Rugged, and always at the mercy of Mother Nature, the Chatham Islands conjure up notions of the ultimate in isolation. But John Maslin says that isolation makes the Chathams a very unique place.

There are moments on a visit to the Chatham Islands - many of them in fact - when your jaw drops so many times it starts to ache.

Welcome to this tiny speck of land, 800-odd kilometres east of Christchurch and 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand in time.

For many of the 600 people living here, New Zealand is their home. For others this remote island setting in the Pacific has always been their home. But "immigrants" or not, they all refer to the mainland as "New Zealand" as if it remains a foreign place.

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It's that distance which sets the Chathams and neighbouring Pitt Island, with its population of about 60 souls, apart. The locals become used to the problems of travel; when essentials ordered from the mainland take weeks to get to them; when freighting a single cattle beast to New Zealand can run to several hundred dollars; where an air service, started on the island and proudly bearing its name, is a lifeline.

This very isolation makes for other peculiarities as well. Nothing is wasted. Tour any of the farms dotting this at times barren landscape and you'll see broken and disused vehicles, including cars, utes and tractors. Many have been cannibalised for parts because that's how the locals survive here when spare parts are several and many dollars away.

The historic stone cottage at Maunganui was built 150 years ago, a monument to Lutheran missionaries who tried - unsuccessfully - to convert the Moriori.
The historic stone cottage at Maunganui was built 150 years ago, a monument to Lutheran missionaries who tried - unsuccessfully - to convert the Moriori.

Some take hoarding to new heights. Farmer Jim Muirson is restoring a Catalina flying boat and he's a got a Fokker Friendship lying in parts nearby as well.

Farming isn't a mainstay here. With a couple of exceptions, farmers have other business interests. Much of that, of course, focuses on fishing. Crayfish and paua remain primary produce on the Chathams and fetch high prices on world markets. A cray caught in the morning will be in a Hong Kong restaurant that night.

The Chathams landscape can be barren and empty but within a few kilometres it will give way to pristine, white sand beaches.
The Chathams landscape can be barren and empty but within a few kilometres it will give way to pristine, white sand beaches.

After the crayfishing bonanza in the mid-1960s and early '70s, things have moderated. As with paua diving, there are quotas in place. Nowadays the fishers take a more proactive stance; for example, paua harvesters have reduced their own quota by a considerable percentage to ensure the shellfish thrive.

And they do. Go anywhere on the Chathams at low tide and you can pluck legal-sized paua off exposed rocks. There are a few areas around the island reserved solely for locals and divers observe "no go" signs. It's how things are done here. Everyone knows the importance of sustainability. The seas around these islands teem with crayfish, paua, blue cod, hapuka and other species but islanders treat the resource with respect.

Farming is a tough business on the islands; while the climate is quite benign, the isolation from the mainland makes it economically challenging.
Farming is a tough business on the islands; while the climate is quite benign, the isolation from the mainland makes it economically challenging.

That initial crayfish "gold rush" was based at Port Hutt, the best anchorage on the Chathams. But Toni Croon, owner of the Hotel Chathams and an excellent tour guide, says it was the Wild West reincarnate.

"Boats started turning up from New Zealand in small flotillas," she said.

"Some of them were manned by guys who knew next to nothing about seamanship. Some of the boats didn't even have a compass. Some missed the island altogether.

"At its peak there were 2000 people living at Port Hutt. They worked hard and played hard. Some made small fortunes, but plenty drowned. It was dangerous stuff."

Most of the roads are unsealed and gridlock is just a word.
Most of the roads are unsealed and gridlock is just a word.

The landscape changes as much as the surrounding sea. Precipitous cliffs on some parts of the island give way to golden sand beaches in a blink. Benign grassland melds into bracken-covered plains. No one place is the same as the other and it's all crammed into a small landmass.

The island has three schools, a hospital manned by a doctor and three nurses (serious medical events and birthing mean a trip to the mainland), a sole-charge policeman and a court house. A general store and service station supply essentials and the hotel is the social hub (and the only place with an ATM).

This place boasts a history as rich as anywhere and so extensive it can't be covered off here. But the eclectic mix of travellers who settled this island found a place that provided a moderate climate (snow and frosts are rarities) and an abundant larder in the sea.

The golden sand beaches are a feature of the Chathams.
The golden sand beaches are a feature of the Chathams.

Among them were a handful of Lutheran missionaries. They were better builders than missionaries. While they didn't convert a single island resident, their legacy remains in stout stone buildings dotted around the island. The most notable is the 150-year-old stone cottage at Maunganui on the island's north shore. Lovingly restored, this off-the-grid house is the home of island identity Helen Bint.

Over time the Chathams Islanders have clung to this landfall, building lives and businesses anchored to the sea. But it's had its share of entrepreneurs. One couple thought emus would be a good farming option. Nope. Now a handful of these lanky birds roam wild. There are plenty of cattle and sheep roaming wild too.

Power for the Chathams is provided by diesel generators and more use is being made of solar power. Wind turbines were tried but ironically there was too much wind; when the winds exceeded 20 knots the turbines shut down automatically. The turbines now lie like a pair of fallen aliens from War of the Worlds on the eastern side of the island.

The remoteness of this place may surprise you but consider this. There are parts of the island where you can see ash layers deposited from the Taupo eruption, about 1800 years ago. It's another layer on this island group which was borne of undersea volcanic activity. Scientists reckon the islands emerged from the sea 65 million years ago. Cones of dormant volcanoes dot parts of the island.

We think of the Chathams Islands as small, and to be sure they are but that size is deceiving. It sprawls and roads highlight that topography. You can spend the best part of a day exploring the northern beaches and then another day heading in other compass directions. Most of the time you are circumnavigating the lagoon – called Te Whanga - which covers an area the size of Rarotonga.

The very isolation of this place may be in for a wake-up call. There are plans to extend the airport runway to 1850m (it's currently 1350m), so it can handle jet aircraft like the Boeing 737. Air Chathams will soon be mothballing its Convair 580 planes and the 737s are believed to be on its radar. When it happens it will mean a massive makeover of the airport terminal and infrastructure.

However, this could be a double-edged sword. It will make travel to the island quicker and certainly bring in more visitors. But there is very limited accommodation on the Chathams and some will be concerned about the impact this increased traffic will have on the environment.

Most visitors would leave the Chathams harbouring a desire that it remains untouched because it is such a special place.

Footnote: The writer was among a group of motoring writers Holden NZ took to the Chatham Islands to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the brand in New Zealand. It was the first time ever a car company has staged an event like this on the islands. See John's review in today's Driven.

This Fokker Friendship is complete, even if it lies in parts on Jim Muirson's farm. There's a partially restored Catalina seaplane there as well.
This Fokker Friendship is complete, even if it lies in parts on Jim Muirson's farm. There's a partially restored Catalina seaplane there as well.
Crayfish pots are a common sight almost everywhere you drive on the island.
Crayfish pots are a common sight almost everywhere you drive on the island.