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An Arachnophobic’s Nightmare

As I came face to face with the umpteenth spider blocking my way, I started to second guess myself. There are only a handful of public access walks on Chatham Island, managed through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). The rest of the island is effectively private property and permission is required for access to a lot of places, and tourist levies are charged. I was keen to make use of the public routes, but when I’d voiced my intentions to walk the Rangaika track, I was informed that I should only do it with a guide. Being a regular tramper, and having studied a topographical map, I couldn’t see any reason for this, plus as an exceptional introvert, I really wasn’t keen on spending my day tramping with a stranger. So behind the wheel of yet another rental car on my last day on Chatham Island, I had set off east for the predicted 4-5hr hike.

Chatham Island does not do car parks, and there are limited places to pull over on the gravel roads that make up the island roads outside of Waitangi. There was just space for my car to pull onto the verge, and I was soon over the fence and crossing farmland next to a large copse of wind-shaped trees. I am more than familiar with DoCs orange pole markers, and the 4×4 track that led up the low hillside was so easy to follow. In places where animal tracks and quad bike tracks led off in varying directions, I knew I was heading up the hill, so even without poles it was easy to see where I was going. In fact as I gained height from the roadside altitude of about 20m, to the highest point of roughly 260m, I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with having a guide.

As I’d worked my way up the hillside, the vegetation had changed from farmed grassland, to ever-taller vegetation, and a fence marked the perimeter of Thomas Mohi Tuuta Scenic Reserve, within which the trees had managed to attain a decent height away from the munching mouths of livestock. At the most southern aspect of the hike, I found myself atop a high cliff with a hazy view across Pitt Strait to Pitt Island. It was a crazy feeling to think about how isolated I was out here on a wild coast of a near-empty island far out in the Pacific Ocean. As much as I enjoy my own company, sometimes it would be nice to have someone to share those moments with. But one of the biggest things about hiking alone is the mental challenge and the personal growth that comes from getting out of my comfort zone. And after the first couple of hours of hiking, I was about to get to know my limits very well.

The track turned east and immediately dove into the dense forest across the fence line. Now it was just a matter of following the orange triangles that are another familiar sight when I’m hiking. The track was overgrown in places, and I found myself walking into a few spider webs, so started using my hands to swipe ahead of my face. But the deeper I plunged into the forest, the rougher the track got. The rougher the track got, the more caught out I would find myself when I unintentionally came across spider after spider at face height. Now, I’m not the worst arachnophobic in the World. In fact I can cope okay with being around them, and don’t mind little ones walking on me, but bigger spiders cause me to shudder and if one gets on my face I’ll let out a pathetic scream. I had to shimmy and dance round and under so many webs in an effort not to break the poor occupant’s hard work, but there were many that I just couldn’t get around, and I would break them with my arm, and then there were all the ones I didn’t see until I felt them on my skin or saw the spider right in front of my face.

I don’t know how many times I cried out involuntarily, but it was many and as the trail got harder and harder to follow, I realised why I’d been recommended a guide. This section went on for so long too which just made the experience that bit more miserable. When I finally made it out to the clearing at Rangaika it was a total relief. There was a stunning view along the coast, and I felt even more away from civilisation than I had at the last viewpoint. With all my nervousness and water consumption, I needed to use the long-drop that was conveniently placed here, but it was hardly surprising to open the door to discover a spider had spun a web across the doorway. I hesitated briefly, then realised that I could duck under it to get inside and duly did so. Looking out the doorway, I decided the view was so lovely and there was clearly no-one else around, so I didn’t bother to shut the door behind me. Instead, I sat on the long-drop throne with the toilet door open, and the view with my spider compadre suspended overhead in front of me.

The vegetation blocked the full extent of the coastal views here but what I could see was dramatic. The north end of Chatham Island is so low-lying, but as I’d discovered on my flight to Pitt Island, this southern end is so tall in comparison with steep-dropping cliffs marking the junction between land and sea. Pitt Island was still a hazy sight on the horizon, and I had merely insects to share the view with. As I left it behind, following the trail north, I was outside of the reserve fence, again following a wide 4×4 track. It was such a pleasant change, and I was glad to be out of the forest and on my way back to the car.

 

But after a couple of bends I was dismayed to see an orange marker and a stile lead me back into the forest once more, and just like the previous section, it was severely overgrown and I was immediately back to spider swatting. After a while, surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable jungle, the track petered out. I looked in front of me and to my side, trying to guess where it was supposed to go. Behind me I could see where I had come, but it really wasn’t clear where I was to go. I pushed through a patch of bush and saw a track, gratefully setting on it, but it very quickly led nowhere. I turned around to retrace my steps but because I’d pushed through vegetation to get where I was, I couldn’t see the track I’d come off, nor any markers, nor the bit of bush I’d pushed through to get there. It all just looked the same: dense and impenetrable.

 

I had a brief moment of panic as I realised I was on my own in the middle of a forest at the southern end of a barely-inhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody even knew I was there. But panic gets you nowhere and with a mental map of the lay of the land in my head, I realised that even if I was lost, I just had to pick a direction and bush-bash, and eventually I’d reach the fence at the edge of the reserve which I could then follow downhill. That eased my mind, and helped me choose a spot to push through which popped me back out at the actual track. Still not seeing where it led, I took another guess and pushed through another bit of bush to be greeted by the welcoming sight of an orange track marker and a rough track leading away. It led up and over a ridge, dropping down into a creek bed and back up the other side, where at last, the vegetation opened up a bit before depositing me back at the fence line and the 4×4 track I’d followed way back at the start.

My leg was bleeding from all the bush bashing I’d done. My shin was scratched raw. I had mixed feelings of triumph and sheepish stupidity for having done it in the first place, but I’d gone out my comfort zone and successfully overcome my fear of being lost. It was just a matter of retracing my earlier steps back across the farmland and down towards the Owenga road, which I reached 6.5hrs after I’d left it.

I drove west back to Waitangi and out the other side to the hill that overlooks Waitangi wharf. Here, a short track leads to a view point where I had an expansive view of Petre Bay and Waitangi at its southern end. A small fleet of fishing boats sat moored in the sheltered waters, and I took in the view, aware that I was heading home the next day. Eventually my stomach took me to the Hotel Chatham for my last dinner, and afterwards, I stretched my legs a little on the small beach out front before heading back to the motel up the hill. Like the night before, there was a beautiful sunset to frame the tractor that sat on the hillside, and I reflected on how good I’d had it with the weather.

 

It was moody the next morning as I ate breakfast and waited for the ride to the airport. Some of my favourite parts of my Homeland in Scotland are the wild and rugged Outer Hebrides where life grits its teeth and clings on despite the barrage that the Atlantic Ocean throws at it. I felt the exact same way about the Chatham Islands. They had that same feel about them, and I was sad to leave, although I was happy I’d done them justice, having seen so much on the two main islands. The same archaic plane that brought me there, took me home on its slow and low journey with the loud Rolls Royce engines turning the propellers. But I still had another week before I returned to work, so my return to Christchurch was not the end of my summer adventure.

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.

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.

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