.
Then we come to our first road tunnel. In its early stages, the river passes beneath roads in narrow tunnels that you can walk through if you hunch over.
The tunnels are long and dark. I can hear cars thudding above. There are pools of light made by narrow shafts in the roof of the tunnel. You look up them and realise you are peering up through a street drain.
On the road above, you could easily cross the Avon River without noticing. We see pedestrians above us, chatting away to each other, utterly unaware of us and the river beneath them in the undergrowth.
This stretch of river runs from just north of Yaldhurst Rd to just east of the University of Canterbury campus.
It is a secret urban space, detached and hidden from the hustle above.
But there are still signs of the real world down here in the river. Even at this early stage, there is pollution. We see the odd empty blister pack, fizzy can or pen in the river.
We also find a gun sitting on the sandy riverbed, perfectly visible through the crystal clear water. I reach in and very carefully pick it up, but it turns out to be just a plastic BB gun.
The houses here are set back from the river, often turning their back on this little stream. A small ornamental bridge is sometimes the only sign of a domestic presence above, through the trees.
But the mood of the river changes when we pass beneath Waimairi Rd heading east and enter Ilam Gardens. The river is less secluded and starts to get a little wider and deeper.
This is one of the river’s first public moments. There is a weir, an ornamental mill wheel and the restored Ilam Homestead in a parkland setting. Ilam Homestead was where Juliet Hulme lived in the 1950s. Hulme and her schoolfriend Pauline Parker bludgeoned Parker’s mother to death in 1954. The friendship and murder was portrayed in the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, which was shot in this home. We pass beneath the wooden footbridge that also features prominently in the film.
Then, we pass through a slippery concrete pipe and emerge onto the university campus. Tight suburbia gives way to wide lawns and looming modernist concrete.
But there is still no activity on the riverside, just the deserted and cordoned students’ association building and distant concrete buildings. Students walking between lectures above pay no heed to the river below.
There are signs that the river is sometimes used by students. We pass the scaffolding that is used every year by civil engineering students in a competition to build a bridge across the Avon.
Once we pass out of the university campus and beneath Clyde Rd, the homes engage with the river for the first time. There are small islands populated with trees and ferns, a weir and little rowing boats moored at riverside decks. Swallows’ nests are tucked beneath wooden access bridges.
A couple open their back door to talk to us as we pass. Bruce and Karilyn Smith have lived on the banks of the Avon for 18 years. They are the first people on our journey to have noticed us in the river.
‘‘It is beautiful. We really love it. We love the setting. The fantails and the ducks and the eels. It’s like living on the West Coast, but you are in Christchurch,’’ says Bruce Smith.
‘‘Our grandkids love coming here to feed the eels. There are eight or nine eels. We feed them KFC chicken bones.
‘‘We see students floating past sometimes in tractor tyres and blow-up things for 99 cents from The Warehouse. You hear them coming.’’
A little further down the river, retired academic Kip Powell is tending his garden.
‘‘It is just an amazing thing to live by the river,’’ he says with a smile.
‘‘People say: ‘Don’t live by the river, you will have water rats.’ In 50 years, we have seen two water rats.’’
‘‘It is a major plague,’’ he jokes.
This domestic pride in the river seems fitting as just a little further along is one of the first homes ever built in Canterbury.
Deans Cottage is the oldest remaining building on the Canterbury Plains, built in the early 1840s by early pioneer brothers William and John Deans. They eventually developed a successful farm around this small wooden cottage.
When William Deans first sighted this spot while navigating up the Avon, he shouted: ‘‘That will do for me! I will make it my home.’’
It was the Deans who named the Avon after a river that ran through their Scottish farm.
The location of the cottage shows that the river was important from the start.
Further downstream, the Deans’ cowsheds still stand on the riverbank in the grounds of Christchurch Boys High. The drainage system for the school’s cricket and football pitches was installed by the Deans for their farm.
At Mona Vale we take off our waders and get into kayaks. We board our kayaks from the green riverbanks of Mona Vale, having carried them from the nearby car park. The Avon widens considerably at this point and becomes the familiar river that winds through Hagley Park and the city centre.
Beneath the Rolleston Ave footbridge, we encounter three workers in orange waders. They work their way up the ankle-deep river, cutting weeds from the riverbed and letting them drift downstream to be caught by their nets.
They are engaging in a battle as old as the city itself – to keep the river free of weeds.
In 1866, the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society wanted to rid the Avon of watercress so they could introduce trout. At one point the society considered introducing water buffalo to the Avon because of their ‘‘docility, great strength and superior quality of flesh’’. It was a simple plan – the water buffalo would eat the watercress and then we would eat the water buffalo – but it never caught on.
On this stretch of river, we can feel the vibration of rebuild work in the city to our left. But before we head into the city, the river takes a detour on a loop through Hagley Park.
This is a familiar stretch of water where tourists enjoy the river, and ducks and shags skitter along ahead of us. It is another public moment for the river and a rare stretch where the Avon is celebrated and enjoyed.
We turn the corner from the park, pass the Antigua boatsheds and enter the city.
Immediately we are confronted with a large orange digger in the middle of the river. Even the Avon has the equivalent of roadworks.
This is the construction of the Avon River Precinct, a 3.2 kilometre stretch of walkways and riverbank landscaping that will eventually stretch from the boatsheds to Bealey Ave. A pilot stretch of the park, along one block near the hospital, is already complete. It is part of the Government’s plan to stimulate private investment in the city centre by building an attractive new public space along the banks of the river.
The Government is looking to projects like the High Line park in Manhattan, where US$150 million of investment in a new public space on top of a former elevated railway line attracted US$5 billion of private investment and lifted local land values.
About four kilometres of river and more than 170 years separate this project from the Deans Cottage, but they are united by the significance of the Avon to Christchurch.
We drag our kayaks along the riverbank to get around the digger and re-enter the river further downstream. The city centre feels very different when viewed from the surface of the Avon.
The Bridge of Remembrance looms imposingly from above. As does the bare steelwork of a new building being built on the corner of Gloucester and Cambridge Tce. The world is framed by tree limbs, the riverbank and the underside of bridges.
The birdsong has been replaced by the diesel hum and clang of the rebuild.
Floating through Victoria Square, you can feel the sense of abandonment. The silent hulk of the Town Hall, with its contorted steps and dirty windows, passes in eerie silence. Victoria Square was once a hub of activity for the city. In the past, it was a popular watering spot for horses. Photographs from the 1930s show circus elephants having a wash in this stretch of river. A great crowd of people in hats are enjoying the spectacle. Today, there is no-one in sight.
As we pass the remains of the band rotunda near the Manchester St bridge, we get a sense of how many riverside buildings were destroyed in the earthquake when land slumped towards the Avon.
There is a fringe of empty land and the remaining buildings seem very distant. Crooked park benches sit empty behind hurricane fences.
The pioneers that built this city, but did not live to see it fall, are buried in the nearby Barbadoes St Cemetery on the banks of the Avon. It is the oldest cemetery in the city, established in 1851. Its location is another sign of the Avon’s importance to the pioneers.
But the significance of this part of the river goes back to before the arrival of Europeans. A Maori settlement, Otautahi, existed on present day Kilmore St where the fire station now stands. It was one of two settlements in the present day city centre. Another settlement, Puari, stretched along the Avon from Bealey Ave to Victoria Square.
Pauri was a Waitaha settlement and had a population of about 800 people at its peak between the years 1000 to 1500. Later, the Ngai Tahu iwi did not settle on the banks of the river, but would camp there to gather food. Eels (tuna), flounder (patiki), ducks and whitebait (inaka) were caught during these trips.
During the Ngai Tahu period, Maori who lived near the river were known as O Roto Repo, or swamp dwellers.
More recently, the stretch of river near Barbadoes St is where I fell in. We were relaunching our kayaks into the river after a break, but I lost my balance and fell in headfirst.
I accidentally swallowed a mouthful of the cold water. It had a slightly metallic taste.
But, after emptying the water from my kayak, we paddle on and soon pass under the Bealey Ave bridge and into the residential red zone.
The mood changes again. We pass a bare patch of land on River Rd where one of the oldest homes in the residential red zone once stood. It was built around 1856 as the main home for a 40-hectare farm. It was demolished last year after repeated arson attacks.
Deeper into the residential red zone, it feels desolate. We glimpse jagged rooftops of burnt out buildings over the temporary gravel floodbanks. Dead trees overhang the water at strange angles. Empty homes with broken windows await demolition.
We hear the distant clank of demolition machinery, but there is little activity on the waterfront.
From the early years of pioneer Christchurch, people built their homes on the banks of the Avon. It was the Kiwi dream.
In 1854, the headmaster of Christ’s College, Rev Henry Jacobs wrote a poem about the Avon.
‘‘I love thee for thy English name, but more
Because my countrymen along the shore
Have made new homes’’
The people who lived in these red zoned suburbs were continuing that tradition.
But now we are floating through a broken dream.
This is a suburb slowly becoming a wilderness. This stretch of the river could be returned to nature and become a beautiful reserve. We can feel the potential as we paddle through this strange landscape.
As the river bends into Kerr’s Reach it is striking how much it has changed on our journey. Yesterday, the river was ankle deep and so narrow I had to turn sideways to pass through. Now, it is wide, deep and windswept. It is about 100 metres across, slow moving and populated by shags, heron and geese.
This stretch of the river is manmade. The Kerr’s Reach cutting was made in 1950, straightening out a loop in the river that still remains around Porrit Park.
The course of the river was also altered further downstream near Pages Rd, where a loop was cut out of the river in 1858 to make it easier for goods ships to navigate upstream. In 1908, the remaining loop of the river was filled in and the land soon passed into council ownership and is now known as Withells Island Reserve.
It is at this point in the river that we start to feel the presence of the sea. The water starts to smell brackish, and there is tidal mud and reeds.
Just before the river broadens out into the Estuary, there is a large island on our left. This is Naughty Boys’ Island. The name may sound lighthearted, but it has tragic origins.
In April 1961, Frank Raymond Murray, 12, and Peter Edward Leary, 13, were playing on the island, digging a cave in the soft sand. When the cave collapsed, they were trapped under the sand and suffocated. The Press report on their deaths states that it took an hour to recover their bodies from the sand.
The island is not a welcoming place. It is a chilly expanse of slippery tidal mud, dark reeds and flotsam stranded in the last high tide. Even without its dark past, it is a bleak place.
From the island we pass beneath Bridge St, one of the largest bridges on the Avon. The large concrete structure is being repaired and, like many bridges on the Avon, wears an armour of scaffolding.
Beyond Bridge St we enter the wilds of the Estuary. We aim for the jetty in South New Brighton Park and make one last push over the wild, churning and wind-rippled waters of the Estuary.
Eventually, my kayak hits the sand and our 30 kilometre journey is over.
What did we learn on our journey along the Avon?
My exploration of the Avon was fully immersive in that I became fully immersed in the river. And what I learnt is that the river, while very cold, is a beautiful part of this city. It is a vale of trees that winds its way from one end of the city to the other, touching on many places that are important to Christchurch people as it flows.
But the river’s current relationship with the city is troubled. Our journey revealed how great stretches of the river are largely neglected and ignored.
But there is hope.
The rebuild is an opportunity to celebrate the river once again as an important part of our city.
Two projects could point the way – the project to revitalise the riverbank in the city centre and proposals to turn the residential red zone into a riverside park.
Imagine a riverside walkway stretching from the western edge of Hagley Park to Bexley. It would ensure that the river remains central to Christchurch life and helps the recovery.
It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.
Words: Charlie Gates; Photos and video: John Kirk-Anderson; Interactivity: John Harford.
Christchurch City Libraries’ Ti Kouka Whenua website.
From the Banks of the Avon. The Story of a River by Robert C Lamb.