Chatham Islands: An introduction

The Chatham Islands invoke visions of a remote, ocean-bound wilderness with fascinating marine and wildlife.

The Chathams is a remote, windy place that makes for an unforgettable visit.

Made up of 11 islands located 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of the South Island, it is a place of historical, natural and geological wonder.

The largest and only inhabited islands are Chatham and Pitt with a combined population of about 600. 

Expect gravel roads, peace and solitude  (except at the Chathams' only pub in the main township of Waitangi) and awe-inspiring views of towering cliffs, pristine beaches and rugged boulders.

Beautiful native akeake trees grow at right angles sculpted by the wind and there is no public transport.

Islanders are fiercely independent and have a unique culture. They believe they live in the best place in the world to bring up young children, barefoot in the mud, gathering kai moana from the rocks.

It is a local custom to wave at all vehicles and people when passing them on the road.

Oh, and you can forget your cellphone - there's no mobile coverage on these islands.

History

Geographically isolated for millions of years, the Chatham Islands were first inhabited by the Moriori, who named the islands 'Rekohu' - translated as 'misty skies' or 'misty sun'.

European sealers and whalers were next to arrive, followed by Māori (who named the islands 'Wharekauri')  from New Zealand.

Descendants of Moriori still reside on the islands today.

Significant historic sites include the Basalt Columns – imposing hexagonal rock formations formed 80 million years ago by cooling volcanic lava, and located at Ohio Bay about 30 minutes' drive from Waitangi.

In the north-west of the island, you can visit a stone cottage built in the 1800s by German missionaries at Maunganui, next to a volcanic peak of the same name.

The Chatham Islands Museum houses some fascinating displays of relics of life from days gone by, including ancient tools and casts of dinosaur bones.

Wildlife and sustainability

The Chatham Islands’ natural landscapes are home to unique species of flora and fauna.

Birdlife includes the red-crowned parakeet, Chatham Island black robin, shore plover and Chatham Island taiko - one of the rarest seabirds in the world.

There are several albatross colonies around the islands, which can be viewed from a boat, and oystercatchers roam freely around Chatham and Pitt islands.

Conservation programmes have had great success on the islands with both the taiko and black robin populations coming back from near extinction.

The taiko was thought to be extinct but was rediscovered by New Zealand ornithologist David Crockett in 1978. Very few breeding pairs remain so the bird is the focus of an intensive conservation programme at the southern end of main Chatham Island.

The black robin population got down to just five birds when 'Old Blue' stepping in to save the day - as the last female to breed. There are now 300 black robins on two nature reserves in the Chathams that are not accessible to the public.

 The seal colony at Point Munning is another popular attraction.

Hunting and fishing

The Chatham Islands’ natural sea bounty includes crayfish, hapuka, blue cod and paua. Fishing, rock casting, spear fishing or diving – there’s an abundance of ways to make the most of this marine wonderland.

Inland, wild pigs, sheep and even cattle can be hunted. The Chatham Islands is also the only place in New Zealand where locals can hunt and eat weka.

Pitt Island is home to the legendary Saxon Merino wild ram.

And by the way...

  • Pitt Island is the first place in the world to see the new dawn.
  • Local time is 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand.
  • The islands have officially been part of New Zealand since 1842.
  • Fishing is the Chathams' major industry, providing a third of employment.
  • Air Chathams flies directly to the Chatham Islands from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.