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.