Our primary motivating factor for visiting the Chatham Island was to experience a remote windswept island in a southern latitude. The weather and difficulty in getting to the islands also meant that it should be largely tourist free. There were certainly not too many people expressing envy of our pending adventure.
It is expensive to fly to the islands and accommodation, transport and food costs are a little eye watering. By travelling with four other couples we were able to share a five bedroom house on the island (the owners vacated it for our visit) and rent a van for getting around. There are no public transport options down here. Most of our food and wine we carried with us although the only hotel on Chatham Island serves meals and we sampled their fare one evening. The owner of the house also cooked us our first meal on the island; cod, lobster and paua, the mainstays of the local fishing industry and all very delicious.
As anticipated, the weather was patchy with a mix of; rain, showers, gales, and sun all served up with temperatures of around 11-14c. We went prepared with plenty of layers, beanies and wet weather gear, all were well used. To have experienced the island without this weather would have been a little disappointing. The gales and rain of the first morning had a menacing and stormy feel. However, the patches of sun breaking through the dark clouds during the afternoon walk turned the surrounding dune backed seascapes of Henga Reserve into something quite magical.
The rough roads that often gave way to farm tracks and then just open fields gave us a real sense of adventure. The wind shaped and stunted trees conveyed the harshness of the climate while the farm animals often wandered freely with the much of the land being unfenced. Our drivers needed to be vigilant with sheep and cattle being the main traffic on the roads. The flightless Weka abound on the open country while black swans dominate the huge Te Whanga lagoon. The few sheltered bays that do exist were usually home to many fishing boats with the shoreline being covered in lobster pots.
Where humans live, the landscape is a virtual museum. Cars, trucks, boats and even aeroplanes from decades past sit rusting away besides their more modern and still functioning successors. The houses are mostly bleached to a nondescript colour by the elements but there were the odd exception, particularly Admiral Gardens, which was an oasis in an otherwise often bleak landscape.
The vividly green landscape of the south of the island gives way to sand dunes and lakes up the narrow neck of land on the west coast and then as you venture north west, the landscape becomes volcanic with peat swamp, low fern and native shrubs fringed by a basalt rock shoreline punctuated by white sand bays. At Port Hutt rusting hulks on the beach and rusting machines on the shore tell a story of the challenge of dealing with discarded equipment is such a remote location.
Around the top of the massive Te Whanga Lagoon lies the only other settlement, the little fishing village of Kaingaroa. The rain was lashing down when we arrived but it was simply too stunning to only view it from the van windows. The beaches were littered with shells, kelp and rock formations that are testament to the brute force of nature.
At the north eastern extremity of the island, the most easterly point in New Zealand, is Point Hunning, home to seal colonies. After paying a koha to the local farmers, we drove through the farm and then walked out to the point, expecting to see a couple of seals. What a surprise, there were seals as far as the eye could see and we could view them hunting in the massive surf, relaxing in the calmer rock pools and those closer to us, seemed to be keeping a wary eye on the intruders.
Heading back across the farm we walked down the southern side of the narrow peninsula and viewed the remains of one of several German Lutheran mission stations that had been set up in the mid 19th century. We wondered what had motivated them to migrate this far flung outpost.
Limestone rocks have been moulded into all shapes and forms by the wind driven rain. The beaches offered a range of colours from the gold of crushed shells to vivid white and even patches of volcanic black sands. Where the beaches gave way to basalt rocks the vivid range of colours from the blue sea to the black rocks, white surf and green land, kept the cameras clicking.
All too soon, our short sojourn to this diverse place had come to an end. We enjoyed one more taste of the wonderful cod as a final meal and as on the day we arrived, the sun made another cameo appearance. The clocks were put back 45 minutes to get us back to mainland time.