MistyNites

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Archive for the month “August, 2021”

Pitt Island

If the people of Chatham Island were hardy, then those few living on Pitt Island were even more so. Although not far apart, the Pitt Islanders were reliant on a weather-dependent tourist plane from Chatham Island squeezing in the odd lightweight supply, or a supply boat that sailed from the mainland of New Zealand taking days to get there. I was eager to visit, and having come all this way, I would have been gutted not to make the trip. I was assured prior to my arrival on Chatham, that I was booked on a trip there during my week’s stay, as long as the weather allowed for it. I was travelling solo which gave me the advantage of being able to squeeze into a last space, so I was grateful to get confirmation of not just a space on the tiny plane, but also that the weather window was looking to hold for me to get there. The group of guys I was sharing the motel with were not so lucky. They unfortunately got mucked around quite a bit by the team at the Hotel Chatham and were overlooked for a spot, leaving them a tad disgruntled.

But none of us knew that at this point, and they bade me a good day as I got taken to the airport to wait impatiently for the plane to be ready. And boy was I impatient. Our departure time came and went and the plane was showing no signs of going anywhere. I paced back and forth, until finally we were invited down the steps to board. I calculated things just right and scored not just a window seat but the co-pilot seat for the journey over the Pitt Strait. We took off heading east, flying out over the large lagoon that takes over a large chunk of the island. Turning south I could see Lake Huro that I’d walked around a couple of days prior, and then as we reached the south coast, I was shocked to see tall cliffs dropping off into the ocean. From everywhere I’d been so far, Chatham Island looked low-lying and relatively flat, but it appeared now that the southern portion rose up somewhat, creating a coast line of dramatic cliffs.

 

Due to the size of the plane, we’d been given aviation life jackets to wear, and looking down now over the Pitt Strait, it looked uninviting and deadly. After a while though, we flew over the supply ship which sat a little off shore, and then we were over Pitt Island, and I immediately noted the contrast as it was more hilly than its neighbour, with one rather dominant mound near the coast. Soon we were banking and landing on a grass runway in the middle of nowhere. If I’d felt remote on Chatham, I felt excitedly isolated on Pitt. The pilot readied to head off as we got picked up by our guide for the day, and we watched as the plane left us behind.

There’s only one accommodation on the island, and the host there was who was running our tour. He drove us first towards the large mount where a track could be seen weaving up the side. If you stay overnight on the island, it is possible to go up to the summit, but there was no leisure time to attempt it on this day. Instead, we stopped nearby at a fenced woodland which offered a predator-free spot for the local wildlife. Even out here, several hours away from the rest of New Zealand, introduced pests have wreaked havoc on the wildlife, and like elsewhere, the unique species out here have also suffered. What was special about this area though was that deep within the trees, were some artificial nest boxes for the endangered Chatham Petrel, a seabird that came on land to breed here.

On route we spotted a Pitt Island tui, a rather scruffier version of the mainland variant, and a few of the local fantails also flitted about the branches around us. When we came out into a small opening, our guide lifted the top off one of the boxes half buried in the ground, and a startled and confused petrel was exposed as we all craned in to have a look. I’m quite a bird enthusiast now that I’m older, and I find tube-nosed birds like petrels fascinating. They spend a lot of time on the wing using their nose to sniff out food. As this little one moved around in slight agitation, a white egg was revealed, a sign of hope for the species. After a short few minutes of our collective ogling, the lid was replaced and we retreated away, so as not to cause the bird to abandon it. We followed the trail out the far side of the wood where we got a brief glimpse of the coast and a small, pointed offshore island that looked like a shark’s tooth. In the chill of the grey day, we soon retreated back to the van.

It was a bumpy and hilly drive across the middle portion of the island, leading us up and over and down towards Flowerpot Bay where the lodge was situated a little back from a beach and the pier. The island was otherwise predominantly used as farmland, and we came across some hardy looking sheep which reminded me of the hill breeds from back in the UK. We passed some angry looking rams with their thick woollen coats and curving horns, and as we approached the main building, we were joined by the farm dogs who barked their way alongside the van. The local school was right next door as we bundled out, and after dumping our layers of clothing at the entrance, we headed inside at the lodge into a cosy and very homely grand living space, complete with bar, fireplace and large vista windows looking out to the coast.

 

We were given a delightful buffet of food, including some locally caught fish, and as we hung around enjoying lunch, we watched as the supply ship, which was moored at the entrance to the bay, unloaded onto a little metal boat which zipped into shore delivering a tractor amongst other things. A jeep sat atop some containers back on the ship, and I wondered how much extra it cost to get vehicles brought out here. Quite a lot I’m sure. But with the sea air blowing in from every direction, the threat of rust probably affects the life expectancy of any machinery or vehicle in these parts.

Heading down to the beach, I strolled away from the pier to the far end where I found a perfectly carved man-made cave in the cliff. It had the air of a prison cell from the inside (and was in fact used as a jail for slaves), and on the wall the year 1878 was carved into the soft rock, a sign that this was no new structure. Creating space for others to nosy, I headed back along the beach to the pier where the few locals were busy unloading from the ship. I chuckled at the large quantity of beer that was stacked up at the end of the pier, which on first thought made me think they were perhaps a bit alcoholic, but in reality it probably has to last them quite a long time with the unpredictability of deliveries around the weather and seasons. I wandered into the shed that was nearby to be greeted by several children who were clowning around on the large mounds of tyres that were piled up inside. I’m generally very introverted with strangers, but these kids took great pleasure in asking me lots of questions and chatting away with me until somebody from my tour group yelled at me to come back to the van.

The unloading would take all the hours of daylight, and we had other parts of the island to explore. We headed back up onto the hilly spine of the island, this time heading west through large fields full of sheep. Eventually we found ourselves at a dramatic coastline where the green pasture had faded away to reveal a stark red clifftop that contrasted dramatically with the grey sea and sky beyond it. Offshore, Mangere Island sat among the waves, a tall high-cliffed lump of rock that is now a predator-free sanctuary, and one of only two islands where the rare Black Robin still resides. I could not get enough of the view here. The exposed red cliff formed a myriad of shapes and structures, some of which reminded me of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Just south of us was a bay which was also framed by the exposed and eroding red cliff edge.

 

A bird of prey circled overhead as we wandered along the cliff top while down below I spotted some sheep on lower land underneath the cliffs. As we bundled back into the van and trundled across the hilly farmland I spotted the same harrier hawk perched on a bush. Heading across to the east coast and then turning south we stopped at the airport. Due to the small size of the plane and the flight time, each day’s tour group was split into two. The first group had flown ahead and whilst we had waited back on Chatham for the return of the plane, they had gone on to do the part of the tour that we would be doing next. As such they were to now head back whilst we went on to the final stop. We sat at the strip of grass whilst they boarded the plane and it took off, then we headed south where we had a view across an equally wild coast and this time across to Rangatira Island, another predator-free island and the only other place in the World to spot the rare Black Robin.

Nestled on the grassy bank at Glory Bay was the bright red Glory Cottage, a restored wooden building that was originally used for shepherds tending the land. The bay itself is named after the shipwreck that occurred within it in 1827, from where survivors rowed 1280km to Northland on New Zealand’s North Island in a small boat to raise the alarm. I was on Pitt Island on a relatively calm day, but even then the birds that rode the thermals were being blasted by the Pacific winds, and I could only imagine how harrowing that journey must have been. The inside of the cottage gave a little respite from the chill in the air, but outside an old boat and tractor were slowly degrading in the elements, the harsh sea air having rendered them useless.

 

I was sad to leave here, as our next stop was back at the airstrip again for our own flight back to Chatham Island. We pulled in just as the plane was on final approach, and I watched the skill of the pilot come in to land smoothly despite the wind and despite the roughness of the grass strip. A local joined us on board and this time I was sat in the back, but still by the window. Whereas the flight in had been direct in order to get the tour going, the return leg was a scenic trip that was to follow the Pitt Island coast, giving us an aerial view of the island itself, the dramatic cliffs that make up the south-western corner, as well as the various offshore islands that scatter the sea around it. We flew low enough to appreciate the scale of the cliffs and we could make out places where sea birds were nesting.

 

We made short work of Pitt Strait and hugged the southern cliffs of Chatham Island on the other side of the Strait. I still couldn’t believe how high this end of the island was, and the cliffs continued to be the predominant portion of the view as we worked our way up the coast. The elevation shallowed as we approached Waitangi and then the great expanse of Petre Bay opened up below us. From up here Lake Huro looked massive, and by now the large lagoon was back in view. We began our descent as we worked our way north alongside the island until before I knew it, we had landed. Pitt Island was a highlight of my week out here in the Chatham Islands and I was eager to get back to tell the guys all about it, unaware that their trip wasn’t going to go ahead.

 

After the van returned us to Waitangi, I took a walk along the beach, soaking up the colours of the setting sun, before heading to the Hotel Chatham for dinner. Toni, the owner of the establishment, was quick to make a beeline for me, eager to know how my day had been. Toni knew everybody and made a point of getting to know guests as best as she could. She’d already sussed out my job early on in my stay and having been warned by a regular visitor that if your job was of use to the islanders, word would get out, I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to look in on an animal the next morning that seemed unwell. I was promised free car hire as a thanks for doing an islander a favour, and despite having absolutely no work-related equipment or supplies on me, I agreed to do so. In the meantime, I headed back to the motel where the guys were in good spirits having had a very successful fishing trip. I opened the door to be greeted by a plate full of large crayfish, but I was too stuffed to have any. We sat for a while sharing stories of our respective day before I retired to bed, unaware that the following day wasn’t to turn out as I’d planned.

North-East Chatham Island

There was a slightly awkward moment when all the seats on the bus were filled and two of us were still waiting to board. There had been a few hints of the island way of doing things in the short period of time that I’d been on Chatham Island, and that morning was no exception. In lieu of hiring a car and paying entry levies, I’d been invited to join a tour group for the day. My stay on the island coincided with a visit of an author and a tour group that were enraptured with her. They’d been travelling as a group for several days at this point, and I felt immediately like an intruder. I had no idea who the author was, and knew little about the topic that they all had in common, and now there wasn’t even space for me on the bus. Had it just been me, I probably would have just bowed out, but as it turned out, the bus wasn’t even big enough for the whole group, and two other cars ended up following behind, one of which I was able to get a lift with.

The island may not look big on a map, but the lack of sealed roads and the relatively slow speed limit as a result, means heading to the far edge of the island took longer than you would think. I’m not normally a fan of tour groups, but it was nice to have a bit of company for the day, and it definitely made it much easier to get to a couple of spots. A large lagoon cuts out a decent chunk of the centre of the island, and several lakes are dotted around it. To get to the north-east of the island, involves driving all the way to the north coast and skirting round the northern edge of the lagoon. Eventually the road became a track across a long grass field and after some time we finally pulled up at our first stop for the day.

I hadn’t even heard of this place before my visit, but the J.M. Barker National Historic Reserve is a site of great Moriori significance. Although this is a publicly accessible Department of Conservation managed region, I don’t think I would have got the same experience had I gone on my own. Hidden in the forest were a series of tree carvings or dendroglyphs, estimated to be a few hundred years old. Depicting faces and animals among other things, some were easier to spot than others, and I probably would have walked past a couple of them had they not been pointed out to me. After following the loop track through the woodland, a track cut down to a wild beach on the eastern coast of the island. Looking out across the windy Pacific Ocean, there is no landfall between where we stood and the coast of Chile in South America.

 

Back on the main road, we turned onto the peninsula that marks the very north-eastern part of the island. The last settlement here is Kaingaroa, a small village sitting on a gorgeous sandy bay. It was a week day, but the place felt like a ghost town with nobody around. There were several fishing boats moored in the bay, and as we went for a walk along the road to the pier, the only people around were busy here off loading from a boat. It was a nice vista to enjoy whilst we ate lunch, a couple of gulls eyeing us up for leftovers. A small little beach on the other side of the pier led to the headland, and were it not for the accents of the people behind me, I could have pretended I was in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.

 

The main reason I’d joined the tour group was to get access to Point Munning on the very tip of the peninsula. This involved entering private property, and the track wasn’t marked or immediately obvious, meaning I probably would have gotten lost had I driven there myself. You’re never far from the ocean on Chatham Island, but here, it was a short walk through a coastal fringe of bush to reach a rocky outcrop receiving the rolling waves from the Pacific. Nestled onto and among the rocks was a New Zealand fur seal colony. Almost completely encircled by rocks, a small bay of water acted as a nursery pool and there were seal pups strewn all over the place, with adults hauled out the ocean for a snooze and a dry-off. A few seals porpoised across the bay, and we were accompanied by the noise and smell that always hangs around a fur seal colony.

We spent a good amount of time here, although not as much as I would have liked. The tour had other places to be, whereas this was the main reason I had come. I enjoyed watching some seal pups that came tantalisingly close, and a weka wandered among them seeking out something to eat. The pups liked to watch us as much as we liked to watch them, and a couple in particular captured my attention the most with their exceedingly cute faces craned in my direction with curiosity. I’ve visited several fur seal colonies on the mainland, but this was probably one of my favourite due to the proximity and activity that took place there.

 

Not far from here was the remains of a German missionary settlement, complete with whaling vat abandoned outside the building remains. A cemetery nearby is believed to be one of the earliest European graveyards in New Zealand. Nowadays, the area is farmland, and the crooked trees from the prevailing wind left me wandering why on earth someone thought it made sense to build a missionary settlement all the way out here. Like a lot of frontier outposts, whaling in the nearby ocean had a lot to answer for, a practice that I’m glad my country does not allow to continue.

We stopped at the farm buildings of the property we had had to cut through to get to Point Munning. At the back was a huge shed, which on opening the door I was shocked to be confronted by the immense fuselage of a Sunderland Flying Boat, NZ4111, that was built in the 40s, used during World War II in the tropics, and then purchased by the New Zealand Air Force in the 50s. It struck a rock in 1959, and while it was never able to fly again, it was at least able to be salvaged, finding itself inside a large farm building in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It was incredible to walk around, it was simply massive, and I imagined a time when it would have been normal to see it take to the skies. There were all sorts of other vehicles in various states in the hangar with it, but it was definitely the plane that grabbed my attention the most.

We started the long drive back to Waitangi, following the north coast then turning south hugging the lagoon. We eventually reached the junction with the road that had taken me to the basalt columns and north-western corner of the island a couple of days prior. We turned up this road to stop at Admiralty Gardens, one of the accommodations on the island. Here there was also a garden full of local and introduced flowers. This stop was really for the benefit of the tour group I had tagged along with as they and the author that they were touring with, were highly knowledgeable about the flora they were looking at. I wandered around listening to them excitedly chatter away about the flowers, finding myself in the company of a very happy Golden Retriever.

 

This was to be the only time I didn’t eat dinner at the Hotel Chatham. Although I’d paid to join the group, I still felt like a bit of an imposter, but with their gentle coaxing, I was able to partake in the booze and amazing spread of food that was laid out. A couple of years prior, when I’d been on Stewart Island, I had excitedly ordered Paua at a restaurant, to try this seafood for the first time. Unfortunately they forgot my order so I was never able to try it, but finally I was able to try it both barbecued and curried and it was utterly divine. The food at the Hotel Chatham had been enjoyable each night, but this smorgasbord of a buffet was impressive, and I was grateful that the tour group had welcomed me into the fold. I was stuffed at the end of it all, and ready to fall into a food coma by the time I returned to my accommodation at the end of the day. The morning was to see me heading off on an adventure that I had been wanting to do for a long time, and I couldn’t wait.

Central Chatham Island

Despite the confused looks of the people that lived there, I had decided to forego the expense of another day of car rental and explore the island on foot. Public rights of way are a little debatable on the island, in fact, the majority of the place is privately owned, but I could see on the map that there was a road that would lead me round the expanse of Lake Huro and past the western end of the giant lagoon that sits in the middle of the island. It seemed feasible to walk the circuit in a day, and the map suggested public access. Despite that, I was never quite sure if I would meet with any hostile reception, or just a raised eyebrow at the absurdity of walking such a distance.

After breakfast down at the Hotel Chatham, I walked down to the port along the waterfront, past the weekday goings-on of the people that lived there. A few solemn-looking fishing boats sat in the bowl of Petre Bay, and the cloud above my head was grey. A track led up the cliffside which had no suggestion of private property at the bottom. Hoping for a view at the top, I clambered up the rough ground to discover I was in the middle of a cattle pen, and realised I was in the holding pen for stock to be driven down the hill and onto the ferry. I was quick to head back down, worried I was trespassing.

Options to stock up on food for lunch were limited, so I grabbed a mid-morning snack at Waitangi whilst I could before following side-roads in the town, eager to get some kind of viewpoint, and generally just being a little nosy. From the point of leaving Waitangi behind on route north to the next settlement of Te One, I was an object of curiosity to the locals. Out of the settlements, the roads are unsealed and there is often little in the way of verge and certainly nothing resembling a pavement. In essence, nobody walks here. So I spent a large part of my time walking this main road fielding offers of a lift. Island life can sometimes be a little insular, but it’s also great for community spirit and support. It was lovely that so many people offered, but I was out for the exercise and the self-exploration, and I suspect my refusal was a little confusing and odd for those that stopped for me.

For the most part, Chatham Island appears predominantly flat, but as I left Te One to continue north, the road lifted a little providing a view across to the opening of the large expanse of Petre Bay to the west. Once at the crown of the ridge, I took the road directly east, which took me away from the regular flow of traffic, and out into a World of solitude. I used to work on a farm during my university years for a bit of spare change, but over the years, I’ve forgotten a lot about the cycles of the year that dominate farming life. Also down here in the Southern Hemisphere, everything was up on its head. As it was February at the time of my visit, mid-summer, I passed large fields full of rolled up hay bales, waiting to be bagged and stored.

 

It didn’t take long for the proper road to peter out at the farmhouse, but just past here the road became a track, passing through a gate that suggested public access was okay. I was effectively walking through the grazing fields though, with cattle spread out around me, watching me as I walked. After passing through another gate and finding myself a little elevated, I was startled by the sight of emu across a fence. This was the last thing I had expected to find out here on this little island deep in the South Pacific Ocean, but here I was with three emu running around next to me. It turned out they were being farmed here, just another Chatham Island oddity.

 

As the track turned south, it was now sheep keeping me company, and I could see across the sheep pastures to the large lagoon in the middle of the island, and even beyond there to the Pacific Ocean itself. As the track dropped down towards the lagoon, the occasional angled tree and lack of high vegetation hinted at the exposed nature of the landscape. It was a relatively settled day though, and I had good visibility. Passing through a couple more gates I came across a small group of cottages, and I felt a little self-conscious, unclear whether I was trespassing or okay to keep going. But by this stage I was approaching the far side of Lake Huron, and with nobody around anyway, it made more sense to continue as I was, than to back track. Stock tracks led down to the water’s edge where I could see a plethora of birds from swans to lapwings and the occasional heron.

I passed some horses as the track climbed up a little, leading me away from the lagoon, and eventually bringing me to the main road that leads to the east coast of the island. It was a worse grade of road than the main north road, and trying to keep to a verge made for quite uncomfortable walking. Once more, I was a curiosity with people slamming on their brakes to stop and offer me a lift. The southern end of the island is where the main elevation of the land is, and this road was much hillier to walk on than anything I’d come across so far. I was also tired and hungry by this point but determined to walk the rest of the distance.

I passed the entrance to the Marae, the centre of an important event that was happening whilst I was on the island. Since moving to New Zealand back in 2012, I’ve learned a lot about colonisation, Maori history and Maori land rights. But here, there were the descendants of Moriori, Polynesian settlers that developed their own culture independently of the Polynesian Maori settlers of mainland New Zealand. I’d never heard of them before arriving on Chatham Island, but that morning, before setting off on this hike, I’d visited the local museum in Waitangi, which was compact but crammed full of antiquities and information about the history of the people of the island group. Whilst I would not like to attest to being fully aware of what happened here, I learned that a party of invading Maori from New Zealand committed genocide of the Moriori in the 19th century, even committing cannibalism, resulting in the death or displacement of 95% of Moriori. A Hercules plane had landed on the island that day to deliver a Government-led apology and reparation for crimes committed during this time. With several of the islanders I’d spoken to being descended from the genocide survivors, this event was a big deal.

As I descended back down the hill towards the road that leads back to Waitangi, I found myself having to make way for a flock of sheep being led along the road. They can be such flighty animals, and I had to cling to the fence line to keep out their way and not spook them any more. By the time I made it back to the settlement, it was dinner time, and I parked up at the Hotel Chatham, effectively the only place to eat in the area, for my glass of wine and whatever meal was on offer that night. Although the menu was limited, they did a good job of altering the offerings despite being restricted by supply. They did, however run out of white wine partway through my stay which was amusing, but just part of island life for the locals.

I’m not an overly outgoing person, and won’t easily communicate with strangers, but by now my third night hanging out at the hotel, I was being greeted and chatted to by more and more people and I was beginning to really feel enveloped into the community, even if just on a miniscule scale. The guys I was sharing my accommodation with were also good banter, and I caught up with their fishing adventures before retreating to my room. There was nothing like a good dose of fresh air and exercise to lead to a good night’s sleep, ready to get out and explore all over again the next day.

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