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.