A visit to the Chatham Islands has always been on my travel list, but with other overseas destinations cropping up over the years I never quite got there.
Now that overseas travel has been restricted, New Zealanders are encouraged to see their own country, so this year felt like the perfect time to finally visit.
The Chatham Islands (or Rekohu meaning ‘misty sun’ in Moriori, and Wharekauri in Māori) lie about 800 km east of Christchurch, and are the first inhabited place to see the sun each day.
They’re made up of 11 islands, with Chatham, the largest, and Pitt, the second largest, inhabited with a population of 600.
The main industries on the islands are fishing for crayfish and blue cod, and sheep and beef farming.
It is becoming a popular tourist destination, as the currency and language are the same and there are no restrictions on bringing food items back to the mainland.
It is interesting that the locals refer to the mainland as New Zealand as if they were a country apart, which in a way they are. It wasn’t long before I was following suit.
As most of the historical, cultural and nature reserves are on private land, it is best to go with a tour group as they are allowed access to these special places.
Kerry, from Chatham Island Tours, has been sharing her knowledge of the island for the past seven years, and she ably drove our group around the island in her 25-seater bus, including over farmland.
Firstly we took a trip around the main town of Waitangi’s CBD, which took all of five minutes. The village has a shop, a hardware store, a service station, a café, a bank – which opens one day a week – and a police station. There’s also the wharf, the Hotel Chatham, council offices and a museum, with displays of the island’s history. The council is in the process of building larger offices with a more substantial space for the museum.
The bus had large clear windows to take in the scenery, but with drizzly days and wet metal roads it wasn’t long before all that could be seen were muddy windows.
Tommy Solomon was believed to be the last full blooded Moriori. He died in 1933, aged 48, and his descendants have erected a statue to honour him on the land they own. He stands proudly and looks out over the Pacific Ocean at Manukau, southeast from Waitangi, and is a must see.
The large Te Whanga Lagoon is in the middle of the island and is partly fresh and partly salt water. It’s a good place to stop and search for fossilised shark teeth, but unfortunately there were none to be seen on the day I looked.
The coastline has beautiful, wild, white sandy beaches with large waves - ideal for surfing. However, the island is prone to sharks so the best place for swimming is the lagoon.
Walking through the bush we went to look at the ancient Moriori tree carvings. Historians are unsure how they were made, and the theory is they were somehow pressed into the bark of the tree. Some are hard to decipher and can be easily missed without a guide.
A large shed on a sheep and beef farm at Kaingaroa houses the remains of a Sunderland Flying Boat, which struck a rock while taxiing on Te Whanga Lagoon and started taking on water in 1959. The farmer salvaged some of it, and while it will never fly again, it’s interesting to walk through the interior and get a feel for flying back in the 50s.
Sealers and whalers almost decimated the seal colonies in the late 1800s, but the seals are flourishing since hunting stopped. There are several hundred at the seal colony at Kaingaroa, where they play and hunt amongst the bull kelp.
Who knew there was such a thing as freeze dried honey? The brain child of Kaai Silbery, she has been developing this product over the past few years and has launched it on the market as Go Wild honey. It is light and crunchy and can be used as a base for desserts. A tour of Kaai’s property and her collection of native plants shows her commitment to the island and her product.
The stone cottage at Waitangi West was built in 1868 for German missionaries. It lay abandoned for many years until seven years ago, when Helen Bint returned to the islands and took on the restoration of the cottage. It sits alone in a paddock under a large rocky outcrop close to the sea, and Helen’s garden is full of brightly coloured flowers.
Unfortunately, the weather was not kind and the trip to Pitt Island had to be cancelled, so maybe another time.
There are several accommodation options on the Chatham Islands, but no camping facilities. Our group stayed at the Forget Me Not Suites, part of Hotel Chatham, where we were looked after very well. The blue cod dinners have to be the best in New Zealand.
We all left the island with a better knowledge of this remote part of New Zealand and a two kilo box of frozen blue cod to take home.
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