A Travellerspoint blog

The New Bali

Chatham Islands - Covid-19 Hideaway

sunny 20 °C

About 4 million years ago a group of 80 million year old underwater volcano's in the South Pacific heaved themselves up from the ocean floor as result of a relatively rare event - Subduction of oceanic plateaux. Wait! Don’t leave yet – that’s the last time I’ll attempt to be intelligent. These new islands, which appear strangely similar to a T-bone steak, were probably among the last significant land mass to be inhabited by Homo sapiens (sorry I mean people). These people were Polynesians who called themselves Moriori. They arrived about 200 years after Maori found New Zealand. (That will be contentious – but it’s true in spite of lots of miss-information previously published about Moriori and Maori.)
The islands were named (at last) in 1791 when a British ship named HMS Chatham chanced upon them. It’s fortunate they noticed because this crew had a reputation for serious brawling and suffering from dysentery. Obviously not a creative bunch so they took the easy option and called their discovery ‘The Chatham Islands’. While subject to ongoing argument there have been 3 principal ethnicities on these islands – Moriori, Maori and Pakeha. Between them they totally altered the fauna through clearing for crops and farms by various means including widespread burning. A few pockets of unique endemic plants remain.
These days the islands are part of New Zealand but the locals do not consider themselves New Zealanders. Nor do they consider NZ the 'mainland'. They call themselves 'Wekas' not 'Kiwis''. So unlikely given Weka are a pest like opossums, stoats and rats. I was very disappointed not to be served ‘Roast Weka’ as promised in the tour promo. (Probably like chicken ?) Given the Chats are 840 kilometres (520 mi) East or 2.5 hours by plane, Flypaper decided they constituted an overseas holiday which cunningly thwarted the ‘guvmint’ decree we could not travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lots of other Kiwis decided the same so it has become the New Bali. There are about 150 spare beds on the island and since October they have all been occupied by visitors who previously had no interest in the 3 ‘f’s’- Flora, Fauna or Fishing.
In mid-February, our pilot, a relatively young lady in a hurry, scarred her 74 passengers witless by demonstrating the fastest possible (successful) landing. With smoking tyres we avoided becoming a crash landing by about 2 metres (6ft). That was followed by a ride in an old (1960s) bus of mysterious parentage that transported us 19km; (12 mi) from the modern terminal to the capital Waitangi (Pop 250). Typical of island transport it has no Warrant of Fitness, clutch problems, suspect brakes & a door that doesn’t close. It does have hard seats and lots of rattles. This was our introduction to a place and lifestyle reminiscent of the 1950’s. On the way into town our driver, who was our hostess & the ‘Crown Princess’ of the Chathams turned unexpectedly through a farm gate and bounced over a paddock to a ridge providing a wonderful view of our home for the next week. At that moment I knew I would like this place.
The Chats is the first inhabited place in the world to see the sun rise every morning. Its 45 minutes ahead of NZ – which is way ahead of the rest of the world in many ways. While this is official ‘Island Time’ the reality is demonstrated by the sign on the door of the Waitangi Cafe – located in the CBD the opening hours are advertised as … Mon – Fri 8am – 2pm 5pm – 7pm –( with the addendum) ‘These hours are highly subject to change.’
The dominant plant on the island is gorse. Should a commercial use be found for gorse the 10 major land owners of the island will become extremely wealthy. Local tours are best described as bus travel multiple times over sections of the 180km (120mi) gravel roads that reminded me of those where I grew up and learned to drive. It’s impossible to go to sleep when constantly correcting slides and countering camber changes. Other occasional road users are signalled well in advance by rising dust clouds and, again as in my childhood, are acknowledged by a cheerful wave. At the ‘Chats, it’s possible everyone knows the other road users. Dodging stock and the prolific Weka add to the fun. The one thing missing on the Chats are Road Cones. What a shame. I suspect this is due to no interference from the NZ Transport Agency.
The lack of mainland bureaucracy is further evidenced by the fact few vehicles have Warrants of Fitness – or would pass if inspected. There is one garage on the island authorised to issue WOFs. It is one of the few eyesores and seen on most journeys out of Waitangi. On any given day there will be over 20 vehicles parked haphazardly around – just where the owners left them hoping for repairs or, in the case of ‘guvmint’ vehicles, a WOF. Our guide advised many have been waiting in excess of 6 months and a year is not unusual. The mechanic/proprietor usually blames the delay on waiting time for spare parts from the mainland. Locals say they can obtain the parts much quicker but if they do so he will not do the work. They also suspect many of the parts are not required and, in spite of never being fitted; the long awaited vehicle mysteriously runs perfectly … but only after the invoice has been paid.
Should you follow in our footsteps – or more correctly, have the pleasure of being transported about in the better of the 2 island buses, I do hope you are fortunate in being chauffeured by Jane. When not ferrying school children morning and evening (or rescuing her wayward son from the police station) she can often be found frightening tourists who verge on indignation because she is driving too fast. Jane would be a strong contender for gold if bus driving were a competitive Olympic activity. The very best time of my visit among New Zealand’s least paranoid community, was the hour we travelled half the length of the main island in an attempt to make up for time lost time frigging about looking for birds you are not allowed to eat. Jane was conscious we were late for dinner being hosted by the King & Queen at their lovely home. While others cast worried looks and tried to fasted broken seat belts or ferreted about in their day packs looking for their angina pills & Flypaper clutched my hand just like she used to … I sat almost mesmerised by the skills normally only exhibited by leading rally drivers. Jane carried speed and controlled her drifting 18 seater in a way that made me appreciate abilities now lost on the congested tar seal of civilisation. Jane is also a woman of great verbal stamina. Her continued non-stop entertainment recalling countless escapades and confessing the occasional misdemeanour proved her relaxed control was instinctive.
While there are a number of historical sights to be visited, the principal activity for tourists is wandering about looking at the flora and fauna. Now, it’s easily discovered I am not a fully paid up, card carrying greenie – but I do enjoy nature if its flat and dry. While being full of admiration of the efforts of many to re-establish the endemic plants and birds, I did find it difficult to see or even care about the difference in various trees and shrubs to those on mainland NZ. A darker shade of leaf or the ability to withstand stronger wind does not, in my view, justify a longer varied Latin identity. When told of these wonders, some of my fellow travellers nodded in a very satisfying manner, made appreciative sounds of pleasure in their new knowledge – and raised their smartphone and honoured the occasion by taking dozens of photos. Similarly, the birds left me underwhelmed. Sure, the Chatham Fantail has a little more white on its tail and enjoys a wider vocabulary than its mainland cousin, but still refuses to sit still and be admired. After doggedly tramping around one predator fenced grove our guide proudly advised we had seen all 6 varieties of bird now present after years and millions of dollars spent. I would happily show you many more than 6 birds in our garden should you make an appointment with Flypaper and bring muffins. With luck, you may be able to take home proof of their existence in the form of deposits on the roof of your car.
However, I did sit up with energized interest when driver Jane advised she was taking us down a side road to see the Chatham Moa or, with luck, Moas. There were understandable shrieks of excitement when a flock of 2m high flightless birds strolled into view just off the road before running away into the protective gorse. The humourless ornithologist’s present vehemently claimed they were a member of the ‘Ratite’ family called dromaius novaehollandiae. This was a great disappointment to many although I still prefer to believe they are Moa. Who knows what else may be lurking in that gorse.
There are about 150 guest beds in hotels, pensions and BnBs on the ‘Chats’. Most are owned by the Hotel Chatham family. They offer wonderful hospitality and, in spite of having both a monopoly and a captive market, are good quality and attractively priced. The hotel (Pub) is virtually the only place to eat and drink east of Christchurch but offers modestly priced beers and wines … and a wonderful menu also at a price considered inexpensive back on mainland NZ. The ‘Chats’ reputation for the best fish (Blue Cod) and crayfish in the country is easy to understand given both species seem to virtually jump into any boat venturing off the beach.
This was proven during our 1 hour boat trip to Pitt Island and the circumnavigation of the other small outer islands. The skipper demonstrated ‘Chats’ hospitality by enabling his passengers to catch a dozen Blue Cod in a few minutes – then tossed them briefly in the frying pan with lots of butter for a morning snack. Afternoon tea was found in a quickly hauled up crayfish pot. One large tail was cooked in the heavily buttered frying pan for each guest within minutes. Given one of the passengers astonishingly claimed to never eat fish, bird or beast, Flypaper and I showed her the error of her lifestyle by gobbling up her share. We will jointly attest that one & a half large tails is a serious meal requiring not only a loosening of the belt but the release of a few buttons. Flypaper was very concerned her lifejacket would no longer fit. I assured her there would be someone on board still capable of her rescue.
The reason we took a large crayfish boat to Pitt instead of being shuttled in a 5 seater Cessna was due to an unfortunate incident in the hanger the week before. Air Chathams aircraft engineer fitted a new alternator and jumped into the cockpit to run up the engine on test. Unfortunately the flaps had been left extended and the plane lifted out of the chocks and flew into the petrol tanker. Ruined his day – and both machines.
If you become enthused to visit the ‘Chats’ (we recommend you do), be sure to visit Helen Bint at the Stone Cottage. This is astonishing elderly woman lives alone without any mod cons in a remote 157 year old German mission house surrounded by the most amazing collection of memorabilia. One of the first Items I spied on her wall (and there are lots) was a cartoon drawing I made in 1995 for an industry Newsletter I published bimonthly as promotion for our business. It made both our days when I was able to autograph it for her. Small world.
The most enduring memory of the ‘Chats’ is the abandoned, rusting, overgrown machinery, tractors and vehicles everywhere. It’s scrap-metal-mans heaven. A suitable motto for these islands would be …If it stops – Walk away.

Posted by Wheelspin 04:50 Archived in New Zealand Tagged islands bali fauna island crayfish maori flora gorse chatham pit pandemic waitangi weka moa covid moriori fantail ratite Comments (0)

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