The only certainty about a visit to the Chatham Islands is that everything changes – from weather to daily plans, from store hours to drink choices.
The locals (population 600) are used to a way of life where planning has "maybe" and timing has "ish" added on. Routine and rigidity are not part of the equation and visitors are advised to bring a flexible attitude and be prepared for the unexpected.
You can expect strong winds and misty skies in this oceanic land that presents a different season around every corner. A warm jacket and scarf are essential, so are sunglasses and a sunhat. It's all about layers and preparedness.
I visited in January when a puffer jacket was the go-to garment; my February visit was T-shirt weather; in March I experienced temperate days and warm breezes with a freezing wind thrown in.
The landscape is diverse and captivating. Endemic akeake trees lean to the east in a vain attempt to flee the prevailing wind; some stand alone, others form a protective cluster.
Ghost forests sit, like haunting ink strokes, alongside attractive bush and expansive wetlands framed by hills and lakes. Heavy morning mist over the harbour makes for a tranquil sunrise but can play havoc with plans for the day if it hangs around.
White sandy beaches, turbulent waves, rugged reefs, sheltered ports and windswept harbours stretch along the coastline. Although the sea may beckon, the waters are dangerous and sharks abundant.
The island boasts four distinct quarters. On a day trip northeast up the "Sunshine Coast" you'll visit beaches, bush and ancient tree carvings. Inspect the remains of wrecks and relics, including a Sunderland Flying Boat and Fokker Friendship, at a private farm in Point Munning.
The limestone rocks at the Seal Colony form an other-worldly setting which will have you audibly catching your breath. It's worth the amble down to the coast to see the ruins of the German missionaries' home. Kaingaroa village is sleepy, yet its harbour waters alarmingly rough.
In the "Wild West", the vertical Basalt Columns formed from 80-million-year-old lava flows, are a geological marvel in black and white. Wrecked ships lie abandoned in subdued waters at Port Hutt, whispering stories of their past, and West Waitangi Beach invites you to collect paua shells and breathe in its remoteness.
Artists and photographers will delight in picturesque vistas everywhere, especially the volcanic cones protruding into the western skyline. Moriori named the island Rēkohu, meaning "misty sun" – the perfect backdrop for nature's artwork.
Regenerated native bush covers the southwest corner. You may spot a parea (native wood pigeon) or pīwakawaka. Look out for the large white spheres of the Rocket Lab station that tracks skyrockets in flight.
In the southeast, past Owenga township, Tommy Solomon's statue stands proudly looking out to sea. This memorial to Moriori envelops you with a heightened sense of respect for these peace-loving people whose harrowing history hangs heavy in the air.
A fishing expedition leaves no one disappointed, with blue cod galore and sometimes a hapuka hauled in. Chatham Island Food Co processes fresh catch for export. Strict fishing quotas are monitored to ensure sea life remains abundant; locals gather pāua for personal use with prudence.
During March/April craypots are stacked neatly all over the island to be washed and repaired while the crayfish get a chance to rest and refresh.
From easy ambles around the wetlands to more energetic rambles through native bush, farmland and conservation areas, the island caters for all fitness levels. You'll encounter springy peat underfoot, bracken that looks so perfect you'll think it's fake, and endemic flora and fauna that locals proudly tout as bigger and stronger than the NZ versions.
Scramble down to Nunuku's Cave to see ancient rock carvings or head north to view Splatter Rock, an intriguing lava formation at Wharekauri.
Te Whanga Lagoon is a unique feature of the island. Shallow but abundant in marine and birdlife, locals gather their kai moana and enjoy family time here. Blind Jim's is the only publicly accessible part – along the shoreline you may find a fossil shark tooth, although the locals say the teeth find you. Black swans are a pest but apparently their eggs make excellent pavlovas. Swan-shooting is a thing.
The art of beekeeping is flourishing on the island, all the better for no virus being present. Kaai and Francesca at Go Wild Apiary have worked hard to create a stunning walk where they share the story of their innovative award-winning Tarahina freeze-dried honey (great on ice-cream). Their liquid honey deliciously prickles the tongue.
An evening, by arrangement, at Lois and Val Croon's property Admiral Garden is an exceptional experience – art/gift studio, a series of "garden rooms" and a sumptuous meal in their beautiful home, surrounded by easy hospitality and the local brew on tap.
While travelling independently is an option, an organised package tour is a great way to maximise your experience as most sites of interest mentioned are on privately owned land and permission, and sometimes a key, is required for access.
The knowledge of a local guide ensures valuable insights into the history and lifestyle of these inimitable islands. Gate opening skills come in handy and stock on the road is a common sight.
The new Museum (opened in January) houses a beautifully curated collection. Panels, maps and artefacts relate the challenges for early settlers and highlight aspects of island life through the years. A radio station hit the airwaves during the 1980s and a local TV station ran between 1991 and 2006.
The racecourse (second-oldest in NZ) at Norman Kirk Reserve hosts its annual meeting over Christmas/New Year. The health centre, originally run by nuns, provides a range of medical services and dispenses medication, even on a Sunday morning. The bottle store is not your usual and operates on a "ring the buzzer" basis. Cellphone coverage was introduced in 2021.
Many of the vans and 4WD vehicles are worse for wear, some abandoned and rusting where they broke down or crashed – removing them is costly and difficult. Roads are mostly gravel but regularly graded. The only mechanic on the island is overwhelmed with work. The Chatham Islands wave soon becomes second nature for drivers: a bold 5-fingered salute, a quick point of the index finger, a snappy hand movement – everyone has their own style.
A day trip to Pitt Island, weather and aircraft permitting, reveals different landscapes alongside stories of remote life for its 50 residents. Views of Red Bluff Tuff formations, known as "Mars", reflective moments at Glory Bay, expansive farmland, impressive island shapes rising from the sea, along with a fresh seafood lunch at Flowerpot Lodge (currently for sale), make for a memorable day.
Ironically, Covid has had a silver lining for the Chathams. Before lockdowns, 1350 visitors a year were welcomed; in 2021 that number escalated to 2400 – an 80 per cent increase in tourism over a two-year period during a pandemic is an enviable result. Fishing is the major industry, with tourism now edging farming out of second place.
Jackie Gurden, Manager of Chatham Islands Tourism, is mindful that the burgeoning tourism market needs careful management. Constraints include limited housing and accommodation, challenges around building and general supplies, a shortage of tradies, and hit-and miss weather patterns.
A $25 voluntary visitor levy helps to keep things ticking. Locals also contribute, financially or in kind, towards upgrading current assets and establishing new ones. Long-drop loos around the island are being replaced with modern versions.
Flying direct on Air Chathams from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, passengers share the cabin with freight, often including frozen cod and live crayfish. The airport is being extended and strengthened to take larger planes, thus increasing capacity for people and freight. Fuel and other essentials come by ship from NZ, the arrival of which is eagerly awaited, especially when liquor and diesel stocks are low.
A range of progressive strategies, including health and safety initiatives, improved tracks and more picnic areas are being developed to enhance the visitor experience, gain community buy-in, and ensure local infrastructure is able to cope with an increasing influx of people.
Sustainable initiatives are being introduced together with tree planting and conservation work with a predator-free target. Promotional initiatives include events, retreats and education tourism. Ways of marketing quality local products to a wider audience are being explored and consideration being given to winter season activities.
Hotel Chatham on Waitangi Beach is the hub for accommodation and sustenance. In addition to a range of excellent rooms within the hotel itself, the nearby Forget-Me-Not suites are modern and well-appointed.
Travellers Rest is an elegant and spacious option. I enjoyed comfort and privacy in a newly imported tiny house, with a short walk down to the Hotel to enjoy first-class food and lively drinks with guests, locals and proprietor Toni Croon.
When you fly in over the distinctive lagoon for the first time, you're not quite sure what's in store. By the time you leave, the Chathams is under your skin. It's impossible not to be touched in some way by the landscape and dynamics of this unique place. Put it on your bucket list.
For more information, go to chathamislands.co.nz
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz