Adrift on the Avon

I find myself at a loss in Christchurch. I’m here because someone I love lies in the ICU at Christchurch hospital, and I am helpless to do anything but be here. I while away the time not spent in waiting rooms or at bed side by wandering the river that flows through the heart of the city. Unlike most of my stories, this one does not have a beginning, middle, or end, merely an upstream and a downstream, as I float unmoored from time and life hangs in suspension.

My precarious existence hangs unsteadily between two banks. On the bank of past there lies a great quake, destruction, and rebuilding. There is a sudden collapse, blood on the street, and a frantic flight from Dunedin. On the bank of future, threatening, overhanging, there is an unforeseen danger, but perhaps there is also new life and new hope, though the climb seems insurmountable.

In my wandering I ventured to Mona Vale – as far upstream as I could reach on foot. Blue waters and a pair of paradise ducks on posts welcomed me.


A mysterious greenhouse is hidden in the foliage. Approach and discover that appearances deceive, and the building is in fact a bath house that would satisfy any Grecian sibyl if it were not derelict.

Mona Vale bath house
Come back a hundred years ago

Clinging to the tree trunks I note the remnants left behind by insects experiencing their final metamorphosis, exoskeletons accompanying carved initials as markers of those gone by.

Cicada casing at Mona Vale
Break through

So I followed the flow. Wending away downstream through the haven of Hagley Park, turning upon itself beneath boughs, along bright green byways, beneath blue skies, just as I turn upon myself lamenting the past and fearing the future.

Avon River passing through Hagley Park
Avon River passing through Hagley Park

I walk through the gardens, every day, from parking lot to ICU. I pause to observe the 2014 David McCracken artwork Diminish and Ascend. It’s a little too on the nose right now, and so I quickly move on.

Diminish and Ascend artwork in Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Not today

The Kate Sheppard camellia walk is not in bloom, the first settlers’ spring not running. Surely this does not mean that all hope has run dry?

Sheppard walk and First Spring, Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Sheppard walk and First Spring

Here’s the Hospital. Can I call it my Epicentre, or is that appropriation? My life revolves around this spot. I know the people here. The teenage boy who was born unlucky, who now struggles against a blood infection, the result of routine surgery, his long-suffering mum standing by. The heart attack, with elderly wife alone in the waiting room. A femoral artery cut in a farm accident, Dad all the way from the UK to sit by the bedside of his son, who looks so small in his great hospital bed surrounded by machines. The man who lost his hand to a bandsaw, reattached and now starting to work. Reconstructed he goes to another ward. A man shot by police, under guard, while a woman sobs in the waiting room, crying out why is this happening? Bedded next to my own mother he receives the same impeccable care.

Miracles and resurrections are performed as a matter of daily business. My are hopes are wound up in every cable, every portentous beep. How can they carry the weight of my expectations, my faith that they can do the impossible?

But I cannot be here always…and so I float downstream. Here now are the Antigua Boatsheds, colonial, a reminder of a place a world away.

Antigua Boatsheds
Antigua Boat Sheds

And still the current carries me along. The welcome mat is laid out to me, foreigner, visitor to this city, full of fear and sick at heart.

Avon River welcome mat
Welcome mat

Beyond the unrolled welcome mat I come to a place of reverence, on the anniversary no less. In this moment I find a time to mingle my hopes and sorrows with the hopes and sorrows of an entire city. Frozen in time we cannot foresee what is imminent, only remember what has passed.

Christchurch Earthquake Memorial

Past the memorial, a threshold. I touch the stone to reconnect with the earth, with reality. Gateways abound here, and not far beyond I find a grand archway dedicated to the past but surrounded by the stuff of the present.

Avon bridge of remembrance with lime scooter
Past and present

Yet the past is not the only thing here.

Around the bend is a celebration of light, of art, of creativity. The people of this place remember the darkness but still they bring forth the light. Is it possible that the darkness that shrouds me now is merely a shade of future light?

Christchurch lantern festival 2019
People of light

There is more life than I expected, not only the people of this city but ducks and eels and trout, which I stop beneath a willow to observe.

Lantern ducks, Christchurch
Original and invented duck

The current flows on. Downstream I discover myriad artworks and finally a place of wonder for those too young to know the sorrows that we gather as we age. Yet burdened as we are, we still build such monuments to the innocence of youth.

Margaret Mahy playground
Margaret Mahy playground

We build such places hoping that they will never have to carry the burdens we do. And yet as I stand here a great threat is gathering on that future bank. In only a few weeks the banks that I have walked time and again will become the scene of the greatest crime our nation has ever seen. I didn’t know, none of us could have.

This was the limit of my wanders, bound in time and place to the smallest of sanctuaries, the river establishing the boundaries of my existence. It was not within my power to foresee the future and I could not undo the past – my only choice was to surrender to the flow and have it take me where it would.

And so I dipped my head beneath and let it wash me away.

4 thoughts on “Adrift on the Avon

  1. John


    This is very deep; not your usual light-hearted stuff. But I know why.

  2. john dowling

    although we have never met I have an enthusiastic follower of your website from the first postings, at the start we were hoping to live in Dunedin and I started reading the posts as they bought the city and district to life.
    I am very sorry to read of your present situation and I sincerely hope that all will “come right” in the end.

  3. Si

    Your words seem to portray so well, how your situation and surroundings influenced your thoughts, feelings and mood. What an incredible gift you have. To be able to preserve such an intangible thing as a moment in time, to share or revisit. Thank you!

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