First to See the Sun The Chatham Islands

by Hugh Rennie, Chairman, Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust

Somewhere near the airstrip on Pitt Island is the easternmost sheep in the world. The exact holder of the title changes from time to time, as the flock wanders about the grassed hills. Pitt Islanders spend no time thinking about this odd fact. Neither, as far as is known, do the sheep.

The Chatham Islands could claim many such entries in the Guinness Book of Records. The islands’ rare bird and unique species make lengthy reading. The early history saw a German mission which never made any converts; a southern ocean provedore whose only advertising was in the whaleship towns of the USA; and a Maori rebel whose exile in the Chathams saw him turn to peace and establish the Ringatu religion.

Pitt Island is the smaller of the two inhabited islands of the Chatham Islands. Inhabited, that is, by humans. In the world scale, others in the forty island group may rank more highly, for the smaller islands are rare bird sanctuaries and include the home of the internationally famous black robin, once the world’s rarest bird.

Large in area (the two inhabited islands, Pitt and Chatham, are greater in area than the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man combined), they have since 1842 been the easternmost part of New Zealand. Some 400 miles to the East, the Chathams community farm and fish in land of good agricultural potential, surrounded by a territorial fishing zone which makes up 24 percent of New Zealand’s territorial waters.

But, integrated politically within New Zealand, the Islands have seen much of their economic opportunity and potential wealth go to the central state. Most of the 750 Islanders farm or fish. Some work in service industries, or for the Conservation Department which has an expanding presence in bird and other reserves. Others support a growing eco-tourism industry whose visitors are still numbered in the dozens of people per month.

The sun rises on many more mornings than those who hear the official forecasts would ever believe. There is also less rain, less wind, and a more moderate climate than the New Zealand weather forecast promises.

First interest in colonising the Chathams came when a representative of the entrepreneurial New Zealand Company (which promoted organised colonies in the North and South Islands of New Zealand) visited the Chathams in 1840, and purportedly bought much of it from one of a group of warring factions in the inhabitants.

Two years later, during a tough time with the bank manager in London, these interests were “sold” to a German colonisation company. Not appreciative of this move, the British government proclaimed the Islands part of New Zealand.

Exercising effective control took longer. It was years before a magistrate arrived, and years more before one who could exercise real authority was appointed. The Chathams remained remote. Populated by the Moriori people found by British explorer Lieutenant Broughton in 1791, then by whalers, fishers, farmers and others who came ashore soon after, and by Maori tribes forced south by land wars in New Zealand in the 1820’s, the Chathams had many years of quiet isolation. Attempts at establishing a cod fishery, and another attempt at a dairy industry, failed from high transport costs.

Only with the development of the crayfish industry in the 1960’s, accompanied by improvements in air freight, did the Chathams begin to move into close connection with New Zealand and the wider world.

Today, in increasing numbers, the fascination of the Chathams is drawing visitors. There is something for anyone keen to experience rural New Zealand, and an added flavour all the Chatham’s own. Today too, the Chathams is showing that the enterprise of its people, and the richness of its resources, offers a good traditional life no longer remote from modern comforts. Distinctively, many of the younger Chatham Islanders are staying, or returning. They love their island, and now they can stay.

It was not always so easy. After World War II, the Chathams were one of the first destinations of New Zealand’s international airline TEAL. Comfortable flying boats took less than three hours from Wellington. But a busy year saw just five flights.

RNZAF Sunderland flying boats later took over. Lagoon flying had its moments. Perhaps the worst was when a Sunderland struck a rock, was holed, and sank there. This unexpected obstruction had passed harmlessly under earlier flights - but since the last flight the seasonal opening of the lagoon to the sea had dropped the level of the “runway” by several feet!

When land-based aircraft came in 1968, there were few roads. For the first few years, the lagoon had to be crossed by a four wheel drive truck, which made its way from guide post to guide post, for a journey of several kilometres in up to three feet of water. Locals dubbed it the “Yellow Submarine”. Once at the airfield, aging Bristol freighters then took from four to six hours to fly to New Zealand.

Small wonder that those who travelled to the Chathams were those who lived there, and those who had to go there. On arrival, they found an island with no trading bank, few tourist facilities, no newspaper, radio or television, and an erratic radio telephone link to the outside world.

The Islanders experienced great frustration with the effect of central government. Well-intentioned moves to provide core services were not always successful. Air and sea transport, meat processing, and other activities were undertaken by the government. But they lacked normal business disciplines, and often the service was captured by an outside provider which then moved to maximise its profits at the expense of government.

By 1991, central government was spending over $5 million a year sustaining shipping and air services, and port facilities; the operation of a small meatworks; and the generation of electricity for a central grid. Such expense could not be sustained.

Worse still, in the eyes of the Islanders, the services themselves were poor and expensive. In the air, an aging Argosy freighter converted for combi service (freight and passengers) flew three times a fortnight in summer, once a week in winter. At sea, an elderly coastal vessel carried freight in pre-container style. Freight damage was high, and freight rates made many cargoes uneconomic.

Something had to change. The first change was to the government’s will to continue. It decided to walk away from its activities, handing them to the Islanders, with a small capital sum to assist them to take control.

Restructured as trading companies under a community trust, the commercial businesses were quickly brought under control by Islanders with business experience. The new Trust withdrew from those areas where an existing business was willing to operate at its own profit and risk. Within 12 months, independent air and sea operators were providing unsubsidised services at lower freight and passenger rates than the heavily subsidised government services had provided. Modern aircraft and a container ship with heavy lifting gear provided a much improved service. Soon the Chathams gained a daily air service; and both air and sea export freights grew in volume.

The electricity service, based on diesel generators, was brought into profit without any increase in charges, and the electricity company initiated local generation investigations into hydro and wind.

Shipping livestock to mainland markets replaced the uneconomic meatworks, which closed. Soon both air and sea services were making further reductions in fares and freight rates. In 1997, these rates were well below the 1991 rates charged by the government services.

The Trust has now turned its attention to economic development. It acquires fishing quota as a means of opening up fishing access to young Islanders, with a unique government exemption to permit it to hold unlimited quantities of particular quota in support of this strategy.

Investing its capital funds both on and off the Islands, the Trust has generated an income base for further Island development. It now invests in education, with grants to young Islanders at all levels of education; and support for training in the Islands for those already in employment.

Searching for ways to diversify the economic base of the Chathams, the Trust has encouraged a small but developing tourism industry; commenced plantation of macrocarpa hardwoods on some of the many thousand acres of undeveloped land; and provided the infrastructure to encourage growth of small local businesses.

The main Island airline is owned in and run from the Chathams, flying a Metroliner III and a re-built turboprop conversion of a Convair. This combi plane, built to Chathams specifications in Kelowna, Canada, is now attracting attention for the possibilities it offers to other Island communities.

The world’s smallest television service offers a nightly fare of satellite news and taped programmes. The Chathams’ own radio station, Radio Weka, offers the New Zealand morning radio news, and a range of local programmes. STD communications have put faxes alongside phones in many homes; and a trading bank branch can change travellers cheques, process electronic transactions, and action credit cards as fast as any in the world.

There is a new mood in the Chathams. Islanders who used to ask the government to do things for them, now tell the government not to get in the way. There is now freedom to try Chatham ways of doing things. Like most cases of “local knowledge”, they usually work.

Some have not welcomed the change, but the critics do not include the Chatham Islanders themselves. With no wish to live in a curious rural museum, or over-regulated conservation park, they see the changes as bringing the better quality of life they have always been entitled to.

Happily, none of the changes threaten the real appeal of the islands to those who come to visit.

The visitors come for superb fishing, striking scenery, and a unique and fascinating history. They come to see the distinctive, often unique, Chathams’ birdlife; and perhaps to try such varied delicacies as crayfish, roast weka, or swan egg omelette. They come for that most elusive of holidays - a good time. (If roasting the New Zealand native bird the weka sounds cruel, or just ecologically wrong, the reality is that this bird, which first came to the Chathams in the 1920s, is so common it is almost a pest.)

The islands offer a variety of accommodation. You can dine at the hotel or the lodge, or stay in one of several farmstays, and no visitor should miss Chathams’ fish in its many forms (including fish and chips!). Three local firms offer rental vehicles; and horse riding, fishing, or local scenic flights are easily arranged. Through the Internet* details of all these are now available worldwide, and the response is growing. *(

Those unused to small islands need a warning. With just 750 people it remains a good idea to book ahead, and check by phone before coming. More than one visitor has stepped off the plane to find accommodation full, or the twenty kilometres from the airfield to the main settlement have no public transport.

Most attractions are now readily accessible. The famous Moriori tree carvings are in fenced reserves, clearly marked. Such relics of the imprisonment of the Maori leader and prophet Te Kooti as remain, can be seen in the small island museum at Waitangi. In several bush reserves, the island’s distinct flora, including the Chatham lily, is springing back. But the rarest of the birds, including the famous black robin, are still only on uninhabited off-shore islands to which access it forbidden.

Reserves and monuments are new to the Chathams. The Historic Places Trust now lists a number of Chatham buildings, including two with the national “A” rating. On Pitt, a memorial marks founder settler Frederick Hunt, whose advertisements to Boston whalers earned him a cash living in the 1800s. Six scenic reserves offer bush walks from an hour to a day, and on the lagoon’s western coast, pre-European rock carvings offer a cultural link with others in mainland New Zealand.

Today, some visitors come to help the continuing work to preserve the island’s rare birds. Others simply seek a tramp, a day or a week’s fishing, or a round of golf on either of the two courses which ill conceal their main role as sheep paddocks. There is skeet shooting at the local gun club, a motor-cycle club whose 30 Harley-Davidsons must be another Guinness Record Book entry, and the Islands own “real ale” brewery.

At New Year, New Zealand’s second oldest jockey club maintains its annual race meeting. It should have been New Zealand’s oldest jockey club, but for its first eight years, no-one bothered to register it.

You can stroll for miles along white sand beaches, dive for paua, kina and other delicacies off the rocks, or seek flounder and whitebait in the lagoon. On the lagoon shore, especially at Blind Jim’s Creek some kilometres north of the airfield, the laps of the lagoon waves push up fossil sharks teeth on the lagoon beach, artifacts of sharks who died millions of years ago.

Or you can just sit in the pub bar at Waitangi, hear tales (mostly genuine) of the harsh life of the Chathams fisherman, then stroll up the beach to buy crayfish and Chathams blue cod at the packing factory. The price is a bargain, but the packaging means you will fool none of your friends on your return!