15 February 2023

A Week in the Chatham Islands January 2023

 We saw an appealing advertisement for a guided trip to the Chatham Islands and it didn't take long for us to sign up and fritter some more of the kids inheritance. I, for one, had always wanted to visit these islands to the east of New Zealand. So on January 10th 2023 we flew the almost 2 hours from Christchurch to the islands. There were eight of us in the group - folk from the UK, NZ, Oz and the USA.

Our trip was expeditionary in nature, based at Waitangi with day trips dependent on the weather. This wasn't a big issue as we were treated to fair to excellent weather throughout the week, especially on the day we toured most of the islands by sea. We couldn't land on most of our island visits but did on Pitt Island. Our guide was Mike Bell, accompanied most days by his great family. Mike had spent a lot of time, some 30 years, on various restoration projects on the islands and was a wealth of knowledge.

Swamp Asters

Local Gentian

Chatham Island Christmas Tree

Local Dracophyllum in Swampland

On seperate days we visited, the North-West corner, North-East Corner. the south end, the SE Corner and the Northern and central Main Island. On a perfect other day we journeyed by charter launch to Pitt Island where we came ashore and visited Taiko Camp where we learned of the Taiko (Magenta Petrel) rediscovery and its restoration.

On off-lying islands we heard of the environmental work being carried out - most impressive was the saving of the black robin from extinction. The coastal scenery was spectacular and, for me, the highlight was the visit to the southernmost island, Pyramid Island where Chatham Island Albatross nested before cruising the Pacific - even out to the Humbolt Current. Hundreds of chicks were sitting on their pedestal nests and adults were soaring about and over (on thermal warm rising air?) the island.

Pyramid Island

Adult and Chick Chatham Albatross on Pedestal Nests

Chatham Albatross Gliding Above Pyramid Island

Buller's Albatross

The history of the island is fascinating. First colonised by Moriori about 800 years ago they led an almost nomadic life about the island and developed a culture devoid of violence and warfare. They also were free of skin tattoos and saved that art for the dendroglyphs, their 'tattooing' on the kopi trees - our NZ karaka. 

Moriori Dendroglyph on Kopi (Karaka) Tree

When the islands were re-discovered by Broughton the captain of the "Chatham' there was inevitable conflict resulting from a lack of communication, luckily only one death. Sealers and whalers were next on the scene but things turned bad when Maori commandeered a sailing ship in NZ, sailed to the Chathams and eventually eliminated most of the defenceless Moriori. It must remain one of the worst pieces of NZ history. Even worse was the NZ Crown acknowledging the Maori right to the land 'by conquest' and giving some 97% of the available land to Maori - reflected in subsequent reparations. In my view, a major miscarriage of justice. We visited the impressive main island Moriori marae and where we found that the younger representatives expressed a desire to just move on, rather than harbour further grievances - these days all the island individuals carry a variable mixture of Moriori, Maori and European genes - and a few from the Azores and other places where whalers and sealers originated.

Maui Solomon talks to us besides the image
of his grandfather, Tommy, the last living Moriori.

We were impressed by the farming, fishing and developing tourist industries. They all suffer mightily from the isolation (mainly its costs and inconveniences). Shipping sheep products to NZ often resulted in a financial loss. The most economically successful farmers were those who also had fishing quotas. The people were friendly, resourceful and had interesting stories to tell. 

West Coast of main Chatham Island

Coast Near Point Munning 

We observed most of the endemic birds and many of the plants. The Chatham Island Forget-Me-Nots had ceased flowering but most of the others were on show. 

Our first impressions as we flew in and drove to Waitangi were somewhat underwhelming but all subsequent days exceeded our expectations. On our last evening we were very well hosted by the Croon family. Val and Lois Croon's children filled roles of Mayor of the Chathams, pub proprietor and apiarist, fisherman, farmer and local brewer. All the important posts covered! Great trip. The trip was organised by Wild Earth. Excellent local beer.

On a personal note the stories of the Black Robin recovery were made more interesting by our friend, Bev Wooley, having spent time helping Don Merton in the early days. And I well remembered David Crocket of Taiko fame from time with the Canterbury Museum naturalist group in the early 1950s when I was a young teenager. Small world - in NZ.

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