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.