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.