MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “July, 2021”

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.

The Eastern Frontier

As I sat in the regional departure lounge at Christchurch airport, I was equally nervous and excited. Many years ago I’d attended the annual A&P Show that brings the countryside to the city every spring. I’d passed through one of the giant sheds, looking at stalls, and I’d chatted with one of the stall owners that was advertising these distant islands off the east coast of New Zealand. I’d wanted to go there for a long time, and at last, there I was waiting to board the plane, in February 2020. I felt like the only tourist in a plane full of locals, and as I boarded the archaic-looking plane I was shocked to discover there were barely any windows, and there wasn’t much in the way of panelling on the inside of the fuselage. It felt more like a freight plane, and as it rattled to the motion of the propellers turning on, it felt like I was heading off on a real adventure.

We’d been instructed that all phones had to be completely off. Flight mode wasn’t an option. This added to the feeling that the plane could fall apart at any moment, and it was slow to take off, slow to fly and we kept low in the sky. As we banked and turned over the Port Hills, it was a clear enough day that I was gutted my phone was off. I’d bagged one of the few window seats, and we were so low over the hills on a clear day that the view was incredible, and not one I’ll get again. The slow speed of the plane drew the harbour view out for a long time, until we were finally over the Pacific Ocean, setting a course almost exactly east.

We flew for over 2hrs across the bleak expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and yet I didn’t need a passport. Because despite the distance, I was still going to be in New Zealand. They’re not widely known about outside of the country, but the Chatham Islands are on the frontier of New Zealand’s eastern reach, a small archipelago over 1000km to the east of the South Island. Only Chatham Island and nearby Pitt Island are inhabited, and like any remote island, it takes a hardy person to make a living and a life in a place like that. But I come from Scotland, where the Outer Hebrides, a chain of wild, frontier islands, is one of my favourite parts of the country, so I flew there fully expecting something similar. And that was exactly what I got.

It was grey, blustery and overcast with low clouds as we descended. The view of a grey churning sea seemed bleak until finally surf became visible, and the flattest, lowest landscape I’d seen in a long time. On a map, a large chunk of Chatham Island is a central lagoon, and after flying over a long stretch of beach and its backing dunes, we crossed small lakes and a lone road that transected the visible landscape. Circling round and banking by the lagoon, we were soon landing in what essentially was the middle of nowhere. The small airport had been built away from any settlement, at the end of a single road, and after disembarking into the shack of a terminal, we watched the vital supplies for the island that had come with us, and the luggage of returning residents. There was no rush and no fanfare. The locals simply got on with their lives whilst those few of us that were there for a holiday waited for our bags to appear.

 

When it comes to visiting as a tourist, everything needs to be organised ahead of time. Turning up without a bed booked would be foolhardy. There’s only a handful of options, and only one proper settlement, so I’d chosen a motel room that formed part of the main accommodation on the island, located at the back of the main settlement of Waitangi. I’d decided to hire a car for only a few days of the week that I was there for, so paid for a pick up from the airport which was a 20km drive away. Unknowingly, my life was to revolve around the Hotel Chatham for the week of my stay, which was certainly not a bad thing, but the motel accommodation was out the very back of Waitangi. I had paid for a private ensuite room which suited me perfectly and I was sharing the building with a great bunch of blokes who were over for a mates holiday, essentially a prolonged fishing trip, and I loved the chats we had on passing each day.

Walking down the hill to the coast at the southern end of Petre Bay, the wind nearly blew me in two. Here, I was looking out at a landscape that might as well have been in Scotland. It was empty, low-lying and wild. The weather reminded me of home, and I was ecstatic to be there. I had planned to grab food to make lunches with from the Waitangi store but was shocked to discover that it mostly sold snacks and tinned food. I got what I could and trudged it back up the hill before making the return trip down to go for an evening walk. I had the beach to myself and duly began walking the long stretch of sand that lay before me. In a short period of time, I’d seen a bird of prey, a shag, and a myriad of gulls, all within a short stretch of coastline.

 

The longitude had found me 45 minutes ahead of mainland New Zealand, but it was summer and the days were long enough. After I’d filled my lungs with enough fresh air to make me tired, I headed to the hotel for dinner. Stepping inside it was packed. To the left was the pub, mainly full of locals, and to the right was the restaurant which had a mix of tourists, visiting contractors and locals enjoying an evening meal. I managed to squeeze into a spot for dinner, and silently watched and listened to the island life playing out around me. Everyone knew everybody, and if they didn’t know you yet, they soon would do. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the proprietor, and general organiser of almost everything that appeared to be happening. I have Toni and her office manager Francesca to thank for everything that I experienced that week.

I’m not a big drinker at the best of times, but if I’m out for a meal on holiday, I’ll often enjoy a wee drink or two. What I was to discover though, was that re-stocking a bar on a frontier island was not that simple. I’d enjoyed the wine I got on my first night, but was quietly amused to be told a night or two later that they’d run out of an entire type of wine. That was just life, and everybody rolled with it, so so did I. And thus began the immersion into life in the Chatham Islands.

Summit, Sea and Middle-Earth

I found myself with a few spare days ahead of a couple of much anticipated trips. Still in blissful naivety of what was to come in the following months, I boarded a plane to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in early February 2020. Being a Saturday morning, there was a small market on downtown in the city so after dumping my bag at my hostel, I headed to the Britomart and out the far side of it to take a nosy. I’ve visited Auckland many times in the 9 years that I’ve been living in the country. Like Sydney, another place I go back to time and time again, I have my favourite parts that I make a point of going to every time, and in addition I do my best to explore somewhere new or do something different. In the case of Auckland, my favourite thing to do is to head to the viaduct and wander around the waterfront.

 

Normally I take the direct route across the bridge that raises and lowers to let the boats in and out, but I decided to wander around the other side of the Viaduct Basin and meander below the apartment buildings that circle it. I grabbed a light lunch at a cafe before continuing round as the sun intermittently popped through the circulating clouds. At Karanga Plaza is one of my favourite spots to take a photo of the Sky Tower. Like Sydney and the Opera House, I can’t imagine Auckland without the distinctive spire of the Sky Tower. It’s strange to think it was only completed in 1997 when I was already a teenager. As I stood near the steps by the edge of the marina, my attention was suddenly pulled to a movement in the water. To my delight, a large eagle ray was gliding through the surface water. I was the only one to see it, and it was gone before I could get my camera out to get a picture, but I love those moments that are yours and yours alone, a sneaky moment with nature that nobody else spots.

 

Despite being a busy city, Auckland actually offers a lot for nature lovers. Straddling between two harbours, it is nestled into the perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf, a large harbour with a winding coastline made up of both the mainland itself and a series of volcanic islands. I decided to book myself onto a whale and dolphin watching cruise for the afternoon. I’d last done this trip in 2015 where I’d witnessed a Bryde’s whale out near the Coromandel Peninsula. This time around we sailed out into a sunnier Gulf and looked and looked and looked. I’ve been on a lot of whale-watching trips around the World and had had a 100% success rate until a trip from Picton a couple of years prior had failed to spot any humpback whales. As time went on, despite the glorious sunshine and harbour views, we failed to find any marine life. I’d just started to right off the trip as a run of bad luck when we eventually found a pod of common dolphins, my favourite species of dolphin as they chased down fish to the delight of the Australasian gannets that dive-bombed into the ocean around them.

Different dolphin species demonstrate very different behaviour traits. Whereas bottlenose dolphins are much more interactive and acrobatic, travelling in smaller social groups, common dolphins tend to keep their eye on the prize: locating food, and they also usually move in large groups. They’re also very fast to surface, making photography a challenge. I had at times to remind myself to just enjoy the view, as I sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get a photo that I forget to actually be in the moment that is playing out in front of me. That being said, I got one amazing photo that I love, and otherwise I enjoyed watching the gannets shoot through the sky like arrows as the dolphins herded the fish below the surface. Every now and again I spied a petrel in the mix too. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since living in New Zealand. What we lack in native mammals here we make up for in birds, and I pay so much more attention to the fauna when I’m out and about.

 

Being summer, there was still a good few hours of daylight left when we returned to the marina. I’d spotted a place that had an interesting looking cocktail at Wynyard so I meandered back across the bridge and settled down at a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal and a beautiful pink cocktail. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been making its way around the World by this point, although it hadn’t yet reached our shores. February marks Chinese New Year, a time of year that normally sees an influx of tourists from China. There were still a lot of international tourists, but I noticed not just the reduction in number of Chinese tourists, but also how this particular restaurant was comparatively empty compared to those around it. In fact, everyone else at the restaurant conversed with staff in Mandarin, and I had wondered at the time if there was a bit of racist avoidance of the place. Sadly, even the normally welcoming and laid back country of New Zealand has its racist backbone.

 

I had an early rise the next morning to catch a bus out of the city to somewhere I’d wanted to go to for many years. A couple of hours south of the city is the unassuming town of Matamata. But it is what lies on its outskirts that is the lure to movie fans from around the World. Back in 2001, when I was at university, I, like many others, made a special trip to the cinema to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. If someone told me then I would end up living in New Zealand, I would never have believed them, but yet a decade later I left my home country of Scotland to emigrate there. Now I was on route to Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit village that was left intact after the Hobbit movies were filmed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Several of my friends had visited in the past, and I was quietly excited to finally make it there myself.

After a brief respite from breakfast somewhere along the way, we pulled up at the tourist centre to wait for our tour to begin. Whilst I would have loved to have just had free range of the place, you can only visit on a guided tour, meaning booking into a timed shuttle bus that drives you from the main centre, across the farm to the entrance into Hobbiton. There you are taken around a set route by a guide, to curl around past familiar Hobbit holes towards the Green Dragon Inn. The farm itself seems so quintessentially New Zealand, as across the road near the entrance was a load of sheep grazing some crops against a backdrop of rolling hills. As often happens in summer here, there was a bit of a drought going on, making a lot of the landscape quite yellow and brown. And yet, as we reached the film set itself, it was transformed into greenery, as the landscape was clearly being artificially hydrated to maintain the aesthetic.

Firstly, we stopped by the Hobbiton sign before descending through the trees and popping out at a vegetable patch. Looking up the hillside there were Hobbit holes a-plenty, a series of colourful round doorways under turf humps. Whilst not a die-hard fan, I liked the franchise enough to be enchanted by the place as we moved from residence to residence, past small rocking chairs and clothes-lines draped with Hobbit-sized clothing. While almost all of the Hobbit holes are purely a facade, there were a couple that we were able to get right up to or pose by, including one where the door opened into a small vestibule to allow photographs to be taken as if we were going inside. It was a gloriously hot day and I was so happy to be there.

 

Finally, after working our way up the hill at the back, we found ourselves outside Bilbo Baggins’ home, complete with ‘No Admittance, except on party business‘ sign outside. From there, it was a matter of wandering down the other side of the hill to come out at a pretty stone thatched building with a water wheel, and a gorgeous little stone arched bridge that led across to the Green Dragon Inn. Inside, I claimed my cider, part of my admission ticket, and enjoyed it as I wandered around looking at the gorgeous wooden beams and authentic signs on display. Outside the inn, a small lake provided some stunning reflections on such a sunny and still day. I could have sat here for hours just enjoying the weather and the view. The attention to detail everywhere I looked was incredible, and I’d happily come back another time and do the tour all over again.

 

To break up the two hour drive back to the City of Sails, we stopped at Hampton Downs motor park, just a little past half way. I’ve watched the odd bit of motor racing over the years here so recognised some of the cars and names that were displayed across the place. It was a non-race day but the display showroom was full of freshly waxed racing cars, and outside the building there were a few cars racing round the track. I had enough time to watch them do a few laps as well as spot a car doing doughnuts in the skid zone.

 

Back in Auckland, I jumped on the ferry across to Devonport on the opposite side of the harbour to the CBD. It’s only a 10 minute ferry ride, and it was a gorgeous evening as I headed over. I decided to have an early dinner, eating at a Greek restaurant on the main street, before heading up the hill, breathless on a full stomach, to reach the summit of Mount Victoria, one of the 53 volcanic cones that dot the greater city landscape. By now evening, the views over to Rangitoto Island and the city of Auckland were divine. I sat for a long time at the top watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I made the decision to wait for sunset, and in doing so, the colours in front of me glowed through shades of yellow, and orange before the sun dipped below the cloud line at the horizon. Then the pinks and purples burst out, and the city turned into a sparkling electric light show as the various skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky.

 

The purple hung around in the air for quite some time, and below me a constant flow of boat traffic moved in and out of the harbour, they too glowing against the dark water as they zoomed across the surface. Ever aware of the need to get back for the last boat, I eventually had to haul myself away from the view and head back down the hillside to the wharf. As the boat left Devonport, I noticed the Sky Tower was putting on a light show, changing through a series of bright colours, switching from blues and purples, to reds and greens. I wandered through the city streets catching glimpses of the light show as I headed back to my hostel.

 

The next morning after grabbing breakfast at a popular and crammed cafe near to my hostel, I took a wander into Albert Park, passing a myriad of sculptures and finding an alternative viewpoint for the Sky Tower. Down from here, I cut towards Chancery Square where I was amused for a while by a gull that kept challenging its own reflection, thinking it was another gull. Then, because I love it there so much, I headed back to the Viaduct, at first watching the boat life come and go, before parking up on one of the giant wooden loungers on the plaza to just enjoy the sunshine. When at last it was time to head back to the airport, I found myself with a window view for the flight back to Christchurch, flying over Taranaki which looked bizarre without any snow on it. Landing at Christchurch airport, I headed home, excited about my return to the airport the next day for the start of a week long adventure far out in the Pacific Ocean.

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