Christchurch is a city of contrasts, as some stretch their legs with smiles and others with suspicion. David Williams reports

It was no surprise it happened in Christchurch’s student quarter.

The smiles of those standing at their gates in Ilam Road broadened as a baby kayak strapped to a skateboard emerged, powered by what looked like a modified broomstick handle.

Noting his crowd didn’t have time to fish out their phones on the first pass, the craft’s long-haired, shirtless skipper tacked, but capsized.

The skipper makes his second pass. Photo: David Williams

“It doesn’t turn too well,” he muttered, instinctively blaming his makeshift vessel. He dismounted, righted the kayak and turned it around.

Anticipation built as the commander trimmed his straps. “Don’t laugh!” he bellowed at the nearest onlooker.

After a brief tangle with a bush he was away, some light relief in a locked down southern city – although care was taken not to burst any social bubbles.

Curletts Rd, near Wigram. Photo: David Williams

Newsroom’s afternoon cycle revealed city-dwellers fell largely into two camps.

Many passers-by, especially those with young children, were happy to give a nod, a wave, or even a friendly “hello”. Smiles from scooters and skateboards. The East Coast wave.

Others, however, mainly those walking alone, sank deep into their bubbles. They were happy to eye you suspiciously from a distance, but when nearer – let’s say within five metres – they looked straight ahead, stoically, as if the virus could be transferred by gaze alone.

One pedestrian sidestepped off a wide shared pathway when your correspondent’s bicycle was deemed a little too close. Cloaked in distrust, and a thick coat despite the afternoon’s warmth, he said not a word, keeping his head down.

State Highway 6, which skirts southern Christchurch on the way to Hornby. Photo: David Williams

Over a wire fence and up a grassy bank from the path, State Highway 76, in the city’s south-west, was steady without being busy. Trucks were especially prevalent. At one spot, not far from Horncastle Arena, a stationary police car gave a simple message: We’re watching.

Often a cyclist can ride for kilometres in irrelevance, as motorists concentrate on much more important matters – not always the road in front of them.

But those on two wheels are now society’s smokers, stared at in near disgust as each driver mentally assesses if you’re out of your “neighbourhood”. (To be fair, Christchurch’s cyclists and motorists have never seen pedal to wheel.)

A cyclist sporting the next layer of protective gear. Photo: David Williams

Some drivers were masked. Often those who weren’t had one dangling from the rear vision mirror, where an air freshener used to be.

Supermarket car parks weren’t full but they were nowhere near empty. Playgrounds were taped off, but there was still play on nearby grassed areas, people sunning themselves.

Neighbourhoods have embraced the bear-in-the-window craze. Some went further. Presumably those same houses that have battles in December over Christmas lights, several over-sized bears were plonked prominently – some on steps, others on chairs. There was even one poking out a chimney.

Dressing the window with fluffiness. Photo: David Williams

You get the impression that some gardens have never looked better at this time of year. In the bright autumnal sunshine, people donned their gloves, dragged their organics bin close, and snipped, pruned and shaped to their heart’s content.

Said one woman, weeding a thin strip next to her driveway: “There’s nothing else to do, really. It’s a bit funny, isn’t it.”

A skillsaw buzzed behind one fence. Nearby, on his driveway, a silver-haired DIYer balanced several long lengths of timber, ready for cutting.

Keeping together but at a distance in Papanui. Photo: David Williams

In Papanui, they took seriously their socialising-while-physical-distancing, with two women chatting across a wide but empty road. Many bus drivers, taped off from their free-riding passengers, wore masks, but the majority did not.

The starkest difference from a month ago, though, was in the central city. Sure, a few people posed for photos near the Avon River, but the city was quieter than an Easter Sunday.

It’s like inner-city workers downed tools, took the tourists with them, and forgot to come back.

A central city wasteland, where trams used to trundle. Photo: David Williams

The CBD scene is made more bizarre by the sprinkling of vacant, graffitied buildings – leftovers from the earthquakes that are yet to be knocked down. There’s also a fair amount of unfinished building work, including the monolithic convention centre, which stretches two blocks.

Multi-laned streets built to funnel vehicles from one side of the four avenues to the other were eerily empty. Which is as it should be, of course.

It means most everyone is taking this lockdown seriously, in the collective fight to keep the virus at bay. Sometimes, suspicion can be our friend.

Montreal St, a one-way north, is a road less travelled. Photo: David Williams

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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