North-West Chatham Island
It was never warm on Chatham Island, at least not by New Zealand standards, but yet I actually did really well with the weather in the week that I spent on this island in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean. After the novelty of finally getting here after all these years of wanting to, I was keen to get out and about. I organised a rental car from the hotel after having breakfast, and was presented with a set of keys to Moki. All the rental cars had been named, and I was quick to acquaint myself with its quirks and get on the road. For the most part, the roads on the island are not sealed. In the settlements they have tarmac, but elsewhere they are just stoned, in a variety of grades depending on the level of traffic that passes through. Although the speed limit is 80km/hr, some of the roads don’t allow this, meaning it takes longer to drive around some parts than you’d think by looking at it on a map.
The impression I was given was that the island was mostly privately owned. A few public access walks exist which are evident on the Department of Conservation or Chatham Islands websites, but otherwise land owners need to be contacted to gain right of way, and often a levy needs to be paid, which often was quite steep. This is not a cheap place to holiday, but Toni that runs the Hotel Chatham in Waitangi kept me right about where I could and couldn’t go without permission. My first stop on my first full day though, was one of the public access tracks at Henga Reserve.
Blink and you’d miss the sign at the start. Luckily I’d spotted it from the drive from the airport the day before, and there was just enough space to pull off the gravel road to park. Over a stile, there was a long walk across a sheep paddock to reach the reserve itself. The track to the main loop track led through the edge of a small woodland area where I startled some weka as they foraged in the undergrowth. As I stepped back into a clearing, the sky was clearing up to reveal a clear blue sky, and I spent the next while layering up and layering down depending on how the wind cut across. Large parts of the island feel barren, or rather are just predominantly low bush, so it was strange to walk into a large woodland of trees that brought me to the loop track.
There was not a single other soul on the track until I neared the lookout. The loop track passed by a lodge at the far corner from where I’d joined the trail, so a couple were just out for a wander from there. In the final section of the forest as the trail climbed up hill, there were some large rock formations interspersed with the trees, and then suddenly I was exposed again, out on a bluff overlooking the expansive coastline. Waves crashed on the exposed shore and below me the beach was backed by a wide dune. This was the great Petre Bay, the same bay that Waitangi sits on, and that I had walked the southern end of the day previous. The track cut down the side of the bluff to the back of the dunes, and I had assumed I could just walk down to the beach and enjoy it, but all I could see was a fence and no way to get across it.
As I followed the track through the dune vegetation, my mind wandering as I walked, my attention was grabbed by some creature leaping in and out of view. It turned out to be a dog and it followed me for a bit before disappearing. I passed a few people walking the other way, and then the track turned back inland, climbing back up the low hillside once more and returning me to the bushes. As I neared the lodge, a noise in the bushes alerted me to the return of the dog, who proceeded to excitedly jump up and down, and in and out of view. He followed me to the lodge and as I reached there, I assumed that he lived there. Being a reserve, the dog should not have been in there, and a fence and gate divided the public land from the private land. But as I walked around the garden at the lodge I saw him leap exceedingly high in the air to clear the fence and get into the reserve.
Whereas my walk so far had been about looking out for bird life and enjoying the fresh air, the rest of my hike quickly turned into frustration and scenes of murder. The dog enthusiastically followed me, running ahead a bit and coming back to find me, excitedly jumping into the bushes and killing weka after weka after weka. I kept hearing the cries of the birds, and every now and again I’d witness a bird in the dog’s mouth. I tried to trick the dog to get it to leave me alone, but alas it kept finding me again, at one point running right up to me and killing a weka right in front of me. The poor thing gasped its last breath as I stood there equally annoyed and bereft.
I finally found myself back at the stile into the sheep paddock. It was lambing time and there were lots of young lambs in the field with their mothers. The dog poked through the fence to join me as I crossed and suddenly I found myself in an awkward position that wouldn’t look good to any passers by: an unleashed dog in amongst lambs. It had already proven itself a killer, and I ended up having to grab it by the collar and walk it back to my car. It happily jumped in next to me, eager to find out where we were going to go. I drove to the lodge and deposited it there, letting the lodge owners know that it had been in the reserve killing birds. They simply shrugged their shoulders, feigned annoyance at the dog, while declaring that the wekas weren’t protected there so it didn’t really matter. It was time to push on and get back to enjoying myself.
Further north, and on the road that cuts west, I found myself at a padlocked gate. Toni had given me the key to get in, and I went through the motions to get off the gravel road and onto a vague track that cut across a field to the coast. Exposed by the pounding and wild coast, were some basalt columns, a geological structure that I’m familiar with from Scotland and Iceland. Aside from the occasional quarry truck that passed by in the distance, there was nobody else to see. I stumbled around for a bit, getting battered a little by the wind, listening to the crashing waves just metres away from where I stood.
Back on the main road, I followed one arm of it to its termination at Port Hutt. Little more than a group of shacks making up a small settlement, the bay caught my attention due to the ship graveyard immediately offshore. Two boats well into their degradation sat forlornly off the beach, lending themselves to a moody photography session. The sky was mottled here, adding to the sadness of it. A couple of fishing boats sat offshore, and judging by the mish-mash of equipment that was draped around the place, I assume this is a small fishing village. It was unclear whether I was at risk of trespassing or not, and there was nowhere really to park other than a small patch of grass, so I simply stuck to the beach so as not to annoy anyone. But there was no-one around, and it was just me and a couple of seagulls until just as I left, another rental car appeared with a couple who left almost as quickly as they arrived.
I followed Waitangi West road almost to its end point, stopping just shy of the farm at its end, where there was a track down to a beach. This felt so much like the beaches of North and South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and with the only other person leaving as I arrived, there was just me, the wind, and the occasional bird for company. As I walked towards the point, my attention was grabbed by something shiny in the sand. A small piece of paua shell sparkled in the daylight, a brilliant blue and purple contrasting against the pale sand. I was briefly tempted to take it, but I decided to leave it where it was, ready to delight somebody else, or yet to continue its disintegration into nature. A little further along I was shocked to come across a dead cow half buried in the sand. It wasn’t too degraded so can’t have died that long ago, but the flies had certainly found their way to it.
I walked as far as a broad tannin river that split through the dunes to cross the beach. A myriad of oyster catchers wandered about here, and I climbed the dune to get an overview across the landscape. In the distance was a nobbly hillside sticking up against the relatively flat beach side. I knew what lay at the foot of it, and I was undecided whether I should stop by on the way back to Waitangi. Toni had highly recommended it, but it was after 3pm, and I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to turn up so late. Not to mention my introvertedness which tends to make me shy away from social contact with strangers. But in the end I did go, and I’m very glad that I did.
Through a gate, there was just a vague track across the grass, leading me across a field of cows and eventually to the base of the nobbly hill I’d seen from afar. Stopping at a crest where the track petered out, I got out the car to be greeted by a couple of dogs. I followed them down to a small stone cottage surrounded by a fenced vegetable garden where some chickens wandered about. As I got nearer, I saw movement, yelling out to say hello until I was greeted by Helen. Anybody who lives or visits the Chatham Islands knows about Helen. I’ve no idea how old she is, but she lives on her own with her animals in the same cottage that she grew up in, and the cottage itself is like stepping into a time-capsule. Although slightly protected from the winds by a nearby dune bank, the place is still relatively exposed, and I couldn’t believe she was living here alone, year round.
It was interesting to talk to her about her life there and the history of the cottage. After showing me around the place and bringing out photo albums to look at, she asked me about my job. I’m a companion animal vet, and there is no vet on the island, despite many people having pets there, not to mention the livestock. A couple of times a year, a vet from Christchurch may go out to run a clinic for a few days, otherwise, injured animals have to be flown or sailed to the mainland to get treatment, something that isn’t cheap and isn’t always done. To thank her for her time, I offered to give her myriad of animals a health check over, something which turned out to be rather complicated when most of them didn’t want to have a bar of me, and I had no work equipment with me. Helen was overjoyed at the prospect of getting the dog’s nails clipped by me, presenting me with a pair of garden secateurs. I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried cutting an animal’s nails before as I was with these plant cutters which were not designed for the job.
Once I’d finished with the surreal veterinary session, I bid Helen goodbye and left her behind to go down to the beach by her house. Right on her doorstep was a gorgeous beach which led to some large boulders balanced on top of each other. Here a group of shags rested on top, and it was possible to walk underneath the giant boulder that was balanced atop a collection of others, ready to one day collapse down as the tide wears them back. The tide was coming in, so I only stayed long enough to watch the oyster catchers wandering about before my feet got wet. Walking back to the car there was a great view up onto the rocky outcrop that was the backdrop for Helen’s house. I waved goodbye as I passed, trundling back through the cow paddock in the rental car, towards the gravel road to lead me back to Waitangi.
By the time I reached the main settlement on the island, it was time for dinner. The hotel was just as packed as the night before and I recognised several faces. I briefly chatted with another guest who was over doing contract work, and then Toni caught up with me to find out how my day went. She was quick to discover what my job was, and I mentioned what I had done for Helen. I had a suspicion that word might get out about my occupation, and the fellow guest, being a repeat visitor, was quick to let me know that if you had skills useful to the islanders, that you would likely be asked to do something for someone, even if you were on holiday. I was soon to discover that this was exactly the case, an event that would turn out to be one of those memorable stories that you gain in life.