As told to Elisabeth Easther

My grandmother was from the Chathams. She left when she was about 28 and returned when she was 58. Although my mum had been brought up in Auckland, when she visited her mother out here, she came back to [mainland] New Zealand and said we should move here. There were four of us kids, and we set off in a Kombi van with just $100. I was 6 at the time. Growing up, it was very back to basics — no electricity, no plumbing; but there were lots of good times. I had a huge passion for horses from a very young age and the Christmas before we moved, I was given a bridle. That was one of the attractions. We could never afford horses in Auckland but we could here and as soon as we arrived, I got a horse, and from then on I lived on horseback.

For high school, I went to Epsom Girls Grammar and I loved it, but I moved home as soon as I left school to get into the fishing industry. I loved diving and being fit, and I was the first female crayfish diver out here . After I'd done a season on the cray boats, I bought a boat and a truck and a paua quota. I was just 18 at the time.

When I was about 23, the hotel came up for sale. I'd saved a bit of money, so I bought it with my dad. I don't really overthink things, and when an opportunity comes up I tend to jump and think about it later. Back then we had just six single rooms. I used to cook for our house guests and they all ate in the kitchen at a little table. That first year, there was a scampi boat in port on New Year's Eve and all these fishermen ended up having this huge brawl: "New Zealanders" v Chatham Islanders. There were broken windows, furniture was thrown over the sea wall and it was chaos, blood everywhere, but I just had to let it play out. That was 1990. It was like the Wild West back then, there wasn't really any tourism.

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Just before 2000 it dawned on us that people might want to come here for the millennium, to be the first to see the sun. Craig Emeny, he owns Air Chathams and his godmother owned a travel agency — she got a group of 20 people to come down and that was the start of tourism. But it can't ever get too big. There are only so many beds, plus there's the perception of the weather being bad (which it's not), and the price of the airfare. Those things will always protect us from being overdeveloped.

Toni Croon, owner of the Hotel Chatham, Rekohu, Chatham Islands. Photo / Supplied
Toni Croon, owner of the Hotel Chatham, Rekohu, Chatham Islands. Photo / Supplied

In 1995 we got Trackside, the racing channel, in the Chathams, and I started watching it. By 2000, I'd done 10 years at the hotel and at the age of 32, I decided to go to [mainland] New Zealand to be a horse trainer. Back then, I didn't even know horses wore shoes or that they had to be registered, that was the level of my ignorance, but I just waltzed into Ellerslie and asked for my trainer's licence. Naturally they turned me down but a year later I got it and I was in the horse game for 14 years. For seven years I worked under Trevor McKee, following Sunline's career, then I bought a farm in Cambridge and developed my own stables. I travelled around with the horses, and I was winning races in Wellington and Christchurch and Invercargill. Back then Wingatui [home of the Otago Racing Club] was exotic for me.

I've not travelled a lot, having horses is a bit like being a mum, you can't just go on holiday whenever you want. Although in 2006, Mum and Dad said to us kids: "We don't want you coming to our funeral but we want you to come on holiday with us". So we all went to South America for a month. We flew to Chile, just the six of us. We even flew over the Chathams. I think it was a place my dad had always wanted to visit because Chile is the next stop from the Chathams, even though it's 5000km away. Backpacking around Chile was life-changing for all of us, and we loved just being together. I remember the seafood being beautiful. And the red wine. To this day I'm still passionate about red wine thanks to Chile.

People come to the Chathams because it's unique and unknown. They want to see how beautiful it is, to experience the rawness, to go fishing and enjoy the seafood. Or hunt for sharks' teeth in the lagoons. It's 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand, and 20 years behind, and there's no place like it on Earth. Some people come here and never leave. When they see these islands, they realise this is where they're meant to be.

Hotel Chatham, Rēkohu, Chatham Islands. hotelchatham.co.nz