Driving the South Island of New Zealand (Part 1): Christchurch, Seals, Tents, Pancakes & Glaciers


This post is a travel update of our two-week driving tour of the South Island in New Zealand.

If you cannot see all the videos, click here to visit the post directly!

After spending months in Auckland anticipating our upcoming two week driving tour of the scenic South Island, the day was finally upon us.

This time our adventure started a day early as we had to fully check out of our apartment, fill out bond return forms, and turn over the keys.  With the formalities out of the way, we took a 45 minute bus ride out to the airport where we stayed at at the “Best English Manor Replica Motel in New Zealand”.  I love titles like that.

We got very little sleep as we boarded our 4:30 free shuttle (a van driven by the only person who worked the desk) to the airport for our very early flight to Christchurch.

I quickly fell in love with the domestic terminal of the airport as they had genuinely free internet kiosks scattered all around.  Courtney and I laughed as we noted that not once were our I.D.’s checked.  We didn’t even pre-print our tickets.  We simply went to the counter and stated our names.  Not during check-in, through security, nor when boarding did they confirm or ask for any identification. Not sure if this is standard or not, just something we talked about as we boarded.

Couchsurfing Christchurch

After landing in Christchurch, we gathered our bags and headed past the taxis and shuttle to catch the public bus into town.  We had to catch another much shorter connection in the downtown area to get to our host family’s neighborhood.  Our growth in understanding how public transport works (and Courtney’s great planning ahead) made this go much more smoothly than anytime before.

Apparently, though, our Google map reading skills could be slightly improved as we turned a 15 minute walk from the bus stop to our host house into a 40 minute walk mostly by me insisting that west was east (as we walked in the wrong direction half a dozen blocks with all our possessions).

Alas, we finally did find our target house and met our wonderful host family.  Just like our Couchsurfing experiences in the past this one exceeded our expectations.  Helen, Darren, and Maddi (5 years) were terrific hosts, with Maddi paying special attention to act as Milligan’s “big sister for the day”.

ChristchurchChessHelen and Maddi drove us into town where we explore the plethora of free museums, exhibits, and art galleries.  Most uniquely (at least for us) were several older school buildings which had been converted into artist studios.  You could walk the halls and talk with different types of artists in action, from weavers, sculptures, painters, jewelry makers, and basically anything else you could think up.  I’m assuming that the artists pay a fee to rent the rooms where they can go to work and occasionally sell a piece of their art to people who meander through.

After a day exploring Christchurch, we returned for dinner which included lentil patty burgers with lettuce, tomatoes, and mushroom picked straight from their garden (we picked up some buns, cheese, chips, and cookies biscuits for dessert at the local supermarket).

The kids eventually made their ways to bed as Courtney and I stayed up to chat with Helen and Darren about everything from traveling (they spent 6 months traveling Australia when Maddi was only 5 months old) to real estate differences, parenting philosophies, different types of schools, and funny talks about accent difference from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and different parts of the U.S.

They had also spent a couple years living in Melbourne, so they advised us on their favorite parts for our short week-long stop coming up.  Here’s a video of our ‘couch’ where we slept:

As I mentioned in the video, while many people only view Couchsurfing as a free place to sleep, we would gladly pay motel rates for the experience.  It’s not about money as much as meeting great new people, learning a little bit from each visit, and getting a first hand perspective of the city. We are looking forward to returning the hospitality once we settle down (wherever that is).  🙂

A Quick Reverse-Hitchhike & Rental Car Issues

In the morning, we said our goodbyes as Darren headed into work and Helen escorted Maddi into Kindie on their bikes.

As we were walking out of the neighborhood we had a car pull up beside us and ask us if we needed a lift to the bus stop.  It was probably only another 10 minutes or so by foot, but with our packs full and our stomachs empty we decided to accept.

Our impromptu taxi driver was an overwhelming nice New Zealand woman whom had traveled herself with her son.  In her own words, “No worries!  It’s the holiday season and it just as easily could have been me walking with wee Daniel.”

As we made the short drive to the bus stop, we noticed the bus was getting ready to pull away from the stop.  Oh well, we thought, it wouldn’t be the first time we waited another 30 minutes for the next bus.

But our new friend driving the car, wasn’t as willing to let the bus pull away before we could get there.  Heading the wrong direction, she pulled along side of the bus driver’s window…

“Hey, do me a favor and hold up a second!  I’ve got Americans in here!”

Blushing with embarrassment, we quickly unloaded our bags, unhooked Milligan’s car seat and scampered onto the half-full bus of people who had waited several minutes on us while we turned around and unloaded.

Luckily, the rental car place was a quick jolt away from our downtown bus depot.  Pulling up to the counter to check in, we were excited to pick up our car and tent we had rented for the trip.

Unfortunately, we were informed by the guy at the counter that they had just ran out of the tent/camping packages and didn’t have one to fulfill our reservation.

Baker: We reserved this several weeks ago.  How does this sort of thing happen?

Attendant: Well, it must of been a mistake on someone’s part here.  The only option is for you to drive over to the airport and pick one up from our other location.

Baker: Ugh, that’s not exactly convenient for us.  We have very limited time to drive to and see Kaikora tonight.  I guess we have no choice, though.

Attendant: No sorry, it’s our only option to get you a camping kit, today.

Baker: Well, I guess we’ll have to do that then.  Being that we rented this nearly a month ago and now we have to detour over to the airport, can you knock off a chunk of the price for us?

Attendant: Yeah, I can do something for you.  Again, I’m sorry about this.  [pause] How does $25 sound?

Baker: Can I be honest? I know this all isn’t your fault, but I was looking for a little more.  We paid an extra $150 to get the camping kit.  It just all seems like a hassle at this point.

Attendant: Umm…  well, hold on one sec.  [Pause for 30 seconds or so while continuing to type and fill out registration details]…  I guess I could get you $50 off.

Baker: That’s sound very reasonable.  I appreciate your help, man.

On one hand, I’ve been told by several people that New Zealanders are not used to giving discounts or negotiations of any sorts, so I felt a little more awkward than normal.

On the other hand, I know how they likely run out of tents they have reserved.  They probably rented it out to someone else who decided to add it on at the last moment.  Either way, we still paid $100 bucks (after discount) to rent a tent and camping gear for two weeks, so I doubt they aren’t still turning a profit on that exchange.

Kaikora and driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

I’m not ashamed to admit I was a little cautious about driving.  I didn’t know what to expect and hadn’t driven anything since being overseas, besides a glorified golf cart back on Magnetic Island in Australia.

The tension only lasted about 3 minutes in terms of driving on the left side of the road.  After my first couple roundabouts (they seem to be everywhere here), driving just became automatic again.  The only consistent issue (it still catches me even after a week) is turning on my turn signal.  At least the first 15 times I went to signal I turned on the windshield wipers. I’m about 50-50 now after a week.  🙂

The drive to Kaikora is one side of the Alpine Pacific Triangle, which in my mind there can’t be any better way to start the trip.  We quickly found out what driving through the South Island was going to be about.  100 km speed limits embedded with dozens of hairpin and s-curve signs with 15, 20, and 30 km suggested sharp turns.

The first couple of hours kept me on the edge of my seat driving, which I thought would wear off.  Well, it hasn’t. I’ve driven over 2300 kms at this point and I still haven’t gotten tired or needed music while driving.  The roads do a great job of keeping you on your toes and the constant scenic views negate the need for any other form of entertainment.

The path led us through the Waipara Valley Wine Region, up into the mountains, and finally along the stunning ocean coast line.  We arrived in Kaikora, an old whaling town, which is still famous for it’s whale and dolphin sightseeing trips.

A formal whale-seeing tour wasn’t in our budget (re: expensive as all get out), so we opted for a free walk through the small town and over to the rocky Point Kean to see the common seals of the area.

As it turns out, a couple of the seals cooperated with our travel plans.  We carefully jumped from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop to make our way out to where the seals were playing.  Milligan giggled at the large seals, although I’m fairly sure she still thinks they a just really fat ‘puppies’.


It was getting late and we still had over an hour drive to our first campground of the trip.

Hamner Springs and first night camping.

HamnerSpringsWe arrived in the small town (every town was smaller than we anticipated) of Hamner Springs right around 7 p.m.  Which just so happened to be just in time to catch the yearly ‘Santa Parade’ with what seemed to be the entire population of the town either participating or watching.

We sat on the side of the short street as Milligan danced to the group of about a dozen bagpipers.  By the time the parade ended, it was time to drive just 5 minutes outside of the town to our first campground.  It was sort of a camping ‘light’ experience as the campground was really just an open field at the edge of some housing.  We didn’t mind, though, as it was a good trial run for some of our more rural sites to come.

As soon as we exited the car to set up the tent, though, we were swarmed. I believe they are called sand flies around here, although I’m still not sure.  We would have called them gnats, however the gnats in Indiana tend not to bite you every .5 seconds.  Either way, Courtney and Milligan took shelter in the car as I desperately tried to set up the tent as dusk approached.

I figured out, either I’m a complete idiot or we are missing some pieces to our ‘camping kit’.  Either option is completely reasonable.  The end result, was a great demonstration on how NOT to set-up a tent.  For those of you, who would like a laugh, I even snapped a photo:


Taking the Lewis Pass and even more seals (much more).

We survived Milligan’s first night sleeping in the tent (it actually went very well once we shut out the insects).  We grabbed a couple kumara and cashew quiches for breakfast and set-off to drive through the mountain range via the Lewis Pass.

It was raining at this point, which at first seemed like it might ruin one of the projected best drives of the whole trip.  In reality, it was just the opposite.  The rain fully fueled the spectacular waterfalls on either side of the road and provided a great ‘haze’ to the mountains are we curved around and through them.  It was an awesome added effect.

After the mountains came the rich forest of Victoria National Park, which again were augmented by the drizzles and haze.  We made a quick pit stop in the West Coast hub of Westport, before driving to the Tauranga Bay Seal Colony.

Here a 15-minute walk enabled us to overlook a ‘harbor’ of sort for the seal colony as they avoided the rough seas.  I would say there was at least 3-4 dozens seals around the rocky outcrops, with plenty of young pups (are they called pups?) waddling amongst the rocks.  Check it out for yourself:

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & a 3-hour search for a bed

As afternoon approached, we drove a little over another hour (again through amazing scenery, this time more of a tropical coastline) to the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.

Our plan was to camp out after viewing the natural landforms, but after we were finished with our quick walk it was still very wet and rainy.  Without a ground tarp or much experience with how cold or wet Milligan could get, we elected against camping and searched the small town of Punakaiki for accommodation.


As it turns out there was a local wedding for the next day, so almost every single bed in the 4 motel/hotel/cabin options in the town were taken.  Of all four potential locations, only one had any openings:  a single $55 cabin left.  We quickly jumped on the opportunity.

As Courtney reached for the ‘Accommodation Envelope’ we noticed one big problem… we had ran ourselves out of cash!  Doh. We had our EFTPOS card (sort of like debit), but to our despair they didn’t accept EFTPOS.  The clerk said we could put it on our Mastercard (our American debit account) or run down the street to the ATM and he’d hold the room.  Since we had to get cash anyway, we decided to make the trip to the ATM.

Courtney grabbed a receipt from the clerk for the room saying he would hold it.  We made the short 5 minute drive into town to search for the ATM.  The information center told us it was in the tour booking shop.  The touring booking shop said they thought it was in the diner next door.  And finally, two people in the diner assured us that, “I’m positive there is no ATM in all of Punakaiki, we get that question all the time…”

Ugh.  No worries, we thought.  We drove back to the motel, ready to use our U.S. debit card.  You can probably see where this story is going. In the 20 minutes we were gone, they had rented away our room (despite our receipt and promise).  I decided it was best for me to go to the car, before my ‘hulk mode’ came out.  Courtney asked about other options, but there were none.

The next town was another 60-90 minutes away.  So we sucked it up and hit the road again.  Luckily, the road was awesome, which helped ease the pain of our stumbles.

I’ll save you the gory detailed, but let’s just say we found a place to sleep 3 hours and 4 small towns down the road in Franz Josef (which was our next destination, we were just around 15 hours early).  The only option that the hostel had left was dorm rooms, however one of there 2 bunk (4 bed) rooms was void of any other travelers.

It was approaching 10:30 p.m., so we decided to take it.  The bartender (whom also was checking people in) assured us he’d do our best to “put the other stragglers in bunks in the other dorm rooms.” We noted that we’d appreciate it as Milligan would be less than happy to be woken up at 2 a.m. by a drunk backpacker (and the backpacker may be less than happy to share the room with an angry Milli).

Man Vs. Glacier


No stragglers were brought to the empty bunk in our dorm room and we got some decent sleep.  As it turns out, I would need it as my morning/afternoon would consist of some good ‘ole fashion glacier hiking.

Throughout the trip, Courtney and I have decided to split up many of the more adventurous excursions that Milligan wouldn’t be able to participate in.  While we’d love to do them together, it’s simply one of the sacrifices we have to make when traveling with a toddler.  I’d hike up Franz Josef glacier and later Courtney would get to Bungy Jump in Queenstown, etc…

BakerFranzJosefGlacierThe morning guided tour (you have to use a guide to go on the glacier) had one spot left, which was perfect.  I got suited up in my heavy duty boots, trousers, waterproof jacket, sock cap, and gloves and boarded for the short bus ride to the walking path.

After the short ride, we walked for about 15-20 minutes to get to the basin of the valley carved out by the glacier.  The valley is actually now 2.2 km long, but only 100 years ago the ice filled past the point where we entered. It was a great visualization of how quickly (and massively) the glacier was retreating back into the mountains.

Rather than try to describe the entire experience, I spliced together some of the videos I took along the way.  I was unable to tap many parts of the climb, but this video gives a nice selection of what it was like.

Standing only 1km up the the glacier wall (it actually goes up 6 km, but that takes around 3 days), it was an amazing feeling. There was a slight drizzle of rain which created a light haze to view the beautiful valley below.  The stark whiteness of the ice made the greens, blues, and yellows of the terrain appear so vibrant they almost appeared to not be real.

Off to Wanaka…

With sore feet from climbing in spikes over rocks and through ice, I met Courtney and Milligan back at the tour office.  Our next campground awaited us halfway through the Haast Pass (yet another mountain/hilly pass) toward Wanaka.


We thought the best scenic views may have been towards the beginning of our trip.  After all, we had seen an amazing variety of beaches, mountain cliffs, dense forests, and sheep-filled hills.

As it turns out, though, we were wrong.

It was only going to get better and better…

photos by Courtney Baker, to see all the videos click here to visit post directly.

51 thoughts on “Driving the South Island of New Zealand (Part 1): Christchurch, Seals, Tents, Pancakes & Glaciers”

  1. I am sad I couldn’t get over to the South Island while in NZ. The weather was too bad. Looks like you are having fun and I appreciate you sharing the pictures and videos. Hope to see more

    David Damron

    1. Megan, you’d be in heaven! Every 20 feet there are these white poles with reflectors for the entire way. It makes me feel like I’m driving in a racing simulator or something!

  2. Wow! What an adventure. Looking forward to the next update. It sounds like you have to practically hold people hostage to keep their word? Or are New Zealanders just that laid back? The videos are incredible! We, too, took turns with trip opportunities and leaving the toddlers w/the other. When we lived in Italy, for instance, the three of us (Hubs, me and our oldest then 10) all got to experience Rome, but on three completely separate trips! Of course, I’d prefer to experience everything with my husband, but if it comes to not going at all because of the expense or incompatibility of young children or going without him… See ya! 😉

    1. Yeah, that’s the theory we have. We *do* get to experience a lot together, but it’s not like I could take Milli on the glacier or down 430 feet of bungie rope with Courtney. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the update Baker. I’ve been to all the places you’ve mentioned and the trip down memory lane is completely awesome, and much-needed as I slave away at my desk!

    My wife and I experienced our first real life earthquake during an intimate moment on the top bunk in 6-bed dorm room in Wanaka (rare when you’re a backpacker that can’t pay for private rooms!), so I’ll always remember that town! ha ha

    Can’t wait to hear about the rest of your trip.

  4. *sniff* You are making me homesick man…..I’m a Kiwi from just inland of Waipara on the way to Hamner….nice to see some familiar sights. Pity about your food and accom woes…..you should have jot the Pukakura Bushmans Centre just South of Hokatika and had a possum pie!!

  5. I love these travel posts.

    Funny about the windshield wipers – I had the exact same experience when learning how to drive in Oz.

    Finding accomodations on the fly can be challenging sometimes – I can recall a few times in Germany where it was very time consuming. When traveling with a child you tend to be a bit more picky.

    Great idea to split up the adventure activities – unfortunately I’ve never been able to convince my wife of this strategy which means we just don’t do fun stuff anymore. 🙂

    I was going to go to Christchurch at one point to visit my sister but I waited too long and she moved. Oh well – looks like a great place.

    1. Haha, Mike. I’m sure you still do fun things! 😉

      You should get down there if you have a chance. Tell you sister to move back and go visit her. 🙂

  6. We absolutely loved the South Island. We just got back from there too and it is one of our favorite places on earth (though we weren’t big fans of Christchurch) – now we are on to India and Southeast Asia which should be a very different experience. Fox Glacier was my husband’s favorite activity. The funny thing about the windshield wipers is that we kept messing up when we were in Australia and New Zealand and now that we are back in the states, we are having the same problem.

    1. Christchurch is above average for us, but our favorite places are coming up in the travel updates (Wanaka being one of them). 🙂

      Haha, I didn’t think about that. Now (at the end of our trips) I’m up to 90% turn signal correct. I’m sure once I get home I’ll be messing it up again! 🙂

  7. Taking 50 off was the least they could do after you reserved a month in advance.

    You don’t get if you don’t ask. I think you proved that point perfectly.

    The 3 hour trip to get to the next town – HORRIBLE. I don’t know if I could deal with that. I hope young Milli slept through most of that.

    But think of all the stories you can write. Easy is never interesting.

    1. She slept through about half and was NOT very happy with the last hour or so. She doesn’t like stopping (when she thinks she gets out) and then starting off again!

  8. So glad you made it to the South Island – in my opinion its much nicer than the North Island (I grew up in the North Island then lived in Christchurch for six years). Hope the rest of your trip goes well, I love hearing different opinions of traveling in NZ.

    1. Well, we did like the South Island much more, but to be fair we didn’t get to see most of the North Island. We went to a couple of the coast but missed out on 95% of non-Auckland areas.

      We got to see a ton of the South Island, though. 🙂

  9. Adam, way to go on Franz Joseph! The profile picture to the right is of me climbing the exact same glacier. How did you like it? For me, the glacier climb and Milford Sound tied for my favorite parts of the South Island. I tried to go hang gliding in Queenstown, but there was too much wind when I was there. I also thought about going bungee jumping, but didn’t have the guts to do it. Oddly enough I went skydiving instead. 😉


    1. I was 50-50 to whether I would like it or not, but afterwards I was 95-5! 🙂

      I’m not sure it was my absolute favorite (more on that on the next updates), but it was just about as cool of an excursion (especially for the price) than I can imagine any of the others being.

      Even only a km up the view was awesome.

  10. Reading this has reminded me of all the same things we felt when we toured the South Island of NZ in October. Can’t wait for your next post. The Haast Pass, Queenstown & Te Anau/ Milford Sound are all incredible if you were lucky enough to go there.

    Wow, that’s a long drive looking for a bed. Nothing in Hokitika either? That must’ve tested some patience!

    You definitely saw the best of the 2 glaciers. I was lucky enough to hike Franz Josef on an earlier holiday and Fox Glacier is equally spectacular and awesome, but a lot harder hiking to get up to! We were extremely lucky to climb Fox glacier on a sunny day. Have linked to some photos from our trip if anyone is interested.

    1. We went to all of them, Jonathan! They are coming up in the next two updates. 🙂

      Yeah, we choose Franz of Fox mostly because that’s where we ended up after the long search for a room. I’ve heard it’s a bit more preferable usually!

  11. Awesome. Some day, but not today, I will get there.

    Also, I once rented a car in the UK. That was a really bad idea; driving RHD/on the left had me so tense I was about to rip the steering wheel off the nasty little Vauxhall and it never got better. Even after two days I found myself still veering to the right and maintaining a death grip on the wheel and gritting my teeth.

    Oh and free hint to Yanks/Canucks: even if you’ve driven a manual trans all your life as I have, rent an automatic if driving in a RHD country. Trying to shift gears with my left hand was just bizarre. I think I’d have been OK if everything had been a mirror-image of a LHD car, but it wasn’t. Pedals are the same, shift pattern’s the same, and that just makes it all even more confounding.

    1. David, I’ve driven a manual for the last five or so years now. A little Nissan 240SX. I was reaching in the same spot and even moving my hand into the door a couple times wanting to shift, haha.

  12. Great travel writing, Baker. I never made it to the south island when I visited New Zealand due to a suddenly empty bank account after spending 6 months in Melbourne! It seems to be as amazing as everyone claims it to be…

    1. Well, assuming you’ve remedied the bank account, I suggest you add it to your plans. I was well worth the two weeks we spent (probably worth a full four)!

    1. I briefly talked to a couple people who were biking the country. That would just be insane. I’m not sure how you could do that with all the ups and downs we had. Hardcore for sure.

  13. That “Danger” sign is great.

    I wonder if buying a tent instead of renting it for $100 would have been a better choice? Or was there just not time to find a place to buy one?

    I had the same fears about driving from London to Rye a few years back. But after a few minutes and a couple roundabouts I was fine. The lack of shoulders, narrow roads and huge semis coming toward us made me slightly nervous though.

    1. We looked into it. Ultimately it was a camping kit (included a burned, a small propane tank, dishes for two, and cutlery, etc…).

      Tent’s were 100-150, but any of the camping kit crap (even though we only used about 15-20% of what they gave us, would have put us well over the edge.

      I think our best option would have been to buy one used via their own version of Craiglist here, but we didn’t plan that out far enough in advance.

      I had the same narrow roads syndrome. It seems NZ’ers have fetishes for one-lane bridges. They are WAY more common than two lane bridges. 🙂

  14. I love hearing about all the amazing people that you meet on your trips. I wasn’t able to watch the videos since I am at the office but will be returning tonight to see all the adventures!

  15. I’m a Kiwi living in South Canterbury. Great to see that you have had a great time and visited some amazing places. The drive through the west coast is stunning so I’m glad that you did it.

    Good on you for getting the $50 discount. You are correct that New Zealanders are not used to giving discounts or negotiations. A positive is you don’t have to Tip here.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t find accommodation in Hokitika. The campground there has plenty of cabins.

    I have just got back from two weeks camping in Wanaka so I’m looking forward to your next post. I love the place.

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  19. You’re not helping my wanderlust to finish my MBA program and go work in New Zealand with these kinds of pictures, Baker. Cut it out. This is going to result in more frugal living and crazy single-mindedness on my part if you don’t!

  20. Baker, I just discovered your blog and I LOVE this post. We were in NZ at the same time (we left the US on 11/14/09 and returned 12/1/09). My mom graciously took me with her on what was her big “once in a lifetime” trip and we had a blast. We started in Auckland but pretty directly drove to Wellington, not doing all that much on the north island, then flew to Christchurch and basically drove a large circle around the south island, winding back up at Christchurch. So many of your points I totally understand.

    The blinkers/windshield wipers swtiches! I can’t count how many times we both tried to make a turn and accidentally turned on the windshield wipers. Wellington was the only place I didn’t really like driving because the streets had cars on both sides with oncoming traffic coming fast at you. Mom scraped one of the left side wheel rims in Auckland and I got a speeding ticket in Te Anau, so we both had our slight run-ins with “correct” side driving.

    Mom decided she didn’t want to actually climb on a glacier (glay-sere, as the Kiwis pronounce it), so although we walked out to the base of Franz Joseph, we instead flew over the mountains with Scenic Air (ours was not a cheap trip, thankfully mom paid for most of it).

    Didn’t get to Kaikora but did go to Akaroa (east of Christchurch) and took an interesting harbor tour there. I’d love to swim with the dolphins but didn’t get a chance to on that trip. And seals sure do blend into the rocks, don’t they? They’re naturally camouflaged.

    And the drive down Highway 6, in between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, was just pure heaven. We had perfect weather and constantly had to stop and get out and take pictures and just enjoy the scenery. I have a few pictures from the trip on my flickr stream if you’re interested.


  21. Great to hear about your trip downunder. Sorry about the crap service re rental car and hotel. That’s certainly not the norm in my experience. You’ll have to come back and explore the North Island so many cool places to visit. You can couch surf at mine in Welly (Wellington)

  22. Not sure if my previous post worked. Maybe it’s being moderated.
    And I’m sorry to say Christchurch is not the city you saw in 2009. 🙁

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