Blown away by the Chatham Islands
Northland writer Michael Botur spends 10 days in our most remote community.
The wind began even before I left Auckland.
Air Chathams flight 519 is a sixty year old Convair 580 with four chunky propeller blades on each engine which gave me the noisiest flight I’ve ever experienced. Everything about the Chatham Islands is extreme, actually: remote, isolated, and under-visited.
Pushed to the edge of most people’s minds, the Chathams are as far east as Tonga and as far south as Patagonia. They catch the wind, so expect bent-over trees, huge waves and windbreaker jackets on everyone.
45 minutes ahead on the clock, the Chathams resemble a country farm town plopped in the middle of the Pacific. They’re separated not only by 800km of ocean, but also by culture. Don’t expect paved roads, a high school, cellphone reception or a supermarket. Do expect small town charm, though – with just 600 residents, you’ll be treated with interest.
Hit up the locals in the pub at Waitangi for a conversation and you can expect the following: they refer to the mainland as “New Zealand,” they’ll laugh if you ask about swimming in the freezing, shark-infested ocean, and they’ll look hard into your face to see if you’re recognisable. Ask how to get down to the beach and you may be told you have to phone 5555 (the first three digits are a given – every number on the Chathams begins with 305.)
The centre of the community, geographically and socially, is the Hotel Chathams, containing your only reliable restaurant. Recently renovated, your hotel comes with heat pumps, double glazed windows, deep carpet and excellent water pressure while outside it’s gale force winds and pounding waves.
Floyd, Kaai, Francesca and the friendly faces running the place bring big city hospitality standards. Each person has a different story about going away and ending up back on the islands where life is straightforward.
The charming Toni Croon – whose sister is the mayor – manages the Hotel, has a side-business in honey and works with her whanau to guide tourists through the Admiral Gardens. Everyone on the islands jumps in to help with work where needed, so don’t be surprised if you see Toni doubling as your tour bus driver, motel cleaner, receptionist, and mucking in to help move a stuck 4WD out of a paddock near Cape Pattisson.
Every local you’ll meet comes with colour – fishermen swapping crayfish for cement; All Blacks fans dancing in the pub after every try. One man I met was sitting in his lounge in a wetsuit, miles from the ocean. Most of these people will drop everything to let you experience something new on their land, boat or patch of coast, and they’ll always give you a lift – this intimate community is a hitchhiker’s paradise.
Expect mud, wind and memories
Helen Bint, who resides in an unpowered Category 1 heritage-listed Stone Cottage with no neighbours for ten kays, will let you climb the towering stone mountain overlooking her home for fantastic northern coastal views.
At Blind Jim’s Point on the edge of the endless Te Whanga Lagoon, bus driver Matilda finds fossilised prehistoric shark teeth for every tourist.
Lois Croon, who can give you access to private walking tracks through the dunes and forests on her property, will tell you casually that her son has been attacked by great white sharks “once or twice” – but it’s okay. He knows now to punch them on the nose.
While gorse-covered farms prevail, wetland boardwalks around the lagoon have been built near Kaingaroa in the northeast, and there are forests of nikau palms and kopi (karaka) trees. Some of the bush walks are so wild you won’t see a single soul.
Tucked into the cliffs southwest of Waitangi, the Awatotara Track follows tannin-blackened waterfalls down a steep valley and arrives at a wild cove covered in washed-up buoys and crayfish pots. Another track, towards the towering southern cliffs of the Rangaika/Thomas Tuuta Scenic Reserve, takes you through what looks like desert (it’s native tarahinau peat bush) before entering a gnarly forest straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Expect pigs, black swans, horned sheep, feral goats, wild horses, weka, deep mud and a hot shower after every excursion. You’ll encounter dolphin bones, steer skulls and paua shells amongst the unmissable blue-flowered Chatham Islands forget-me-nots.
It’s southern Pitt Island that drops jaws, though. A Cessna flies the 50km over the water and arrives at Pitt’s Flowerpot Lodge after 25 breathtaking minutes. The Flowerpot is value-added accommodation, so expect your bill to cover skylights, plush décor, comfy armchairs, continental breakfasts and a guided tour of beaches with the bones of Moriori, sharks and whales.
- Visit the hexagonal basalt rock crystals by Port Hutt and you can pluck paua and kina out of the rock pools
- A seafood buffet BBQ at the Admiral Gardens will include locally caught crayfish and cod
- The seals at Point Munning on Chatham Island’s northeast corner live on spears of Star Trek-ish sparkling white schist
- The Moriori community in southeast Owenga have a gorgeous marae named Kōpinga. Any visitor can expect fascinating oral history, panoramic views, a sobering memorial and a sealskin rug
- Artists Celestine, Celine and Eva-Cherie showcase handmade art in their home galleries, with café service.
- Don’t forget to ring ahead and get permission to get anywhere off the beaten track, be it by bus, 4WD ute, or – as in my case – a quad bike on the tray of a ute, which I sat upon while the driver broke every driving law in the book (totally worth it).
A week in the Chathams – still a pipe dream on many people’s bucket list – is guaranteed to turn the conversation your way at your next dinner party.
Fancy? Nope. Memorable? One hundred percent.
Air Chathams flies from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch most days of the week.
Hotel Chathams room rates range between $100-$250, with luxury options.
Accommodation options include Te Henga Lodge, Traveller’s Rest and the brand-new Admiral Garden Cottage.