I wrote this piece while I was staying in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the week before the February 2011 earthquake.
On my first morning in Christchurch I spotted the familiar and unmistakable shape of a London Transport red double-decker, and booked a tour that afternoon. My friend Doug, who likes buses, would have been miffed not to ride on the roof-box RTL that I’d seen; I rode in a common-or-garden Routemaster, but I’m easy to please and a red bus is a red bus. I’m only concerned that it has a top deck and windows that open in hot weather.
The conductor, for so he called himself though he didn’t ring the bell or shout “Hold tight”, was Paul, who quickly entered my pantheon of tour-guides I wish to emulate. He was adept at the fortissimo bonhomie required by cruise-groups and loud American ladies who chirp and squawk fit to drown the PA system. When they stopped talking and listened it was quickly apparent that Paul knew his way round Christchurch, and that his presentation was as sharp as a pin. He could fill in time when stuck in traffic, yet never missed a cue to point out sites, and if he said look left he meant left not right.
The bus company is aptly named Hassle-free Tours [www.hasslefree.co.nz]. The logo and web-address on the side panels of the Routemaster use the elegant, authentic London Transport Johnston font. It’s a quality outfit: the entire fleet runs on biodiesel fuel from restaurant cooking-oil.
As an introduction to Christchurch the itinerary was ideal – a quick spin round the city centre for orientation, a walk in the park to Mona Vale Mansion (designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison 1899-1900), a walk in another park to Riccarton House (1856 onwards) and the transplanted Deans Cottage, the successive homes of the Deans family who first settled the site of Christchurch, and a look at the Riccarton Bush, a preserved area of the vegetation that filled the Canterbury Plain before the Deans tamed it, now used as a kiwi nursery.
Then the bus headed out of town for an ice-cream at the seaside resort of Sumner – Christchurch’s answer to Bondi Beach (though no-one with sense would surf around Cave Rock).
And then Steve the driver came into his own as the bus crawled up the precipitous road over the Port Hills to the port of Lyttelton, where cruise liners sit alongside the wharves from which west-coast coal is loaded for shipping to China, Japan and South Korea.
There’s no finer introduction to Christchurch and its surroundings than the precipitous ride back over Mount Pleasant Road, savouring the views from the top deck of a vehicle built to chug down Oxford Street, driven with care and precision and much horn-sounding on the hairpin bends by Steve.