Call of the wild

Sunrise from Chatham Hotel at Waitangi. Photo: Simon Watts/
Sunrise from Chatham Hotel at Waitangi. Photo: Simon Watts/
On a recent trip to the Chatham Islands, New Zealand’s easternmost outpost, David Thomson discovered things are just a little different than on the mainland.

"For Tired Wekas and Kiwis'' reads the sign on the side of the hotel courtesy van. Just a little pointer to the fact that while most New Zealanders consider the Chatham Islands to be wholly part of this country, many of the roughly 600 people who live there hold a subtly different view.

They are the self-styled Wekas, named for a familiar bird from our islands that was actually introduced to their islands and has since become an essential part of the food chain, for cats, dogs and humans alike. We are the Kiwis, sometimes called visitors, one step closer to the Wekas than the tourists, who have come to experience the Chathams from even further afield.

That is Chatham Hotel owner Toni Croon's explanation of one of the ways in which inhabitants of our easternmost islands categorise the rest of the world.

We probably all know that it's a world view strongly influenced by remoteness. But how that remoteness feels is difficult to truly appreciate until you have made the trip.

For me, it starts with an early-afternoon flight from Wellington to Inia William Tuuta Memorial Aerodrome on the main island of the group, Chatham Island.

One of Air Chatham's elderly Convair aircraft. PHOTOS: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
One of Air Chatham's elderly Convair aircraft. PHOTOS: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
That this journey is truly an adventure is clear as we board the Air Chathams' Convair 580.

This low-winged, propeller-driven craft looks old-school because it's a design that dates back to the 1940s. Mind you, its two Rolls-Royce Dart engines make the Convair 580 the fastest turbo-prop aircraft flying a scheduled route in New Zealand today, so our 768km trip over open ocean in what is essentially a vintage aeroplane will take less than two hours.

I am travelling with a Holden New Zealand group that together occupy half of the aircraft's 24 seats. Judging by the banter with our chirpy flight attendant Alex, most of the remaining folk are either locals or regular visitors heading over for work.

The landing is through broken cloud, with glimpses of surf-lapped beaches, then the still waters of a massive lagoon on final approach. Disembarking we are reminded to move our watches forward by 45 minutes; another pointer to this part of the country being a little different - the Chathams operate on their own time zone.

It's a 20km van ride from the airport to the main settlement and port of Waitangi, mostly on gravel roads, traversing large tracts of scrub and pasture land.

Although we are only seeing a small part of the main island it is immediately apparent that this is a far bigger land mass - 920sqkm no less, or almost 14 times larger than Rarotonga - than most expected. Indeed, as we are told more than once by locals, the island of Rarotonga would fit easily inside Chatham Island's largest geographical feature, the Te Whanga Lagoon.

Looking out over Petrie Bay, Waitangi township is home to around 250 people, and all of the island's key services. As well as a general store and service station, these include a sole charge police station (also home to the district court) and single-doctor hospital, council offices, a bank and the Chatham Hotel.

Set right on the waterfront, the hotel is going to be home-base for the next three nights.

Waitangi township with the Chatham Hotel perched on the waterfront. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON
Waitangi township with the Chatham Hotel perched on the waterfront. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON

Bags deposited in our rooms, we converge on the bar, already well-populated with locals not too long after 5pm on a Friday. Here I find an Otago connection: while there's craft beer from a Wellington brewery and a choice of wines for cultured types, the local beverage of choice is Speight's, usually purchased by the 745ml bottle.

Chat with the locals reveals that Holden's visit has become the talk of the town. It's come right on the end of the visitor season, after which the Island's tourism and hospitality businesses scale back for the winter.

In contrast to the permanent population, which has been sliding in recent years, visitor numbers have been rising. Even so, total recreational visitors to the Chathams over an entire year number, at most, two or three thousand; that's far fewer than popular mainland destinations handle in a single day.

Most of those seeking the Chatham tourist experience are New Zealanders and, with return flights starting at $770 per person, it's not a budget travel destination.

Rather, it's what Toni describes as "a middle to upper-end bucket-list destination''.

A love of the outdoors, remote places, history and geography, plant and animal and birdlife, and hunting (pigs and wild sheep) and fishing are the key attractions.

Fishing leads naturally to seafood: paua is our shared entree for our first pub dinner, and though there are other options on the menu, all of our group orders the fresh Chatham Island blue cod as a main.

Our first full day on Chatham Island dawns cloudy but calm, and we strike out for Owenga, some 20km distant at the southeastern end of the island, with Toni and her dog Pipi.

A detour on to private land takes us past two massive wind turbines sitting face down on the ground: installed in 2010, they are part of a failed attempt to reduce the island's reliance on diesel generator power. Depending on who you speak to, too much wind, too little wind, or the wrong kind of wind was the problem, along with the expense of maintaining complex equipment in such a remote location.

That the turbines will lie there and eventually rust away seems a certainty; it's costly to remove anything from the island, so just about anything that reaches the end of its useful life is simply left to rot in peace.

Further on, we reach the First Light Cliffs, which were the site of world interest as the first place to see in the millennium. Even in cloud, the views south, including to Chatham Island's smaller sibling, Pitt Island, are impressive.

Tame Horomana Rehe (Tommy Solomon) Memorial Statue. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
Tame Horomana Rehe (Tommy Solomon) Memorial Statue. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA

Next up, we stop at the Tame Horomana Rehe (Tommy Solomon) Memorial Statue, near the tiny settlement of Owenga. Buried nearby and with his descendants still farming in the area, he is widely regarded as the last full-blood member of the Chathams' original indigenous people, the Moriori.

The story of the Moriori, whose distinctive culture included a long-standing code of settling disputes without killing, is one of the most poignant in New Zealand's history.

Their largely isolated existence came to an end when some 900 Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama landed on the Chathams in 1835. The incoming visitors were initially cared for by the local Moriori, but eventually turned on their hosts, killing hundreds, and enslaving the survivors.

This is a sensitive subject on an Island that is home to dozens of families who trace their whakapapa to one or both of the original and invading groups.

"The only way you could settle who is who here is by DNA testing, and trust me, DNA testing is a place you just don't want to go on this island,'' is how one local of both Moriori and Ngati Mutunga ancestry explains it.

Once Pipi has returned from a failed attempt to flush out a weka, we resume our tour, firstly on a track along the southern shores of the massive Te Whanga Lagoon, then down the rugged coastline to the southwest. Partly forest clad, this area is home to some of the Chathams' rarest bird species, including the endangered taiko (magenta petrel) as well as the Chathams' own species of wood pigeon.

There is more bird spotting after lunch, with various species of mollymawk and a solitary petrel surrounding the boat as we pull up to drop lines on an afternoon fishing trip.

Working with traditional hand lines a couple of kilometres off Waitangi township, eight of us fill a sizeable tub with a large blue cod in around an hour. The "survivors'' of the rolling swell that has made life at sea uncomfortable then try for a few hapuka (groper) with further success. The catch is later delivered to the hotel to be snap frozen in export-quality packaging for the trip home.

For those who spend more time at sea, there are many other seabirds to spot, along with an abundance of marine life including marine mammals and, on occasion, the great white sharks that populate these waters in sizeable numbers.

Local identity Helen Bint’s stone cottage at Maunganui. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
Local identity Helen Bint’s stone cottage at Maunganui. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA

Our focus for day two is the northern part of Chatham Island, which has its own distinct geology, fauna and climate.

Bound for the northwest initially, we pass through the bracken-covered peat land, reminiscent of the more barren parts of the Scottish Highlands.

Deviating off the formed road to summit Horrible Hill, we are rewarded with magnificent views of distant beaches and volcanic cones thrusting up out of the surrounding peat land. Although it is becoming a fine day, passing rain squalls are visible in three different directions. Not for the first time, the appropriateness of the Moriori name for the Chathams, Rekohu ("Misty Sun''), is abundantly clear.

From here it's a 20-minute drive, the last part through paddocks, to Maunganui Cottage, a stone dwelling built by German missionaries more than 140 years ago. The charm of the sturdy cottage, located at the base of a large rocky outcrop and a short walk from a stunning sandy beach, is self-evident, as is the care and attention its sole occupant, Helen Bint, has given the surrounding garden.

A Chatham Island road sign. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
A Chatham Island road sign. PHOTO: SIMON WATTS/BWMEDIA
How a woman, well-qualified for Gold Card status has come to be living alone in this remote part of a remote island (her nearest neighbour is 10km distant) is a fascinating story.

Compressing an absorbing half-hour of chat with Helen into a few paragraphs: she grew up in this very part of the Chathams, lived "in New Zealand'' for 50 years (plus or minus) until, five children and one husband later, the call of home drew her back.

With no power by mains or generator, she lives a frugal and content life of self-sufficiency. A battery radio allows her to tune in to the world, while a phone line keeps contact with others. Listening to talkback radio is one of the things Helen does to pass the time, and she confesses to phoning in the odd time to "give a little perspective'' when others callers complain about the state of their world.

"Isolated'' and "alone'', are, for Helen Bint, relative terms: her constant companions include two dogs, at least one cat, a couple of goats, several sheep, and a couple of dozen chooks; life involves a constant battle protecting the garden from marauding weka and possums; there are weekly trips to "town'', plus a regular stream of visitors, including day trippers like us and sometimes family (including grandchildren) coming to stay from Nelson.

Lois, Toni and Val Croon cooking up a storm at Admiralty Gardens. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON
Lois, Toni and Val Croon cooking up a storm at Admiralty Gardens. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON

We depart for the the spectacular Waitangi West Beach, arriving on the low tide to gather a substantial feed of paua in knee-deep water. Then it's back down the road to Port Hutt, a major base of operations during the 1960s crayfish boom on the Chathams, and now home to the rusting hulks of boats beached here as refrigeration ships during that boom.

Lunch is 45km away, picnicking at the Ocean Mail Scenic Reserve, well out on the northeastern edge of the island. Named for one of several ships wrecked along this coast in the 19th century, the reserve is the site of a project to restore native vegetation to the area.

There is plenty else to be seen in this corner of the Island, but Toni is keen to get us to the home of her parents, Val and Lois, in good time for dinner.

Their property, Admiral Garden, commands spectacular views, and Val - a former fisherman and the previous Chathams Hotel publican, and Lois - an artist and born-and-bred Chatham Islander - are delightful and informative hosts.

Local shellfish (including our paua), crayfish, and blue cod all feature in the multi-course meal, which marks the formal end of an all too brief foray to Chatham Island.

Preparing to board the flight home the next morning after another night's sleep with the waves lapping on the beach just metres away, I am reminded of a comment one of our hosts made the night before.

"Either you love this place or you hate it. If you love it you will find it will keep drawing you back.''

I already have a hankering to return.

Maunganui Bluff viewed from Cape Pattison on Chatham Island’s northwest tip. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON
Maunganui Bluff viewed from Cape Pattison on Chatham Island’s northwest tip. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON

If you go

Chatham Island travel trips Air Chathams provides the only scheduled passenger service to the Chatham Islands.

There is typically one flight per day, departing from Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland, depending on the day of the week.

An advance purchase, non-refundable return airfare is $770.

Departing from Napier and Timaru, the scheduled boat link is a two-day each way freight-only voyage.

Park any thought of turning up on the Chathams’ with nothing pre-booked or organised in advance; there is no public transport network, accommodation choices are limited, and many of the Island’s most interesting spots are on private land and/or require a local guide to visit.

Accommodation options include the hotel, an associated self-catering motel, plus a small number of lodge and homestay establishments. Most accommodation is in or near to the main Waitangi township, but there is also accommodation in the settlement of Kaingaroa in the northeast of the island.

If travelling independently, your hosts should be able to arrange transport and access to various sites. You can also join one of a number of specialist guided adventure tours to the Chathams. Some are general in nature, while others may focus on particular areas of interest, such as geology, ornithology, hunting and fishing.

Plan for a minimum of four full days to fully explore Chatham Island itself, and a week if you wish to get a decent feel for the island without feeling hurried.

A side trip to nearby Pitt Island is possible (either for a day or a little longer) but this is weather dependent.

Volcanic cones in the barren north of Chatham Island. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON
Volcanic cones in the barren north of Chatham Island. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON

10 Chatham facts you might not have known

• The Chatham Islands are frequently referred to as being 860km east of Christchurch, but Wellington is actually closer, at 768km distant.

• The international dateline takes a little dog-leg east to keep the Chathams on the same day as the rest of New Zealand, but Chathams’ time is 45 minutes ahead of the rest of the country.

• Most of the islands that make up the Chathams have three names, one English, one Moriori and one Maori. The main island, for example, is Chatham Island, Rekohu or Wharekauri.

• There’s a Sky TV feed to the Chathams, and decent Wi-Fi at the hotel, but if you want to use your mobile phone while out-and-about,  you’ll be out of luck. 

• While its reputation as a windy place is certainly fair, and weather is often of the ‘‘four seasons in one day variety’’, Waitangi township’s annual rainfall is less than that of Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson or Invercargill. It still rains two days out of every five on average, but only once every four days in January and February.

• The surrounding ocean is a greater leveller for temperatures, with the hottest day on record peaking at 23.8degC. The normal daily summer high is 17-20degC. On the other hand, there has only been one snowfall to near sea level in recent decades.

• The Chathams are the only place in New Zealand where weka can be legally hunted and eaten by humans. This is because weka, which are prolific on the Chathams, were introduced to the islands at the start of the 20th century.

• Weka hunting usually takes place during a full moon, with small dogs flushing them out, larger dogs gathering, and the locals dispatching.

• The resident bird population also includes some Australian imports, including thousands of swans and, as a result of a farming experiment in the late 20th century, a small population of semi-wild emu.

• One the highest-tech instalments on the Chathams is a Rocket Lab tracking dish. This monitors the progress of rockets launched from the company’s Mahia Peninsula launch site as they blast into orbit above the Pacific Ocean.


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