The Chathams—New Zealand’s wilder side
On his own in a sea of misty grey, local priest and flounder fisher Riwai Preece will share his catch even with those who don’t attend his sermons. Standing alone against mercurial elements, the Chatham Islands is the only land between New Zealand and Chile. Remoteness breeds self-reliance and a gritty comradeship among the islands’ 750 inhabitants.
It is 7.25 A.M. The air is fresh, salty and, as they say in these parts, cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss. Suddenly, Steve Locke’s mud-splattered ute slews into the driveway of Waitangi’s Centennial Hall, an Alsatian braced on the back, shattering the stillness of an island dawn.
“Stay there, dog. Damn! First time I’ve slept in. Serves me right for watching the league.” Locke, a bundle of repentant energy, bounds across the threshold of his tiny studio, flicks a few switches on the homebuilt console and cues a sound effects record.
“Orgy (with whips and screams)” radiates out into the morning, bringing radios to life down at the nearby fish factory, in the kitchen of the island’s only hotel and among the scattered houses round about. It travels eastward over the bracken wastes to Owenga and northeast across the vast Te Whanga Lagoon to the isolated fishing village of Kaingaroa. It heads nor’west to the ramshackle congeries that is Port Hutt and south over wet, undulating peatlands and across the choppy strait to Pitt Island.
“Good morning, Vietnam!” screams the circuitry.
Radio Weka, Locke’s brainchild, is belatedly shaking awake the Chathams, a huddle of towering rocks and two habitable islands—Chatham and Pitt-860 km east of Christchurch.
The islanders, a hardy and often laconic folk, have a strong identity forged from a ragbag of ancestors—American and European whalers and sealers, German missionaries,Maori, Moriori—and a brooding distrust of outsiders. Mostly, they attend to their work in that unhurried but purposeful way that small islands the world over seem to foster, wringing an often lucrative living from the sea and the land.
This morning is no different. As farmers contemplate the unpleasant job of docking sheep, and fishers eye what has developed overnight into a surly swell, Locke takes the first call of the day, a birthday dedication.
“Hello, is that you, Prue? Guns ‘n’ Roses? No. I’m going to have a ritual burning of that CD; I’m sick of it.”
A Telecom technician and appliance fixer by day (washing machine repairs appear on the phone bill) and closet DJ othertimes, Locke treads a fine line between catholic taste and public veto. Country music is popular, he says, but a recent foray into Mozart had fishers frantically tuning into distant Gisborne’s 2ZG with bait-smeared hands.
He rips a MetService sheet off the fax and airs the forecast: easterly swell, two metres easing. Occasional showers, clearing in the afternoon. Northwesterly gradually rising to 35 knots.
“Normally, they get the wind direction right, but as to the strength and whether or not it rains—that’s a bit of a pig in a poke.” For good measure, he gives listeners yesterday’s suncount: “three hours of melanomic enhancement.”
Weather is more than a conversation starter on the Chathams. With 70 per cent of the workforce tied one way or another to the fisheries, and with the prospect of sea-rescue often hours away at best, livelihoods—and lives—depend on accurate information. The sudden closure in 1991 of the island-based short wave radio station ZLC, the most powerful in the southern hemisphere, left fishers embittered by what they felt to be the heavy-handed edicts of a distant bureaucracy. In emergencies, skippers of the islands’ 65 commercial boats are now expected to contact a station in Taupo. As are the 300 or so visitors—Taiwanese, Koreans and New Zealanders among them—who at any one time work the Chathams waters.
Islanders are sceptical of the new system, claiming the central North Island station has failed to pick up at least four mayday calls since ZLC went off air.
“Taupo, where the hell’s that?” says crayfisher Link Christiansen. “Hit trouble south of Pitt and there’s nothing but water ’til Chile. I’d like to get someone from Wellington out there in 35 knots and cut the engine. Let them drift in it for a while.”
Christiansen and others now habitually sleep with their receivers on in a gesture of solidarity with those out at sea.
Clutching a steaming cup of coffee, the islands’ sole police officer, George White, eases his six-foot seven frame into Locke’s studio. He has tried several times to raise Taupo, but only succeeded at night—and that, he adds, was from a convenient high point, something not available to the crew of a wave-tossed ship.
White takes a seat at the microphone. It is time for his weekly sermon on the benefits of staying within the law. He kicks off with the thorny matter of stock rustling. “It doesn’t matter if it is an old ewe worth two dollars,” says White with courtroom gravity. “It’ll still get you seven years inside.”
An earlier police officer, Warwick Maloney, had his own way of taking to the air to communicate with miscreants. A tough, uncompromising West Coaster, he was once faced with a fisher who obstinately remained at sea to avoid the long arm of the law. Frustrated day after day in the discharge of his duty, Maloney finally hitched a ride on an empty cray basket slung underneath a helicopter, swooping down dramatically on the wily fisher to deliver his summons.
Before the crayfish “goldrush,” which saw an influx of rough-and-ready fortune-seekers—eight boats were lost during Maloney’s stay—the Chathams was a police officer’s paradise, and crime almost non-existent. “You married them, buried them, and dosed their dogs,” he said recently, recollecting the time when he was the island representative for 14 government departments.
Maloney even refereed the rugby matches. “They didn’t trust any of their own because of family ties and favouritism.”
White gives the impression, in the course of his banter, that it is still a good place for a cop.Shortly, weather permitting, he will take a school group for a lesson in rock-climbing and abseilling. A reminder for younger listeners that, yes, National Bicycle Safety Week does extend as far as the Chathams, and he makes way for the morning news bulletin.
This is where, for new arrivals, temporal vertigo sets in. Locke takes the national news live from Wellington but, as the Chathams is ahead of the rest of the world thanks to a curve in the dateline, New Zealand broadcaster Linda Rose chirpily introduces the 7 A.M. news at 7.45 local time. Evening television is equally confusing.
The situation has given rise to a hoary piece of advice for visitors: “Put your watches ahead 45 minutes and your minds back 50 years.” A word of warning: never repeat the saying in the pub. Or anywhere else, if you want to get along. Islanders take a dim view of New Zealanders coming over with smart-alec notions. They have a phrase for them: five-minute experts.
Sure, all the roads may be metal, apart from a deceptive stretch from the airport, a lick of seal around the schools and a couple of kilometres leading to Chatham’s only general store. And there may be an absence of cinemas, cafes and traffic lights. But, thanks to eager fundraising, islanders now have an ambulance to park outside their small hospital and, as they will quickly point out, the Chathams has more fax machines per capita than anywhere else in the world. Ninety, by last count, for a population of around 750. It also has the world’s greatest concentration of Harley-Davidsons—with off-road tyres, of course—but that is another matter.
Getting about is difficult; no doubt about it. Washouts, steep inclines and rugged surfaces make the Chathams Landrover country and, with petrol at $1.33 a litre, most vehicles are diesel.
Distances don’t tell the full story, either. A 90,000-hectare pan of land the colour of lichen, and looking newly pulled from some enormous rock pool, the main island measures less than 60 km at its broadest. Yet the bone-jolting drive around the lagoon from Waitangi to Kaingaroa can take an hour or more. Islanders are philosophical about the frequent punctures, and local mechanics are adept at repairing holed petrol tanks.
Pull over to admire the view anywhere on the island’s half-dozen twisting roads and every passing driver is likely to stop to lend a hand and see whether it was a flat tyre or a shaky exhaust that got you this time. On Pitt, conditions are more grim. There, “road” seems altogether too formal a description for the tracks, carved as they are out of hardened mud to yield a surface like the strait on a bad day and crisscrossed with farm gates. Nevertheless, Pitt’s children gun their four-wheel bikes expertly to and from school over the frozen furrows.
“I feel a little mean sending them home after class when the weather starts kicking up out there,” says sole charge teacher Marie Cannon.
“But what can you do?”
Overcoming such adversity gives zest to island life. After all, without it the locals may as well quit Port Hutt for the Port Hills, or Kaingaroa for Khandallah. Living close to the bone strips away a layer of social insulation. People on the Chathams continually test themselves, lean on one another and, now and then, come to blows.
“Yeah, a guy will get heated up over something one night and maybe knock a mate down,” says Christiansen. “But the next day it’s forgotten. It has to be. This island’s too small.”
Nevertheless, people who don’t fit can be mercilessly hounded off Chatham. It is rare but not unheard of for a boat to be sunk, a car destroyed, a house torched, when ill-feeling reaches breaking point. Most of the anger is directed at newcomers, whose behaviour often cuts across the conservative values of islanders.
Nothing new there. Folk have been unceremoniously knocking one another down here throughout the history of European settlement.
The first to do so were sailors on the Royal Navy brig Chatham. Commanded by William Broughton, the ship inadvertently came across the islands in November 1791 when on a voyage in search of a northwest passage between the Pacific and the North Atlantic. Blown off course shortly after leaving New Zealand’s Dusky Sound, the Chatham made landfall at Kaingaroa. Its crew tried unsuccessfully to barter with local Moriori, and soon a misunderstanding arose. Muskets were fired and a Moriori, Tamakaroro, was killed.
The sailors abruptly weighed anchor, bestowing their vessel’s name on what for 600 years had been known as Rekohu—misty skies—and leaving the pacifist Moriori blaming themselves for the violence.
Despite their latitude, which straddles the gale-lashed Roaring Forties, the Chathams offered everything an uncomplaining Polynesian people needed. Broadleaf forests for shelter, rails, petrels and albatross, seals and whales, lagoons teeming with marine life, and abundant fresh water.
But following European contact, the secret of the Chathams was out. Sealers from Australia and New Zealand and whalers from the other side of the globe arrived, decimating wildlife and introducing diseases.
In 1835, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama from New Zealand commandeered a ship and struck out to conquer the islands. To legitimate possession, they slaughtered 300 or more Moriori—it is said some 70 were cooked up at Waitangi in what is now the pub carpark—and enslaved the survivors. By the 1840s, missionaries, traders and farmers had also become active, introducing a new religion and a new economic reality, and changing forever the face of the land.
Frederick Hunt, who well knew the shore whalers and could hold his own with the best of them, called them “the greatest ruffians unhung in their time.” The Chatham Islands, he wrote, were held by New Zealanders to be “the resort of various bay whalers, composed of every grade of character, shipwrecked sailors, and deserters, escaped convicts from Sydney and Hobartown, and low dextrous prigs . . . Amongst them villainy was considered virtue and honesty a great weakness . . . .”
Hunt, alarmed at the wild conduct of European settlers and at the increasingly excitable Maori calls for justice, removed his family for safety to Pitt Island. There he bought land around Flower Pot, the island’s only serviceable landing place, and carved out a lucrative living raising sheep and cattle and growing vegetables for whaling ships.
Conditions on Chatham remained volatile for some years. At one point, in 1872, Pakeha on the island retreated en masse to the Kaingaroa home of Irishman Thomas Ritchie and barricaded themselves against what they thought was certain massacre. On other occasions, followers of the Maori prophet Te Whiti could be seen circling Chatham on horseback in the belief that doing so three times in succession would cause the Europeans to voluntarily remove themselves from the island.
Neither outcome eventuated, but the mavericks thrown up by those rawhide times have their descendants today. Take Mick Lanauze, a farmer who rather reluctantly also happens to run the Chathams general store. The mischievous smile and the long hair, drawn back and tied in a cavalier tail, belie his 73 years. “I’m the oldest hippie on the island,” he says with amusement. “And I feel better now than I did 20 years ago.”
Two decades ago he’d already hung up the replica six-shooters he once swaggered about with, and set aside the sawn-off .303 with which, amid belches of flame and smoke, he culled cattle from the saddle.
For years Mick, whose father was born on Chatham in the 1880s, maintained the family tie with the land, working sheep and, later, cattle.
“I was never tempted to fish,” he says with a shudder. “Even in the boom days when people were making a lot of money.” For him there is an almost tangible line in the sand. On one side terra firma, on the other the heaving ocean, pierced with rocks, reefs and shark fins. Others would rather face the prospect of a white pointer—the most recent attack was earlier this year—than give up paua diving for the boredom of dipping sheep.
Or of shopkeeping, agrees Mick. “I only wrote four or five letters a year with wool export—now look,” he says, letting drop a cascade of invoices and advertising flyers. And though, when farming was a way of life, he only lived 15 km away, six months could go by without his setting foot in town.
Those were the days when blokes made a point of getting to a rugby game, often riding 30-40 km to the field, then tucking in to a post-match hangi. The fishing quota system has put an end to all that. Most fishers lease quotas and can’t afford a sport injury, though now and then a team of locals, the Wekas, will take the field against the new arrivals, the Kiwis. Unpredictable conditions mean they are liable to forsake their game and put to sea at the merest hint of a let-up in the weather.
Mick classes it as yet another instance of the hurry everyone seems to be in these days. “So many people will dash around the store, grab what they want then disappear, even though you know they have all day,”
He traces the Chatham equivalent of hyperactivity to the cray boom of the late 1960s, when people started buying cars and luxury goods with the compulsion of mainlanders.
“I can’t complain, I did okay out of it,” says Mick, who was obliged to put in additional freezers to carry the convenience foods newcomers demanded. But he is keen to be off. The store is on the market, and these days he is more likely to be found back in the saddle on his hobby farm.
High freight and development costs limit what can be achieved on land, though, as local historian and former sheep farmer David Holmes will testify. The driveway to his elegant 19th century homestead, built for trader Walter Hood in 1882, is still choked with fallen macrocarpas, victims of an unheralded January gale that whipped the island with 160 km winds. The storm, and others like it, underscore the fragility of the sea link on which farmers depend.
Pitt is even more vulnerable. There, baled wool sits ceiling-high in a waterside storehouse awaiting a ship, while new season’s growth thickens on the sheep’s backs.
Live shipments to Napier are improving returns for farmers and encouraging the swing from sheep to cattle, but 87-year-old Holmes, a resident since 1922, is convinced the Chathams have not reached their potential. Possums and gorse are problems even in such far-flung pastures, he admits, along with the acidity of the peat soil. But good management, including topdressing, rotational grazing and a greater use of shelter belts, would enable farmers to run upward of half a million sheep instead of the present 170,000, he calculates. The Chathams could then become an Emerald Isle, A Garden of Eden in the South Pacific.
After all, Holmes points out, the islands will grow anything Wellington can. Back in 1933, he recalls, no ship called for seven months, yet no one went hungry. There were eggs, bacon, potatoes and other vegetables—the only plant in short supply was tobacco. Last century, up to 1200 tonnes of potatoes a year were being shipped out as far as Australia and California.
Unquestionably, though, the big export earners these days are hauled out of the sea. From the adorned tranquillity of his Victorian parlour, Holmes talks of the cray boom which put the Chathams on the fishing map: crustaceans unceremoniously tailed when boats came close in for shelter, and dumped three feet thick on the foreshore; the sound of helicopters bringing pots ashore from dawn till dusk; the half-mile square stretch of water off Green Point on the south coast which yielded 200 tonnes before being exhausted.
“When you were only getting seven crays in a pot it was time to shut down and have a holiday,” says longtime crayfisher Charlie Preece, who once brought back seven tonnes—the reward of a single day’s labour. “The whole boat was packed so high it was hard to leave the wheelhouse.”
A Victorian chronicler of the bonanza would have labelled it “the Romance of Fishing.” These days, with catches down on those of the heyday, Link Christiansen would most likely settle for “the Adventure of Fishing.” Nudging his sturdy steel boat Invader around Cape Fournier and into seas that would make a lesser mortal queasy, Christiansen—who announced the recent birth of son Peter with the words “another Viking has arrived”—braces himself in the wheelhouse, relishing the drumming engine, distorted cabin music and the flashpast of wheeling mollymawks.
He has cray pots scattered off Pitt, and regularly makes the rounds, adding new ones—shaped like refrigerator-sized wire suitcases—to promising tracts of seabed, and lifting old ones. It is like placing bets on a casino board. Sometimes the bets pay off with a haul of large flapping bucks. Other pots are empty or have undersized crays, which he lowers again. “Not that it will do any good,” he says resignedly. “The cod will have them before they hit the bed.”
Unlike the finfishery, the cray industry swings widely between good and bad years. The energetic and determined Christiansen is still wresting a fair income from the sea—good enough to contemplate buying a high-speed aluminium boat to reduce the nights spent away from his family—but others are toughing out what has so far proved a poor season.
Ashore, there is much talk of the big catches being made by South Island fishers. Enthusiasts chart the progress of the crays east along the Chatham Rise—folk wisdom holding that they advance at the rate of 7 km a day.
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” said poet T. S. Eliot, who must have had the heart of a cray fisher.
The thought of a phalanx of stalk-eyed creatures the size of domestic cats crawling across a bed of lunar ruggedness, day after day, week after week, with all the weight of the southern ocean on their backs, defies belief. And then only to be hauled up by an antipodean Viking and put on a plane for Japan.
The presence of crays has been known for a long time, and was officially recorded in the report on the Scientific Results of the New Zealand Trawling Expedition 1907. One caption in the Government report reads: “Swimming crabs and crayfish taken at the Chatham Islands. Every haul made at the Islands produced enormous bags of these crustaceans, and, as a result, sacksful of crayfish were handed to the Maoris and Morioris, who regard them as special delicacies.”
The origin of the Chathams crays is a matter of much contention locally. Some adhere to the New Zealand migration theory, others favour a South American or Antarctic source. One thing they agree on: the crays, which live 60 years or more and can fetch $50/kg, are not local.
The paua, however, are. Scoop four or five fleshy specimens off the rocks and they will earn you $100, after expenses. One tonne of quota translates into an income of $100,000 dollars and, yes, there are millionaires on Chatham—though wealth, the islanders insist, is no indicator of social standing.
The beauty of paua is that, compared with crays, there are few expenses. A wetsuit and a knife and you’re practically there. It is just a matter of diving and picking up the mother-of-pearl money boxes. The big hurdle, as with most fishing these days, is getting a quota.
Introduced in the early 1980s as part of a national management system following the uncontrolled rock lobster boom, the individual quotas are in effect transferable property rights. A quarter of all paua quota and more than 60 per cent of inshore quota for all seafood species is now held by non-islanders, increasing the bitterness Chathams fishers feel at the erosion of their birthright.
“I feel sorry for these young fellas struggling to get into the industry,” says Pat Preece, whose son-in-law dives for paua. “It seems unjust when others can come from New Zealand for a few weeks, get their quota and sail back. They are living off the fat of the land—and it’s our land.”
David Holmes agrees. “The islands have been exploited by somebody for 150 years. For the past 30 it has been by the New Zealand government.” Politicians, he claims, are reluctant to give any royalties from the Chatham Rise fishery to islanders. Indeed, most quota for deep water species such as hoki and orange roughy, which make up the overwhelming bulk of the total Chathams catch, are held by Japanese and Korean companies. Islanders hold less than one per cent.
The biggest orange roughy fishery in New Zealand lies 25 km southeast of Pitt, yet, says Charlie Preece, no locals have been given permits.
Nor have they secured permits for scampi, brought under the quota system recently. The sense of injustice still simmers and, when bad weather forces New Zealand ships to take refuge in local harbours, fights can break out. Not surprisingly, talk of independence has resurfaced. Link Christiansen’s partner Philippa is a vocal advocate.
“Anyone in their right mind can see these islands are so different they could easily separate from New Zealand,” she says, adding that the first act should be to buy a frigate for patrolling territorial waters. “All the guys here would really get into that. They love being on the water.”
It is a heartfelt, but perhaps impractical, rallying call. Incarcerating the entire adult male population in a frigate would hardly foster economic growth—however much it might appeal to some of the women.
The flag of freedom, at least, has already been unfurled. A few years ago an enterprising police officer designed and flew his own secessionist flag depicting a green island and blazing rising sun on a blue background.
For islanders, ever the individualists, getting a consensus is proving difficult. One of the reasons, says Philippa, is that many Maori and Moriori—who make up around 50 per cent of the population—have relations on the mainland and don’t want to see the link severed.
Another is that no one has sufficient mana and single-mindedness to weld together public support. The islanders have a common past, but social cohesion has been fractured in recent years by the issue of tangata whenua fishing rights. Chathams Maori resented attempts by Taranaki Maori to negotiate on their behalf, and were uncomfortable with the revival of Moriori cultural identity. Moriori, they argue, are just another iwi.
“I would support independence if we had strong leadership, but for it to happen now would be a disaster,” says Pat Preece, who has lived on the island for 29 years. She and her husband Charlie, a Moriori descendant who also traces his lineage to the invading Maori chief Pomare, are strong advocates for the indigenous people of Rekohu. Charlie chairs the Te Iwi Moriori Trust Board, which represents families in the Chathams and in New Zealand.
At the entrance to their property, shrouded in plastic and overlooking the rolling farmland leading down to Petre Bay, sits a Moriori wash-through canoe. Built in Napier for the 1990 sesquicentennial celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the raupo waka is a symbol of the Moriori renaissance. When it is suggested that the vessel might best serve as an ambassador for Moriori cultural revival by being installed in the new National Maritime Museum, Pat is less than enthusiastic. “I would rather have it out there under a tarpaulin, a challenge for islanders not to forget that side of their past,” she says defiantly.
Charlie’s uncle Riwai, the islands’ Anglican priest, is more circumspect. “All my life we’ve been Chatham Islanders. Only lately have we become divided—through this business of the Treaty of Waitangi.”
Riwai, for 30 years a horse trainer in Riccarton before astounding locals by taking the cloth, exudes the tolerant community-mindedness of a country vicar. When not milking a neighbour’s cow or taking his turn running videos for the local television station, he is busy with the affairs of St Augustine, the oldest church on the Chathams. Its congregation is greying now, the younger locals putting in an appearance mainly at Christmas and Easter.
Fishing puts demands on people, he says, as does sheep farming, which at times commits shearers, cooks and hands to working Sundays. “I know them all, I don’t have to make excuses for anyone.”
Neither does Bunty Preece, who lives across Chatham’s narrow waist at Owenga, once a Moriori stronghold, and who, like brothers Riwai and Charlie, is three-eighths Moriori. For 18 years chair of the county council, Bunty has consistently trod a middle path, helping secure developments such as the airport, which made a reliable airlink with New Zealand possible, by cultivating a working relationship with senior officials.
Attending an international conference, Islands 88, altered all that.
“I realised that for years we had been short-changed,” he says. The conference gave Bunty and other islanders an international perspective. These days they are likely to punctuate discussions of the 200-mile economic zone with references to the relative prosperity of such places as the Falklands.
The only difference between the Chathams and other islands, they say, lies in the way resources are controlled.
“If you look past the potholes it is a beautiful island,” says Bunty. “But we need a blueprint for the future. The young people are asking, `Where do we go from here?'”
For now, a lot of them go hunting. “This place is a frontier environment,” says DOC worker Allan Munn. “Most people are hunters and gatherers.” For gun-toters, it is heaven.
The catalogue of what can be despatched is impressive. Wild pigs and cattle are plentiful, as are mallard, grey duck and pukeko. Weka, introduced in 1905, run rampant and are hunted through the bracken wilderness at night with the help of dogs. Nowhere else in New Zealand is the killing of the flightless bird allowed.
Vilified for taking the eggs of indigenous birds, weka are nevertheless grudgingly admired by some for their character.
“They’re hard case all right,” says farmer Tony Anderson. “They keep getting in the house and making off with my computer disks. The worst part is, if you frighten them, they always seem to shit before they leave.”
Albatross, once taken by Moriori in risky hunting expeditions to outlying islands, are now protected. But the big handsome birds, known locally as “illegal Tegel” and having a taste somewhere between tuna and chicken, still find their way into island ovens.
Black swans, introduced from Australia last century, have become prolific, and their eggs, highly prized by the early settlers, are often plucked from the fringes of the lagoons. It is open season on the swans for most of the year. A few months ago, local gunclub members, in the company of foreign aficionados, “annoyed the hell out of them” using a helicopter.
Some 600 were shot from the air, including one by gunclubber Leigh Thompson. “Only one! And there was some doubt about that. I had to share it with another bloke.” But Tommo—it is a land of nicknames—had an excuse for his low tally. He had another bird on his mind.
In a building perched on a Kaingaroa hill, overlooking what is in effect an ex-pat community of New Zealanders beached by the receding cray boom, Tommo concocts the local brew: Black Robin. His boutique brewery, all stainless steel vats and pressure valves, puts out 1500 litres a month, and the stuff is now on tap in far-off Waitangi and, a few strides away down a grassy track, at the local social club.
A fisher for 15 years, Tommo has applied for an eel licence for live export to supplement his income from the fledgling brewery. The plan is to leave Te Whanga Lagoon to the locals—he is, after all, a relative newcomer—and fish a smaller lake nearby.
The wheels of officialdom are slow to turn, though, and for the moment he is left contemplating from the balcony of his unfinished house the panoramic seascape, where a handful of fishing boats tug listlessly at their moorings.
Tourism is another option Tommo is mulling over. The fishing is an obvious draw, but there is also diving, fossicking for 40 millionyear-old sharks’ teeth down where Blind Jims Creek feeds into the Te Whanga Lagoon, snapping pictures of the island’s enigmatic Moriori tree carvings, birdwatching, and of course knocking back Black Robin.
His brew may even get a reputation across the Tasman. A while back some Australians called in to Waitangi aboard a massive high-tech car ferry being delivered to Argentina. Built in Tasmania, it was the second of six on order, and spent a good deal of time waiting for the swell to lessen before refuelling. Eventually, some of the crew rowed ashore, stepping on to the beach with the look of Cortez, wide-eyed in Darien, or of Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms. They had come to secure by whatever means a barbecue for the ship. Its interior may look like a cross between a casino and a duty-free shop, they said, but despite the glitz the galley’s microwave oven didn’t work.
Val Croon, Waitangi’s publican, organised a meal and acquainted the crew with such things as local time, currency conversion rates and Black Robin. The Australians eventually departed in the early hours, carrying a crewmate. It is unclear whether they had bagged a barbi.
Meeting the needs of chance visitors is something of a Chatham tradition. Mid-1993, the Korean fishing trawler Oyang 77 made nationwide news when it grounded in Waitangi Bay. Two months and a million dollars later, the 1000-tonne ship floated free, allaying fears of a rusting hulk on one of the island’s most beautiful beaches.
Further north, the flaking remains of the Thomas Correll is proof of what might have happened. A converted minesweeper later ignominiously used as a cod freezer, it now adds a note of rusted melancholy to Port Hutt’s Whangaroa Harbour.
Given that the Oyang 77 avoided that fate, its temporary presence was welcomed by most islanders. The need for food, lodgings and supplies for its salvage crew during the 67 days the ship lay inert boosted the local economy.
“We’re waiting for the Oyang 78 now,” says Val.
Sometimes, however, it is the islanders themselves who are forced to make unscheduled stopovers. Riwai Preece remembers the time he journeyed to Pitt for the night and stayed three weeks, a prisoner of unseasonable weather. Since then, a light aircraft service has added a dimension of convenience and shrunk travelling time between islands to 20 minutes—weather permitting.
But the weather does not always permit, due in part to the merging of tropical ocean currents with cooler southern ones near the islands. This confluence often results in shrouds of fog, and creates unpredictable conditions.
Proof that polar currents touched the Chathams came as long ago as 1892, when icebergs drifted into Pitt Strait and Petre Bay, one measuring a kilometre in length.
“These vast islands of glittering ice were awe-inspiring from their size and height,” recorded Major Gascovne, the resident magistrate. “One was shaped like a long and narrow promontory, with a castle-like hill at its northern end.” The spectacle prompted one local to hew a chunk off for her kettle and later to boast that she had drunk tea made with water from the Antarctic.
Riwai knows only too well the discomfort such weather patterns can bring. He was once a passenger on a Bristol Freighter from the mainland which was forced back without landing, due to fog. “We couldn’t see a thing. Seven hours we were up there—it was a long trip.”
One flight that didn’t even get off the ground, or rather the water, was that of a Sunderland bound for Wellington’s Evans Bay. On November 4, 1959, the flying boat hit a submerged rock as it took off from Te Whanga Lagoon, ripping its hull open. Some say the marker buoys had drifted. Assessors wrote the plane off as beyond economical repair, and after removing the electronic gear, offered it for a token payment to anyone who could guarantee removal. Two brothers, Ray and Alf Weisner, rose to the challenge. The huge aluminium hulk was hacksawed apart and coaxed over almost nonexistent roads to the Weisners’ Kaingaroa farm. It is still there, the cockpit and main fuselage rearing with bizarre incongruity through the treetops, another section converted into a shed with doors that once were wings. A tribute to island ingenuity, such transformations are commonplace in a region where even trees are scarce.
For Val Croon, who worked in the fish factory on Pitt in the late 1970s before the local airlink was established, even risky travel would have been welcomed when his son broke an arm. Despite having one of the two telephones on the island, Croon had to wait four days before the boy could be taken off by boat to Chatham.
The remoteness, which persists even today, has forced Pitt Island farmer James Moffett to tackle jobs others would happily leave to a vet.
Faced with a dog badly mauled by a pig, most mainland farmers would have it stitched up by a vet within the hour. James’s treatment when that happened was to tie the unfortunate animal next to a healthy dog able to clean it, and let nature’s healing take its course.
The same approach was taken by that early Pitt pioneer Frederick Hunt, in one of whose houses James and his family now live. Hunt applied unorthodox cures to humans, with interesting results. On one occasion, a retired sailor came to him complaining that his Moriori wife was afflicted with hakihaki, an unpleasant skin disease. Medicines being rare on the Chathams, Hunt advised applying a liquid solution of gunpowder.
Jenny, the patient, took the treatment to heart, removing her clothing, cutting her hair and smearing her entire body with a thick paste. Then she crouched down and dried herself over a wood fire. “The explosion was instantaneous and terrific,” wrote Hunt. “A flash like lightning illuminated her body, burning off and searing every wound and excrescence—peeling her, in fact, as completely as one would peel an apple.”
“By God!” shouted the old salt. “You have done a d-d nice thing;you have blown my old woman’s hide off!” Such was the case. Hunt was forced to admit, but after some weeks of agony, new skin grew and the patient was cured.
An unrepentant Hunt wrote in his memoirs: “This little anecdote may be of some service to the medical profession, and furnish hints for the treatment of this disgusting disease.”
It is not recorded whether the medical profession took note of the advice, but through the years, doctors have proved difficult to keep on the islands. By David Holmes’s reckoning, the Chathams has seen 66 doctors in the past 10 years, one setting an all-time low endurance record of one week.
Now, with the appointment of Claire and Mark Phillips, the islanders have struck gold, getting two doctors for the price of one. Claire and Mark, who spent a year training to work in remote locations, specialise respectively in orthopaedics and anaesthesia—useful qualifications on the Chathams. Especially given that car accidents, some fatal, happen with alarming regularity.
Anthea Goode, whom the doctors replace, says a high proportion of the case load is alcohol-related. “In my job interview, they stressed the need for someone good at accident and emergency work,” says Goode.
“But counselling skills are needed, too.”
Now, especially. Not long ago Chatham was plunged into shock as a result of a teenage suicide. “In a close-knit community like this, a person’s death affects everyone—especially a tragic death,” says George White. There have since been reports of other young islanders attempting to take their lives in New Zealand and at sea.
In a society like the Chathams, where some folk are more used to a yarn over a beer after days at sea or around a boiling billy after shearing, and where others have entirely lost the habit of conversing with strangers. talking through personal grief can be difficult.
“They are a pretty independent people here,” says Riwai stoically. “They sort out their own problems.”
But the job is harder when it challenges one of the most fundamental processes of island life—education. The suicide brought home the stress children face when they are sent out to the mainland to finish their schooling.
“Kids here grow up in a safe environment, where cars and houses are left unlocked. Then they leave everyone they’ve ever known and go to boarding schools where teachers say, ‘We’re going to treat you the same as everyone else, says Maria Cotter. The resident community worker crushes out her cigarette feelingly. “Even ESL [English as a Second Language] students from Asia have special orientation programmes,” she says.
Here, it is left to islanders to fundraise for the annual rite of passage, the Weka Walk, where children are flown to the mainland to practise such neglected arts as boarding buses, using pedestrian crossings and negotiating footpaths full of strangers.
Some parents, those who can juggle the logistics, move to New Zealand for the school years. A few try correspondence school. But nothing is easy.
Maria sits in a dim hall. Behind her, on a stage strewn with hay bales, a moon child, a troll and a brightly costumed clown patiently wait for her to begin rehearsing what is billed as “a children’s production full of fun.”
She leafs through a folder and pulls out a single sheet. It is a short essay by a 17-year-old Chatham Islander, Thomas Solomon, on his boarding experience. It talks of wrestling with homesickness and loneliness and of counting the days until the end of term. Of forcing illness in order to be sent back to the island, and of pleading to stay home as holidays drew to a close.
The essay, however, ends confidently: “My time at school . . . has taught me a lot about life on the mainland. From being a shy homesick third-former I feel I have gained confidence and am prepared for the experience of joining the workforce . . . .”
For many island youth, options on the Chathams are limited. But a surprising number are keen to return. Rose Mary Daymond takes time off from docking sheep to explain the attractions of Pitt. “New Zealand sucks. When you’re there you have to wear nice shoes. I just want to get into gumboots and round up sheep.”
She talks of sitting by the lighthouse under a night sky and watching the flicker of distant ships, of the beauty of Glory Bay to the south, and of the delight to be had in just walking a paddock. The words sound strange on the lips of a teenager.
Life on Pitt—population, 55, when the kids are home—is not all joy, though. For Rose Mary, hanging out with mates means first getting on a four-wheeler or saddling up a horse. Some live at Glory, half an hour’s journey down a resisting track.
When someone has a birthday on Pitt the whole island turns out to celebrate it, but with no organised social life and no public buildings other than the school and The Church of Our Lady of the Antipodes, families keep to themselves most other times.
“It’s hard on a woman here once the children are grown,” says James Moffett. “The walls can start to close in.”
The first European woman to settle on the island, Frederick Hunt’s wife Mary, had the opposite problem. Newly transported to Pitt, she asked where the promised new home was. Hunt gestured to some bushes under a spreading karaka tree. “Look at all my cooking utensils! See the quantity of ashes on the hearth! Behold my wardrobe hanging on the trees!”
Still seasick from the crossing, Mary was in no condition to endure such flippancy. She asked where they were to sleep. Under the open sky, replied Hunt. “What can be more glorious than heaven’s dew falling upon you, and a good protector by your side?”
He was later to make light of what followed. “Fortunately, we had two umbrellas; so, holding open one in each of our hands, taking the dear children upon our knees, and drawing the bedclothes tightly around us, we crouched down awaiting the worst.”
The worst must have happened a good many times to the women of the Chathams. When Joyce Holmes arrived as a domestic helper in 1938 there was no electricity, and she had to make do with kerosene lamps and a wood stove.
These days the plopping of automatic breadmakers can be heard in virtually every house, yet women live far from liberated lives. If the islands, with their hunting and fishing, are a paradise for men, they can at times be little more than a workplace and land of exile for women.
Some talk of sweltering kitchens, where pot belly stoves are fired up through summer to keep the water hot, of concern at the distance from medical help, and of difficulties getting children to school from outlying farms. Others speak of a society in which their status is demeaned.
Indeed, Chatham remains strongly patriarchal, and domestic violence is a worrying fact of island life.
“Only when I went to the mainland did I realise that behaviour I had accepted all my life as normal was totally oppressive,” says one woman who has since quite the island.
However, police officer White says he sees evidence of increasing respect for women, and a boost in the number of service jobs has created opportunities for employment, and independence, outside the home.
Work aside, people on Chatham
are adept at occupying themselves. Many will endure a long, uncomfortable drive to see a local play, bid at auction in support of a worthy cause, or support a game of netball—one of the leading recreations for women, and the islands’ main sport.
Dangerous rips and holes make most beaches—pure untrammelled shelves of sand which curve into the distance—unsafe for swimming. But the surf is something are adept at occupying themselves. Many will endure a long, uncomfortable drive to see a local play, bid at auction in support of a worthy cause, or support a game of netball—one of the leading recreations for women, and the islands’ main sport.
Dangerous rips and holes make most beaches—pure untrammelled shelves of sand which curve into the distance—unsafe for swimming. But the surf is something else, according to one newcomer, who ordered a board from New Zealand on his second day. If so, add another entry under the heading recreational tourism.
For the moment, actually for the past 150 years, something altogether more sociable, more expensive, perhaps even more dangerous, has the island in its grip. Horse racing.
Come year’s end, the local track, the smallest this side of the equator, is cleared of sheep as islanders from Glory Bay to Mairangi dust off their finery for a brace of festive meetings. The Chatham Island Jockey Club, established in 1873, is said to be the country’s oldest continuously operating racing club, though the first race in the islands was held nine years earlier at Kaingaroa.
The buying and breeding of horses, financed in the middle of last century largely through the export of potatoes, became big business, encouraged by its leading enthusiast, the Waitangi chief Pornare.
In recent times, racing has taken on a new sophistication with the building in 1987 in the Norm Kirk Memorial Reserve of a sports complex, also named after Kirk, which includes trackside seating along with squash court, lounge and dressing room.
The genuflection toward the former member for Lyttelton should not surprise. For most Chatham Islanders, he remains the one politician who has ever really cared about them. The man, who once said he felt more at home on the Chathams than anywhere on earth, inked his name in visitors’ books across the islands. During his political career Kirk developed such a bond with the place that, according to the then Governor-General Arthur Porritt, locals regarded him as a cross between Father Confessor and Father Christmas.
The event that cemented Kirk’s place in the pantheon of island heroes occurred in 1961. The MP was swan shooting on nearby Lake Huro early one evening, when one of the boats overturned. Some reached the shore, but others were poor swimmers and became entangled in the lake weed. Kirk himself was nearly drowned.
“He kept diving in, trying to rescue the others,” remembers David Holmes. “In the end, he also got into difficulties. Four men lost their lives that day. I don’t think anyone will forget the tragedy. Or Norman Kirk’s bravery.”
Horse racing on Chathams is not without its dangers, either. Until a few years ago, the horses were old hacks. But now, breeders grown wealthy from fishing are bringing in New Zealand thoroughbreds with the performance of Ferraris. Local rules prohibit registered jockeys, so less experienced apprentices are taking the reins. As are local kids.
“They are getting up to New Zealand speeds,” says Lois Croon, whose son and daughters all race. “It’s frightening.”
Two years back, her son took a fall and was clipped by a horse’s hoof. He was flown to Christchurch for a scan—at a low 2000 feet to avoid putting undue pressure on the brain.
Lois purses her lips. “That was real scary.”
Despite such potentially harmful encroachments, the Chathams remains beyond the gravitational pull of much that affects other late 20th century societies. It has the flavour of a small town, quarantined by a formidable tract of ocean. And, despite modern airlinks, it still offers the necessary solitude for people like 83-year-old Bosun Day. A Chatham resident since 1929, he has taken leave of the island just three times.
“I’m not a great traveller,” admits Bosun, his face deadpan. Like his longtime friend David Holmes, he has never learned to drive a car.
“We can both drive a team of horses, though,” he says, grinning.
Like him, Mick Lanauze has seldom left Chatham. Why should he, he asks, when he hasn’t yet seen all there is to see of his own island. He talks of a two- or three-day camping trip he is planning “up the back”—a local tag for the elevated block of inaccessible country to the south. It is a moody landscape abandoned alike by the ancient forests that helped form it and by recent schemes to harvest its peat for synthetic crude oil.
An image comes to mind of Mick, braced against the relentless wind. His hair drawn tight against the scalp, clothes flapping. Hands at his hips where the six-shooters once hung loose. A solitary figure, high above the crashing sea.
It is an image of defiance. As, in their way, all such lives this bound up with nature, this close to the edge, must be.