I spent a week on the Chatham Islands in March. It is a strange and wonderful place! I think it was well described by Michael King as “a land apart” – the locals talk about New Zealand as if it’s another country and their time is 45 minutes ahead of ours.
Having visited Campbell, Auckland, Snares and Macquarie Islands last year, it seemed to be another good one to go to. Just like the other subantarctic islands, the Chatham Islands have many endemic plant and bird species and a fascinating geology. There is a different tui, woodpigeon and tomtit – and the famous black robins now number 150 on two outlying islands. Also, I liked seeing the kawakawa with intact leaves – then figured out that they don’t have the caterpillar that eats them over there. The really different thing about the place, though, is the fact that it’s inhabited – with very friendly and quite fascinating locals.
Here’s one story as an illustration. On the plane trip over there, I met a family who were bringing back their deceased sister, Rosemary, from New Zealand to be buried on the island. The pilot did a flyover around the island especially for her. When we landed, her casket was placed on the back of a ute to go to the community hall where the tangi was to be held – no shiny black hearses here! When I asked if I could take a photo of it, the sisters said yes and then lined up and got me to take a photo of them too. I was also invited to go along to the tangi.
The next morning I was walking up the road to church, when another ute (they all have utes) pulled up beside me and the guy inside asked if I wanted a ride. I jumped in and he introduced himself as Eddie, one of the local undertakers. He was on his way to the hall to check that Rosemary was OK. I met the sisters again several times during the week too. When there are only 500 people on a small island you do tend to keep bumping into the same people…
Highlights were a day trip to Pitt Island in a Cessna (and small people get the tiny back seats), fishing for blue cod and photographing albatross, being served crayfish at the church morning tea, and helping weed around the Chatham Island lilies (forget-me-knots) near the hotel.
I’ve come home with new friends, lots of memories and some great stories to write.