The Lonely Landscape of the Chatham Islands, where the coronavirus probably won’t ever arrive

March 1, 2020
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FROM Waitangi, the bustle-free capital of the Chathams, I headed north again. This was the area with freaky lonesome volcanoes and wandering cattle.

The roads are lonesome themselves, and long. They often traverse unfenced private or tribal land, whence the wandering cattle.

The landscape reminded me of the remoter islands of Scotland, with lots of rocks and heather, or something like heather, as well as black basalt and attractive-but-cold beaches. I sort-of expected to come across a whisky distillery at some point.

Here, too, are the most nature reserves and wetland walks on the island.

A Department of Conservation shelter

Here’s a video made during a squall of bad weather on the wetlands, with a terrific thumbnail!

At Port Hutt, a little town in the north-west, there was a wrecked ship, the HMNZS Thomas Currell (not to mention the usual beast).

There are several shipwrecks on the Chathams’ shores. There’s a webpage about them, here.

The Port Hutt area is also famous for its basalt columns, like the ones that form the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.

Basalt Columns on the Chatham Islands. Public domain image (2008) by ‘Mr Hole’ via Wikitravel.

Detail from an information sign

The biggest accumulation of basalt columns, apparently, is at Ohira Bay east of Port Hutt. I took photos from a distance but they didn’t really do justice to this incredible formation.

You can see some better images of the basalt columns at Ohira Bay east of Port Hutt on this page by Southern Alps Photography. You can see that they really are a lot like the Giant’s Causeway.

Toward the east, I went to a place called Hapupu, which seems to be the last bastion of the island’s famous Moriori dendroglyphs or tree-carvings, the youngest of which are probably getting on for two hundred years old now.

As the rather small kōpi trees on which they were carved don’t live for much longer than that, they carving in the wild won’t be with us for long; although, as the trees expire, the carvings are being preserved in museums and in local cultural centres.

A dendroglyph, still just visible after all these years!

Here’s a camping shelter on Department of Conservation (DOC) land.

And a video of a dendroglyph.

The area round Kaingaroa, further toward the north-eastern tip of the island, is a great stronghold of the local fishing industry.

Detail from a map I was carrying

Here’s the fleet in harbour.

And a boat on another day, when the sea looks like molten lead.

Here’s a monument to a Moriori named Torotoro who was shot in 1791 by the crew of HMS Chatham, the ship after which the islands are named. The monument also includes plaques dedicated to people from the Chathams who have been lost at sea since that time.

I went to a community dinner at Kaingaroa, where I hoped to have weka, a local delicacy. Weka weren’t native to the Chathams, but they were introduced some time back and now the locals even refer to theselves as ‘weka’.

A weka, a wild bird that is is often too fearless for its own good. See my Volunteering at Kahurangi blog post for a film sequence of cheeky weka.

Getting on to that community dinner, we had weka paté which was nice, and weka stew, but the fish was better. What I really enjoyed about the fish was that I had a real selection: blue cod smoked, blue cod raw in coconut sauce, fresh-water crawfish and crayfish from the sea.

At the dinner, a speech was given by Mana Cracknell, an academic expert on indegnous culture who was born in mainland New Zealand of a heritage which included Māori iwi (tribal) affiliation and Moriori descent and who now lives on the Chathams. Mr Cracknell has for years worked closely with Maui Solomon, of the late Tame Horomona Rehe / Tommy Solomon’s family, to revive the knowledge of the Moriori.

At the dinner, Mr Cracknell talked about how the resources of the Chathams and their surrounding seas had often been plundered, with nothing much going to the locals. In the 1980s it had been crayfish; at present, there is an application for mining phosphate on the islands..

Mr Cracknell also described how, when he was smoking fish on the beach, he was surrounded by the bones of early Moriori ancestors which often emerged from gravesites (and who had actually been murdered on the beach in droves in the earliest era of Māori conquest). He said it had given him sleepless nights for two weeks. It shocked me too, as I didn’t know too much about that.

He said that rather than fight, the early Moriori had said to wait seven or eight generations for everything to settle down. Which is quite farsighted I suppose, though it did not do them much good at the time.

I visited the new Kōpinga Marae of the Moriori. It’s only a few years old and therefore quite a bit more flash than the older Whakamaharatanga Marae of the Māori people on the island, at Te One.

The Marae contained preserved dendroglyphs, and a carved pole with the names of sixteen hundred Moriori who lived on the islands at the time of the Māori invasion in 1835.

Here is a video I made:

There was a sign showing that it was at the antipodes of a village in France. I wonder if the crew of the Jean Bart and the Héroïne had known that this was about as far away from France as it was possible to get?

Finally, I made it at last to the Thomas Mohi Tuuta (Rangaika) Reserve in the south-east. This involved hiking over heather to a low forest, a good day’s hike that I hadn’t been able to manage the first time I was in that part of the island.

The Tuuta walk was a bit scary, as there were wild pigs there, and I nearly got lost in the impenetrable jungle, perhaps as a result of taking the wrong sort of trail.

I had planned to go to Pitt Island as well. But the air service to that island is very hit and miss. A while back the motor of the plane they were using to hop between the islands blew up on the runway and Pitt Island was without a plane for nine months. When I was there some group tours had cancelled, so they weren’t as busy as normal and so once again there weren’t any flights avaialable to Pitt Island. Perhaps I will get there myself one day!

And so concludes my series of blog posts on the Chathams!

If you liked these posts, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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