Chatham Islands: Myths form on mystic isles

By Jim Eagles

Magnificent formations on the Chathams deserve their own tales, writes Jim Eagles.

Basalt rock columns at Ohio Bay on Chatham Island. Photo / Jim Eagles
Basalt rock columns at Ohio Bay on Chatham Island. Photo / Jim Eagles

It felt as though we were standing amid the ruins of some magnificent palace. All around were giant stone columns, huge level areas paved with five-sided flagstones, mighty stone walls and what looked like the tumbled remains of splendid banquet halls, imposing temples and spectacular terraces looking out across the rolling sea.

But no, we were at Ohio Bay on Chatham Island, 860km east of Christchurch, which was certainly home to a unique Polynesian culture, the Moriori, but not an ancient, palace-building civilisation.

Despite their manmade appearance, the stone floors and walls we were marvelling at were actually created by cooling volcanic lava some 80 million years ago.

Were there any stories about these basalt columns, I asked Val Croon Jnr who was showing us round the island, legends of primeval giants perhaps? Not that he'd ever heard.

Pity, really. If these stones were somewhere else they'd be thronged with tourists. And they'd almost certainly be the subject of a grand tale, like the story of the giant Finn MacCool that the Irish have woven round the geologically similar Giant's Causeway in County Antrim.

Instead, they're in the middle of a sheep farm with not an entrance booth, advertising hoarding or souvenir shop in sight.

To get there we parked on the grassy verge, paused for a picnic at a neat set of stockyards and walked down a particularly well-made farm road to the coast where the ruins were waiting.

As well as the basalt formations there were some special Chatham Islands features like a palace garden pool which instead of containing goldfish and waterliles was chockful of huge paua, lofty temple pillars whose glowing white was not due to marble but to the efforts of the seabirds and a garden of shrubs pruned not by gardeners but by the ever-blowing wind.

It's a remarkable place. And as we walked back I was busy trying to come up with a story to explain it all.

Maybe once upon a time this was the residence of Tami-ta-ra the Moriori sun god, but it was so beautiful that he was reluctant to leave it and as a result the world often stayed in darkness throughout the day. So Maui-mua, the Moriori version of Maui the trickster, angry at having a planned fishing trip spoiled, crept up to the palace one day when the sun god was out, and smashed it with his enchanted jawbone. Now the sun god has no home to loaf in and is always in the sky somewhere, but often when he remembers his lost palace he turns grey with sadness, and the world becomes cold.

Actually there were several other places on the Chathams that looked as though they deserved stories to explain them.

On a walk through the bushy Henga Reserve, for instance, we passed grey groves of what the islanders call ghost trees (dead kopi trees, once planted by the Moriori as food sources and meetings places), long thin walls of rock that could have been fortresses created by a wizard's spell and, on a bluff overlooking the sea, a huge stone ring that I imagined was once a giant's wedding ring but now had the power to grant any couple holding hands through it a lifelong happy marriage (naturally my wife and I held hands just to prove it worked).

On another walk along the clifftops near Tikitiki Hill we passed great red bluffs glowing with the blood of a murdered giant and a massive blowhole where the daughters of Tangaroa the sea god used to take their shower.

And on a walk around Cape Young, as well as some of the most magnificent seascapes I've ever seen, we found a family of mermaids who came ashore to pick flowers but left it too late to return to the sea and were turned to stone by the rays of the rising sun. But perhaps the most remarkable sight of all came on a drive to the Rangi Ika Reserve when, the track proving too wet for easy driving, we stopped at a bluff past the island's two wind turbines and watched two waterfalls being blown up the cliff face by the driving wind.

Now there's got to be a good story behind that ...

CHECKLIST

Further information: Pukekohe Travel run all-inclusive tours to the Chatham Islands. Ring 0800 785 386.

Jim Eagles was taken to the Chatham Islands by Pukekohe Travel.

- NZ Herald

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