|Arrival to blue skies and sunshine|
Flying over the Te Whanga Lagoon, which takes up about a fifth of the main island's territory, we approach the Inia Willian Tuuta Memorial Aerodrome on one of the two inhabited islands - Chatham. The lagoon sports the vaguely bilious colours of algae bloom, but it transpires this is pollution from swan shit. Yes, there are literally thousands of black swans on the island and they are a pest. Each year there is a swan egg hunt in a effort to at least keep the population in check, if not decrease it. Last year 600 eggs were found. Locals used to destroy the eggs, but then the swan would lay another. Now a hole is poked in the egg and it is left in the nest. The swan will sit on it, but it won't hatch.
|Flying over the lagoon|
Why have we come to this remote 10 island archipelago? Why not - it is part of New Zealand but generally only heard of at end of the weather forecast, typically with the words, "and in the Chatham Islands, cloudy and overcast with showers". The internet describes the climate as having "a narrow temperature range and relatively frequent rainfal". We arrive prepared for cooler temperatures and rain. We are rewarded with above average temperatures (early 20s C) and sun, with a bit of drizzle on one afternoon. This makes for perfect exploring weather.
The 900ish square km island has a shape that defies adequate description - google a map - and it is the topography and geology that makes it such an interesting place. The village of Waitangi sits at the waist of the landmass and unsealed roads extend to the Northwest and Northeast - divided by the massive lagoon, and to the Southwest and Southeast.
|Chatham Island Oystercatchers on Wharekauri Beach, north coast|
Remarkably, for a smallish Island the landscape varies considerably - in general it is hilly with lots of bays, beaches, rocky shore and coastal shoals. The ocean abounds with fish and crayfish and their export forms the basis of the economy. There are farms covering a lot of the island, but we are constantly told there is no money in farming, and the better maintained farms we see are those where the families have fishing income as well. There are many thistle and gorse covered paddocks with no sigs of maintenance that attest to the financial difficulties of farming so far from supplies and markets. Everything - everything - has to be shipped in or flown in at considerable cost. Fencing costs 40% more to do on the Chathams than on the mainland - therefore when driving you need to be alert to wandering stock.
|classic Chathams scene|
Each day we head off in a different direction and find something we haven't seen before. At the Haupupu National Reserve we are shown rakau moriori - Moriori tree carvings hundreds of years old. Many have been lost through time and a lack of understanding about preservation and very few remain in the reserve.
|Moriori tree carving|
In the north there are volcanic peaks and a large proportion of the island is peat - there are also sand dunes, schist, basalt, limestone, fresh water lakes and volcanic lava flows. In the words of one local "God must have made the Chathams last. He had a wheelbarrow full of everything left over and used them up here".
At the stone cottage we meet Helen who, after years on the mainland has come back to live in isolation, without running water - she's also getting rid of her generator and Sky dish - she doesn't need power, and is happy if she has plenty of batteries for her radio. This article
http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/nz-life-leisure/72077747/Living-in-isolation-on-the-Chatham-Islands describes more about the cottage and her life, but I am here to tell you Helen appears genetically unable to dispose of anything and has a magpie's compulsion to amass. She has filled the cottage with considerably more bric a brac (aka junk) since this article appeared a couple of years ago. She is a compelling storyteller and has a wealth of stories to tell.
|Helen the storyteller|
Isolation and weather patterns have created a specific ecosystem and growing conditions - the same plants we have on the mainland have evolved differently here. A great example is the lancewood - on mainland New Zeland the juvenile plant has sharp leathery foliage to protect it from moa (in the olden days!). There were never moa on the Chathams so the juvenile lancewood has smooth leaves.
|More stunning coast, this time lava beds|
But it is seafood that is the star of the Chathams and Sunday means the Kaingaroa Social Club fundraiser Seafood Buffet.
|The club rooms have a stunning location|
|Fabulous seafood - the tables are groaning, as are our stomachs when we leave.|
We tried mutton bird (aka sooty shearwater or titi) for the first - and last - time. We drank beer and wine and talked to locals and visitors and drove home 60kms on the gravel road in the dark. We stopped when we came across a couple of other tourists who had hit a sheep - gravel roads and errant stock are major hazards and the cause of long wait times at the panel beaters. We understand why rental vehicles are so prohibitively expensive - $300 a day for our 10 seater van.
|Crayfish season closes for March and April. We saw many stacks of cray pots like this|
Chatham Islanders seem to consider themselves New Zealanders, but not. They refer to the mainland as New Zealand, and we find ourselves doing the same thing after a few days there. It feels like a different country, 45 minutes ahead in time zone, but 45 years in the past. Not a bad thing..
|Chatham Islands wood pigeon, aka Parea|
|Red bluff tuff - iron in the soil rusts giving the red colour|
|Nikau forest in a DOC recreation area|
|The wharf at Kaingaroa|