My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Chatham Islands”

Island Life

There was a moment of incredulity as I stared at the vehicle in front of me. On my second to last day on Chatham Island, I’d agreed to do an islander a favour, and in return, I’d been offered a free rental vehicle for the day. But after breakfast down at the Hotel Chatham, I was handed a key and pointed in the direction of outside, only to find myself staring at a 16-seater mini-bus. I double checked the tag on the key, confirming that this was indeed my free rental, and inwardly I had a slight panic. Did my driver’s licence cover me for this? Could I drive this thing? What the hell had I agreed to? Because not only was I to safely drive this behemoth without damaging it, but the directions I had been given boiled down to a description of the house and roughly where to find it, and to top it off, I was to let myself into somebody’s house while they weren’t there and go into their bedroom where my task would await me. My holiday was suddenly an adventure.

I shakily set off east, driving carefully on the unsealed road to the settlement of Owenga. I looked for the house in question, and pulled the mini-bus over on the grass verge, unwilling to take it down the slope to the house in case I couldn’t get back up again. There was an awkward few moments where I couldn’t work out how to get to the front door, and then silently and cautiously I let myself inside, calling out just in case anyone was home. Then it was a matter of guess which room was the bedroom in question, before slipping inside to be greeted by a curled up kitty on the end of the bed. Word had gotten out about my job and with no resident vet on the islands, there was an unwell cat in need. Despite having absolutely nothing work-related on me, for the second time on my trip, I found myself doing what I could with not very much. It was a beautiful cat and it enjoyed some pats, but the minute I got down to business to give it a physical exam it started hissing and swiping, especially when I found the bite wound on its tail that was making it so unwell. The poor thing was clearly in pain and I had absolutely no way of alleviating it. It felt like a fruitless exercise.

I had a nerve-wracking multi-point turn to get the mini-bus facing the other direction to head back to the hotel. The person that I needed to speak to wasn’t going to be back till the evening. In fact the hotel was pretty much empty with everyone out for the day except the tour manager. Whilst not wanting to look ungrateful for the free vehicle, I was able to politely request an exchange in rental vehicle as there is little in the way of parking areas around the island, and the hefty bulk of the mini-bus was going to limit me getting around the place. When I set off back east again, it was in a jeep. I passed back through Owenga and continued on the road to reach the very end. My plan was to visit a statue near the point but when I got there, it was mobbed with a large number of islanders parked up on every inch of available grass. They were there to honour the man whose statue it was, and I felt like such an intrusive tourist as I really had no idea what I was gatecrashing.

I found a patch of long grass that I could squeeze onto out of the way and hung around at the margins of the crowd. Everyone smiled at me though and one lady explained what they were there for and told me not to feel shy about being there. Still, I hesitated as they were all taking family photos, and I only approached as most of them were leaving. I’d never heard of the man who the statue represents prior to arriving on the island and I still don’t feel adequately knowledgeable to talk about him. Feeling like I’d intruded on a private event, and secretly wondering if the owner of the house I’d just been in was here, I stayed for only a brief period before heading off.

On the western edge of Owenga is the wharf where fishing charters take off from. I pulled down the hill to the slipway and was surprised to come across the group of guys from my motel. They were supposed to be going out on a fishing trip but it had been cancelled, and they were stuck with a flat tyre and no spare. They were struggling to get the tyre off, and I offered to shuttle them and the tyre back to Waitangi to get it fixed. There was little I could do to help get the tyre off when they were struggling, so I simply waited. Eventually a local turned up, saw the predicament and took off with the tyre on the back of his quad bike. Some time later, he reappeared, having patched the hole and reinflated it. Islanders are more than used to a dose of resilience, and with my services no longer required, I bid everyone goodbye and headed off.

I’d planned on doing a multi-hour hike in the area but felt it was a bit late in the day now to set off so changed my plans and decided to stick to the southern end of the island, but this time on the western half. But as I drove back to Waitangi, I found myself getting flagged down by the driver of one of the tour buses. He’d broken down with a busload full of passengers on board. He hopped in and I took him to another random house upon his direction. It was Sunday and what few businesses there are on the island were either not open at all, or only open for very limited hours. I was beginning to feel like an islander, and didn’t mind one bit. It felt nice to be helpful, and I was happy to ferry the driver to get what he needed and take him back to the bus.

From Waitangi, I took the only road south which gave me a gorgeous view of the south-west coast. I would have loved to stop and take photos but there was simply nowhere to pull over and I didn’t want to be a nuisance for the islanders. I kept going for some distance until I wasn’t sure if I was entering private property or not. When the opportunity arose to turn the car around I took it, hovering briefly in a couple of spots to absorb the view when I was confident nobody else was coming.


It was by now mid-afternoon, and I had to decide what to do next. Pulling the map out, I decided to drive all the way to the north coast to do a couple of walks I’d spied while being taken to the fur seal colony earlier on my trip. The sun was out and it was a gorgeous day. My first stop on North Road was a wetland walk that led to one of the many lakes in the region. I had the place to myself and it felt so still and peaceful. There were a few birds around at the water’s edge, but not enough to keep me there for long. I completed the circuit and moved on to Ocean Mail Scenic Reserve a little further along the road. I was grateful for the jeep with the bit of off-roading I had to do to reach the parking spot and I stepped out into a mildly windy afternoon and found I had the place to myself.


Stepping onto the white sand I was presented with a stunning stretch of beach, buffeted by the coastal wind and with a mild chop on the waters offshore. I felt transported to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and walks along similar desolate beaches on similar remote islands, and I spent the next few hours with a giant grin on my face as I traipsed along the sandy substrate spotting jellyfish and crab shells galore. In fact the numbers of crab shells was insane. To this day I’m not sure what happened to their former occupants – were they caught, eaten and discarded, or had there been some mass mortality and feast, or was it simply the prevailing winds driving successively dead crab shells on the same beach? The vast numbers of jellyfish I suspect were due to the currents and wind, so perhaps this was the same fate for the crabs.


I walked until my body told me to turn back. I watched groups of oyster catchers feed in the tidal zone as I wandered, and I was most certainly in no hurry to leave. This became my favourite spot on the whole island and it was only the call of dinner that could drag me away. Back at the Hotel Chatham I was finally able to give my report on the poor kitty from the morning, and word had got back about me rescuing the bus driver. I’d come to the Chatham Islands on my own, to find solitude and tranquility, and I’d found heaps of both, in conjunction with an exceptionally welcoming community of people. I was going to be sad to leave. Back in my motel, I had a quick catch up with the guys, who’d thankfully been able to make the most of their afternoon after their car troubles. I retired to my room where I had a great view of the sky changing colour as the sun set behind the nearby farm. A tractor on the ridge provided a nice silhouette, and tired as I was from a lot of fresh air and excitement, I was soon out for the count ahead of my last full day on this magical island.

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.

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.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: