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Island charms of a different sort

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The Chatham Islands offer some weird and wonderful sights. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Chatham Islands offer some weird and wonderful sights. Photo / Jim Eagles

The Chatham Islands: they're only a couple of hours' flight from Auckland, about the same distance from the Super City of Sails as Dunedin, but rarely thought of as part of New Zealand.

If you pay attention you'll hear the name mentioned at the end of the weather forecast on National Radio and occasionally on TV One (according to an islander it happens "when someone's sent Jim Hickey a crayfish"). If we think of the place at all, we probably associate it with crayfish, lonely trees bent by the wind and maybe the odd lovely Chatham Islands forget-me-not. But there's a lot more to the Chathams than that.

I started to realise that we were going somewhere very different to the rest of New Zealand when we climbed aboard the Air Chathams Convair along with a group of rugged, weather-beaten people laden down with McDonalds and KFC. We might be drooling at the prospect of fresh crayfish - which we had for dinner on our first night - but the locals hanker after the junk food they can't get at home.

That impression of the Chathams being a place apart was further underlined when the chirpy hostess showed us how to attract her attention by pushing the call button and shouting "ding" and added "or preferably just wave". They don't get a lot of tourists on the Chathams - though numbers are increasing - but visitors definitely get a warm welcome.

Val Croon jnr, who runs the main accommodation house, Hotel Chatham, says the main reasons guests have given him for visiting are "seeing family and friends, the fishing ... and because it's somewhere in New Zealand they haven't been".

I didn't get to try the fishing because the days we might have gone out on the water, a big low to the south was sending up some huge waves (though the weather itself was quite nice). But I got the picture from the fact that those who wished to fish were advised to bring gardening gloves. And a visitor I asked about the experience said, "It's more like a massacre, they're so keen to take the bait."

Nor were we able to visit the second biggest island in the group, Pitt Island, because the airstrip there was waterlogged. But there was more than enough on just the main Chatham island to keep us busy.

I could easily have spent a week just tracking down the few remaining traces of the unique Polynesian culture created by the Moriori.

I also came across lots of rare birds and beautiful plants, spectacular scenery, fossilised sharks' teeth and old whale bones, interesting characters and intriguing bits of history, and some of those will be woven into later articles.

It's a fascinating place, even more interesting than I expected.

In some respects, with its population of just 600 people scattered across a few untamed islands, it's like a step back in time to a much earlier New Zealand.

But in other ways, with its remarkable landscape, unique wildlife and distinctive history, it's nothing like New Zealand.

I'm hoping to go back. There's a lot of things I didn't get time to see and several I'd like to check out again ... plus I'd like to try the fishing.

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