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There are Moriori, after all!

Published
February 15, 2020
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One of the maps I was carrying

This is my second post about a visit to New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. The first post is here.

WELL, this is timely! I just clicked on the international news and read that the New Zealand Government has concluded an agreement with the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands. Among other things the Government recognises that they exist and are not extinct after all, the best efforts of some of their past oppressors notwithstanding.

This is, of course, the ambiguity of Tame Horomana Rehe or Tommy Solomon, the ‘last Moriori’, commemorated in a statue at Owenga.

Like the obelisk on Auckland’s One Tree Hill, funded in 1912 to commemorate the passing of the noble Māori race (as people liked to say back then), such monuments have a double-edged significance. They’re meant well at the time, I suppose. And yet the message is, ‘Hoi, you’re all supposed to be dead’.

Aerial drone shot of One Tree Hill with downtown Auckland in the background (14 March 2015) by ‘Techno246’, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By the time the One Tree Hill memorial was completed in 1940 — perhaps by coincidence the year of the officially-commemorated 100th anniversary of New Zealand’s founding Treaty of Waitangi — the Māori population had recovered to the point where Maori numbered about seven per cent of all New Zealand’s inhabitants. The obelisk, whose purpose now almost seemed like a slap in the face to the Treaty commemorations, would likely have been declared a more generic centennial monument if the terms of the bequest hadn’t specifically said it was for a memorial.

These days, the Māori number the best part of a million. And it’s now officially conceded that there are nearly a thousand Moriori as well. After 250 years of colonisation, it’s true that most present-day Māori and all Moriori are the result of intermarriage. But then again, after a thousand years of all sorts of people coming and going you’d be scratching to find the last undiluted Anglo-Saxon in England, either.

But so much for current events. In the rest of this post, I resume my journey around the Chathams, picking up from where I left off last week, at Wharekauri.

Back on the Road, again

Two places I didn’t get to in the vicinity of Wharekauri were the small but attractive Nīkau Bush Conservation Area and the nearby Blind Jims Beach on the great central lagoon called Te Whanga, where fossilised shark teeth routinely wash up along with other remnants of prehistoric sea creatures: a legacy of the days when the Chathams were well under the sea. The original source must be eroding into the lagoon somewhere.

And then I went back to my hotel that evening and met a German gentleman by the name of Joris, who had decided that everything was too expensive. He was paying NZ$150 a night for his ensuite room and he just didn’t want to do anything because it was just way too expensive. That was understandable especially when you factor in the cost of meals. The Chathams Hotel was the only hotel on the island where you could get breakfast, lunch and dinner: convenient. And Kai was a very good chef. But the cost would add up.

I was able to save some money at least. Because I’d been planning to go camping at first, I’d come over with a whole pack full of food: dried food, fish, rolled oats, sultanas and so on. I decided that instead of eating at the hotel I would work through this. I’d eat out and have half a crayfish whenever I got sick of hiking food.

I’d spoken with a woman called Bernadette Lim from Te Henga Lodge. She’d put me in touch with landowners who might have allowed camping, but they didn’t. This was all before I discovered the well-kept secret of being able to camp on Department of Conservation land for free!

Bernadette had also told me that I could hire a car from the garage on the island, from a guy called Graham. The Chathams Hotel was renting out their cars for NZ$160 a day plus petrol (gasoline). I thought that was a bit pricey: but the real problem was that there wasn’t any petrol! The goods ferry only came every five or six weeks, and was threatened with closure to boot. There was only Diesel at the time I was there: a fuel that presumably could’t be allowed to run out because it powered all kinds of big generators and machinery.

So I hired a Diesel-powered car from Graham’s garage, which also worked out a bit cheaper: NZ$100 a day, plus fuel.

On the main island the distances are typically of the order of 50 km, and the one road on Pitt is shorter than 10 km. It’s supposed to be a paradise for mountain bikers. But in a lot of areas the roads run across unfenced rangelands patrolled by bulls! So, I felt safer inside something made of tin.

At least that’s the case on the main island; I can’t speak for Pitt as unfortunately I never made it there due to the short-hop air service being unexpectedly out of commission. Which is another story.

I drove to Owenga in the south-east part of the main island and drove to a cemetery on a place called Manukau Farm, where the statue of Tame Horomana Rehe or Tommy Solomon, the aforementioned ‘last’ Moriori, stands. Here’s the map, again.

Some old graves, in the atmospheric cemetery.

Here’s a video that looks around.

It was eerie standing next to Horomana / Solomon’s casual-looking statue: I thought it was going to come alive!

I had a flat tyre and met another Solomon from the not-so-lost tribe, Fred Solomon, who changed my tyre and said I could stay where the farm’s old homestead used to be at Manukau Point. I thanked him but went back to the hotel in town as it was raining torrentially and really cold, too. Indeed it was like that for the first three or four days I was on the island. That would have put paid to my camping plans by itself.

You can hear the wind in just about all my videos shot on the Chathams. I found that I had to keep my wet weather gear on for the whole three or four days I was outside and was really glad of a proper hotel bed with crisp sheets each night, though it was burning up the cash.

The Chathams aren’t among the New Zealand offshore islands classified as ‘subantarctic’. Presumably their beaches are even more “bracing,” in the sense of a famously optimistic North-of-England tourism poster from a hundred-odd years ago.

Great Northern Railway Tourism poster (1908) by John Hassall. Science Museum Group Collection (UK), public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

I thought of walking up a track from Owenga to the Thomas Mohi Tuuta (Rangaika) Scenic Reserve, which is on the south coast of the island, on the other side of the Cape Fournier peninsula from Owenga.

There’s very little treescape on the Chathams outside of a mountainous massif in the south-west of the main island centred on Maungatere Hill, plus scenic reserves like Thomas Mohi Tuuta, where the second-biggest patch of native forest can be found.

The Thomas Mohi Tuuta reserve also sits on top of a belt of peat, which helps to keep the trees’ roots moist. And it sits on top a volcanic landscape.

The geology of the Chathams is really varied, with limestone, schist and volcanic rock all over the the place, plus peat and sand. Near Waitangi, there’s an information panel quoting a local farmer who said that God must have made the Chathams last, out of a bit of everything left over!

There are even basalt columns like those of the Giant’s Causeway, under the spooky northern volcanic peaks!

As interesting as it would have been to hike to the Thomas Mohi Tuuta reserve and take in its local scenery, it would also have taken four or five hours, and I was tired from my rambles at Henga the day before.

So I decided, instead, to head back to Waitangi.

Just north of Waitangi, I managed to get a sight of some beautiful orange cliffs of volcanic rock further north, partway along the beaches of Petre Bay, called Red Bluff. It’s made of something the information signboard called Red Bluff tuff, a kind of rust-stained volcanic ash deposit.

Red Bluff
A selfie by Red Bluff, showing the unceasing wind

While I was in Waitangi I hiked up Tikitiki Hill, which is well worth it for a view out over the white sandy beaches of Petre Bay.

The dishes in the photo above pick up New Zealand television, which is then rebroadcast from a shed alongside bearing an extremely faded sign saying ‘Chatham Islands Television’. It’s a volunteer operation.

Then I drove down the Waitangi-to-Tuku road on the west coast. I was keen to see the Chatham Island tāiko, or petrel, recovery programme, which was run on some conservation land past the end of the road.

I’d rung the conservation office but they hadn’t got back to me. So I thought I’d just drive out and have a look anyway. I eventually reached the end of the driveable road, just before the Tuku a Tamatea river. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any further because of slips.

And because access over private land, along a trail that continued past the road end, was prohibited. That’s a big issue on the Chathams. A number of trails involve getting landowner permission before you can use them and they’re really only keen to open them up for supervised tourist groups, or so it seems.

So that was a bit of a fizzer, but I was getting to see more of the island!

In the third post in this series, I will describe a visit to the Waitangi Museum, my journeys to Hapupu, Port Hutt and Kōpinga Marae, and how I came back and did the Thomas Mohi Tuuta Reserve at last!

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