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The islands are a 90 minute flight and a world away from mainland New Zealand, with plants and birds you’ll see nowhere else, thriving fishing and farming industries and a friendly, laidback culture you last heard about in the 1950s. Put them on your bucket list now, says Kiwi writer Kathy Ombler.
Life on the Chathams, the locals say, is dictated by wind and tide rather than clock and calendar. These low-lying, windswept oceanic islands can be misty and moody, bleak, even. It’s a wild kind of beauty, though; landscapes that host bright-coloured mega herbs, birds you’ll find nowhere else in the world, cattle grazing rich grassy plateaux high above dunes and reefs and crashing surf. If it’s warmth you’re looking for, you’ll find plenty when you meet the laid back locals. Probably you already did on the flight out.
In fact, your Chathams’ experience really begins when you board the plane. You’re invited to sit where you like, handed complimentary sandwiches and greeted by home-bound Islanders bantering happily with each other. On your return flight, you’ll likely be accompanied by live crayfish, flying to mainland restaurants aboard Chatham Air’s turboprop Convair 580’s. Enthusiasts from around the world come to fly on these rare, classic planes.
Most visitors are mainland New Zealanders. Mature bucket listers and blokey fishing groups, botanists and birders, geologists and historians. There are many reasons to visit the Chathams.
Arguably, the mainstay of island tourism centres around Hotel Chathams, where the restaurant and bar is also the gathering place for locals so there’s plenty of social interaction for visitors.
We run island tours to suit our guests, says hotelier Val Croon. “Perhaps a seafood lunch caught and cooked by the locals at Kaingaroa village, or an art studio visit, a garden tour, a look at the birdlife, or a chat with a local of indigenous, Moriori descent. For trampers we offer guided walks on private land, anything from two to seven hours.”
Rosemarie and Greg Horler host independent travellers at their upmarket Awarakau Farmstay, on their southern Chatham farm. “The people who come here want to do things by themselves. We give them information, they rent a car and away they go. Our bookings are mostly word of mouth and they include farmers’ groups, here to visit some of the very good farms we have here,” says Rosemarie.
Visiting the Chathams is like stepping back in time, says geologist and tour guide Hamish Campbell. He doesn’t mean backward. From a social perspective it’s like life used to be. The people are resilient, resourceful, hard-working and enterprising. It’s a community working well, a wonderful self-sufficient economy with its beef, wool, fishing and tourism. And there are no sandflies – oh and no cell phones. My geology groups love that.”
Air Chathams flies to Chatham Island from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch four to six times a week. For island accommodation and activities visit www.discoverthechathamislands.co.nz.