I returned my rental car at opening time the next day and took an Uber to Warbirds. With a few more days in New Zealand than expected, due to travel restriction caused by the COVID-19 virus, I had decided to use the opportunity to visit the Chatham Islands. This small, remote archipelago of islands lies 500 miles off the east coast of New Zealand and is politically a part of New Zealand itself.
The first settlers were the Moriori people, in the 1500s. They set up a peaceful, pacifist culture that strictly avoided warfare; this made it easy for the Taranaki Maori to enslave and almost exterminate them in 1835 when they traveled out from the mainland. In 1842 the islands became part of the colony of New Zealand, and shortly thereafter the white settlers were in a position where they could declare the Moriori released from slavery, and had the strength to enforce it.
My first flight took me from Ardmore across the North Island to Gisborne. Weather was good and I was able to set the autopilot and continue straight as an arrow towards my first stop. I spoke to Rotorua control who cleared me through their airspace en-route. There wasn’t much traffic around; just a couple of aircraft in the pattern at Gisborne and a few commercial flights coming and going along the way.
I had contacted one of the flight organisations in Gisborne and they had offered to assist me with access to fuel. After landing I taxied in to their facility and shut down. I wandered into the office which was unlocked but deserted; there was a phone and a number to call, and they said they’d be about half an hour. I passed the time in the terminal building with a sandwich and a hot chocolate. Important to fuel up before a long ocean crossing! I used this time to file my flight plan as well; a full ICAO flight plan is needed for the Chathams even though it’s technically a domestic flight.
I returned to Air Gisborne, where a lady had shown up to help with the fueling. I gave the fuel pump a good workout, filling all four wing tanks and then putting 40 gallons or so into the ferry tank. The weather in the Chatham Islands can be changeable so it was important to have plenty of fuel to be able to get all the way there, and then all the way back if necessary. Avgas is not easily available there either, so I wanted to be self-sufficient. Nice and full of fuel, I started up and headed out.
The routing to the Chathams was very straightforward – just a straight shot down the airway. ATC cleared me on my way and also let me know that there was an Air Chathams flight expected to depart while I was en-route, and that I could call them up for a message relay if needed. 100+ miles out I’d be out of VHF range. I tried to use the HF radio again but still wasn’t able to make any contact through it; this was something that would need to be taken care of before the long Pacific legs. I settled in on autopilot for the long cruise out, occasionally diverting around some scattered weather.
It felt a little unusual to be out over the open ocean again, with no land in sight. This of course was still a short hop compared to what was to come in the next section. It was a peaceful flight, listening to podcasts to pass the time. I cruised at around 10,000ft and for once I had the benefit of a fairly strong tail wind. 40 miles out I started my descent. Just before I called up the radio operator a conversation came up between the Air Chathams base and the outbound Convair turboprop aircraft. They mentioned that they’d heard a flight (clearly me) was coming in, but that they thought I’d cancel due to weather. I was a little confused; the weather seemed fine to me, so maybe they knew something I didn’t! I called up anyway and let them know I was inbound.
Soon the western-most reaches of the islands came into view ahead. The main island was rather bigger than I had anticipated; on the map, surrounded by all that water, it looked very small and remote! The views were beautiful as I cruised across the island, descening towards the airport, and making an overflight to check the conditions before landing. I joined a left downwind, touched down, and taxied in to the main apron.
I had called Chatham Islands Air a couple of times before coming to arrange permission and to get as much local knowledge as I could. They’d been very welcoming and helpful, and their C206 pilot was waiting as I taxied in and directed me to park in front of the hangar. He offered up a warm welcome to the Chatham Islands! Chatham Islands Air very kindly offered up a space for Planey in their hangar, and we manhandled the 206 out so that we could put the 182 in the back, out of the way over the next few days.
Rosemarie from the Awarakau Lodge was waiting to give a ride to the accommodation. Along the way we stopped off to see her husband Greg, who had just finished shearing a load of lambs, before heading to the lodge and settling in. There were two other guests, both on the island to give training to the council; we all enjoyed an excellent home cooked meal of locally caught fish. The Chatham Islands visit was starting off well.
It was an early start the next morning as Greg had offered up a chance to join him for milking their cow and shearing a few leftover sheep. After a quick breakfast of Weetbix we headed into the field for the milking; fresh milk, straight into the bucket!
From here it was a drive up to the lamb shed to watch how the four remaining sheep were shorn. Greg clearly had the practice down to a fine art. He had the four of them shorn bare in no time, and released back into the yard bleating happily, if a little confused.
Chatham Island is remarkably large at almost 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles). Greg and Rosemarie had cars available for rent, and these were the only real practical way to explore the island. They gave some great tips for where to go and what to see in the limited time available, as my plan was to spend two nights on the larger Chatham Island and then relocate to the small Pitt Island for a final night.
First stop was the main town of Waitangi to visit the Chatham Island Museum. It had a lot of great information about the history of the islands, from their initial colonization by the Moriori people, to the discovery by westerners, and the “invasion” by mainland Maori. I was surprised to learn just how large a proportion of New Zealand’s overall agricultural output was thanks to the Chathams through their history.
Driving north from here I noticed a sheep laying tangled in a fence by the road. I assumed it was dead, but at the last minute I noticed a movement. It was alive – but I had no idea what to do about it! Sheep handling is not a skill I’ve ever developed and I didn’t want to hurt it further, or indeed hurt myself. I drove up the driveway next to the field to see if the farmer was home, but the house was deserted.
When I returned to the main road the farmer was coming the other way in his “ute”; I told him about the sheep. “Yeah” he said, “it’s been there a couple of days, it’s dead”. “It moves an awful lot for a dead sheep”, I responded. His eyebrows raised and off we went to the sheep; he managed to free it and it struggled up to its feet and ran off. Hopefully it would be ok! In all the excitement I forgot to get any pictures.
The next destination was all the way up on the north eastern tip of the island. In 1959 a New Zealand Air Force Sunderland flying boat (NZ4111) was taxiing for departure in the Te Whanga Lagoon when it struck a rock. The aircraft started taking on water and the operating pilot directed it as close to the shore as possible. A survey revealed that the aircraft was beyond economic repair so the engines and any other parts that could be salvaged were removed and taken away, with the hull left in the lagoon. Much of the remainder of the hull was cut up and hauled to a local farm, where for years it was used for a storage shed. More recently it has been placed in display in a barn, and visitors can stop in to look around at the remaining sections.
From here, a van of visitors from the Chatham Islands Hotel led the way out to the tip of the peninsula. There was a short trail out to the rocks where a seal colony resides. There were plenty of seals in residence today, sunning themselves on the rocks and playing in the water. It was possible to get surprisingly close without disturbing them. On the way back we stopped at the grave of Captain William McClatchie. Born in 1818 in Scotland, he arrived in the Chathams in 1839, dying in the shipwreck of the Resolution in February of 1855.
The next stop was to see the Moriori tree carvings. Moriori ancestors made carved images on the trunks of kopi trees. Many of these carvings, or dendroglyphs, survive today. They have powerful spiritual associations although their meanings are debated. It became clear that to really appreciate them it would be essential to visit with a guide. I could not tell what was a tree carving and what were just random shapes in the bark!
It was getting late so that was the last sightseeing for the day. The drive back to the lodge was picturesque and I paused at one point to look at a truck that was covered in angry signs and slogans. Greg later told me that this belonged to a local Maori. The government had just reached a financial settlement with the remaining Moriori, but some of the island’s Maori settlers thought they shouldn’t get anything as they were a defeated people! One wonders what their attitude would be to the Maori demanding similar financial settlements on the mainland. The group dinner again that evening was as delicious as the last.
The plan had been to relocate to Pitt Island for a night but the next day dawned with howling winds. I spoke to a couple of the Air Chathams pilots on the phone, both of whom had experience of flying their 206 into the Pitt Island strip. They advised against trying to fly into the strip for the first time in these conditions; it’s not the easiest place to land, even without the winds. Decision made; it would be another day exploring Chatham Island! Greg and Rosemarie made the car available again and I drove off towards the north west tip of the island this time, stopping in Waitangi to check out the port and the church on the way.
It was a surprisingly long drive all the way out to the end of the island. Of course it always seems longer when the roads are gravel and speeds have to stay slow! The first stop after Waitangi was Port Hutt, a very small fishing settlement half way to the far cape. There wasn’t much going on; lobster pots and buoys were piled on the shore, and a rusting barge was sitting in the bay.
The road continued out towards Waitangi West across some more hilly terrain. The wind was still roaring across the island and heavy waves were pounding the beaches. After a steep descent from the hills the road continued through farm fields before reaching a series of gates and finally a “Private Property – No Entry” sign. That was the end of this drive and I turned the car around, heading back to the south east and stopping in at the Stone Cottage along the way.
Stone Cottage is reached by following an almost non-existent track across cow fields to the base of a small mountain by the sea. The cottage was built in around 1870 and various other farm buildings came and went around it over the years. Today the only building that remains is the restored Stone Cottage. After parking up next to the apparently deserted cottage (no other vehicles around) I wandered around the outside to take a few pictures, and was then surprised to be greeted by a cheerful looking elderly lady opening the door and waving to me.
This turned out to be Helen who had grown up in the cottage before moving away to the mainland. She had returned a few years ago and now lived here alone with no vehicle, no mains power or generator, no water, and no gas. It sounded like a very basic existence, but also extremely peaceful! She receives regular visitors; that morning apparently a whole bus of tourists had stopped by. In the winter she’d go four months or more without leaving the cottage and visiting town, but she does at least have a telephone to stay connected to the outside world as well as a battery radio that can pick up a signal from the mainland.
She was very welcoming and showed me all around her cottage, as well as giving introductions to her two dogs, five identical cats, and pair of indoor chickens that provide her with daily eggs. She had no end of fascinating tales about life growing up on the Chatham Islands, and about her more recent years in Stone Cottage. It would have easy to sit and chat with her for hours but there was one more place to visit that day, and it was a very long way away at the complete opposite end of the island.
A long drive on the windy gravel roads led to the town of Owenga, and the statue of Tommy Solomon. Born in 1884 on the island, Tommy eventually became one of the most successful farmers on the island, and is thought to have been the last of the full-blooded Moriori. His statue sits on the southern end of the island, gazing out to sea, on land that is still owned by the Solomons. He certainly has a beautiful spot to while away the ages.
A third delicious meal was served up by Rosemarie and Greg that evening, followed by an early night. The next day would be the renewed attempt to get to Pitt Island.
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