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Reaching a rare island getaway

There’s no cell reception on the Chatham Islands, which for some will be all it takes to paint a picture of an island escape. But the home of New Zealand’s most remote communities is swimming in history, nature and a classic distillation of Kiwi culture, and recently, more mainlanders have been taking the opportunity to visit the Pacific archipelago.

Since 2013, the largest group tours in the modern history of the Chathams have taken almost 250 people on an unforgettable trip to the islands, 40 at a time, thanks to Te Anau man and former aviator Merv Halliday.

“Chatham has always captured my imagination, and it’s a part of New Zealand which isn’t generally visited by very many people,” Merv said. “I always wanted to take a group of people here from Te Anau, but it wasn’t easy to organise, until such time as I realised that due to circumstances Air Chathams had an aircraft parked up at Manapouri for three days at a time.”

Te Anau Airport Manapouri has been in use since the 1960s and the construction of the Manapouri Power Station, but since a new passenger terminal opened in 2009, the airport has been servicing an increasing number of boutique tours as the Gateway to Fiordland National Park.

For Merv, an idle 50-seater in between uses by Tauck Tours presented the perfect opportunity for a whirlwind tour of the Chathams. The 40 seats were quickly filled by people from all over the South Island and the first tour departed at the end of March 2014.

“It not only captured everyone else’s imagination, it surpassed what I expected,” he said. “Within a couple of days of returning home, I had 98 names of other people wanting to go.”

Many keen travellers were rightfully interested in exploring new places at their own pace and not being tied to a group, but in the Chathams solo travel wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding, Merv said. His tours, led by the sage and vivacious Toni Croon, who also owns Hotel Chatham, is about as local as they come.

“We’ve got concessions to go across farmland and to various other places that an individual wouldn’t get to,” Merv said.

A retired school bus serves as the transport, hurtling along the island’s 100km/h roads as if they were not almost entirely gravel and frequently blocked by resident livestock. Merv’s groups have the opportunity to visit private business operations, natural wonders and historical homesteads, and to dine on the freshest ocean bounty prepared and served by the community of Kaingaroa.

The island is wild and varied — the winds have left cliffsides eroded and seaside akeake trees growing sideways. Horses and cattle, once domesticated, have bred beyond the control of the islanders and roam the roads, paddocks and beaches.

For our first full day on the tour, the incredible extent of this wilderness was felt at the Point Munning fur seal colony, where we were likely outnumbered 10 to one by the animals chatting, sleeping and splashing in the rocky bay. Weka darted in and out of visibility through the tussocks, and many end up on the dinner plates of the locals who actually call themselves ‘wekas’ instead of ‘Kiwis’. (Alas, there was no weka served up during our stay.)

The same day we took in Jim Muirson’s Mission Station, 1400 hectares running 3000 ewes and 350 cows. A machinery graveyard litters Jim’s property, including the remains of a wrecked RNZAF Short Sunderland that was an aviation lifeline to the island until it was holed by a rock in 1959 while taking off from Te Whanga Lagoon.

Over farmland down to Ohira Bay lies massive olivine basalt columns, part of lava flows dated to nearly 80 million years ago. These pentagonal volcanic rock columns on the shoreline are found in only a handful of places around the world, the most famous of which is Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

In amongst all this, there was still plenty of time to visit local artists and poke around eclectic shops in Waitangi. Towards the end of our stay we toured to the memorial statue of the last full-blooded Moriori Tame Horomona, known as Tommy Solomon, and were invited into the meeting place of the community, which was opened in 2005.

Susan Thorpe, of Te Kopinga marae, spoke to our group of the 900 years of settlement by the Moriori, during which time they had embodied a pacifism that held “only the gods could kill”.

Sitting in the five-sided room resembling the basalt columns, Susan recounted the 1835 conquest of the Chathams by Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga Maori, the “taking of land from a defenceless people”.

“Their land, life, and liberty were taken without any necessity.”

Almost 30 years of slavery resulted from the Maori invasion, and most of the Moriori population was killed indiscriminately to the point where fewer than 200 remained.

The non-violence that had seen Moriori revered around the world had allowed for their complete domination by the brutal culture of the mainland Maori, and after 160 years of occupation the Ngati Mutunga Maori now share indigenous rights and fishing quotas with the Moriori.

The challenge for Moriori now, Susan said, was to reaffirm their heritage and celebrate their culture, starting with tracking down as many Moriori descendants as possible.

“Some were not told about their ancestry, and some deliberately hid it.”

Today, Te Kopinga marae has close to 800 members, with more than 3000 associated children.

The concealment of heritage led to the loss of culture, from language and oral history to craft and music.

A protected site on Chatham holds the ancient kopi trees that Moriori used for carvings. They used a method by which the living tree would be carved and would not die, instead growing around and preserving the carving. This technique has been all but lost to the community.

“But we’re going to relearn how to carve our trees,” Susan said. “We’ve designated a teaching grove on our land, and we’re going to just start.”

For Merv, the opportunity to share this ‘other New Zealand’ with hundreds of people has been largely circumstantial.

“I had my own aircraft for 38 years,” he said. “In November 1987 our son Grant met the oceanic requirements to fly Jenny and myself out to the Chatham Islands in our aircraft. On the return, we flew direct to Invercargill, a flight time of five hours 48 minutes. This has never been done before or since. Twenty-nine years later this record still stands.”

Nowadays, though, he isn’t swayed by the suggestion that the larger airport should be the base of operation for his tours, as Te Anau Airport Manapouri serves ably and as a destination unto itself.

January 2017 is already packed with fast- selling tours, on which some of the patrons will be returning for a second or third time. On August 28 he will host a get-together at the Te Anau Club — an information session for anybody interested in learning a little more about our most eastern offshore island and a reunion for those who’ve been before. Chatham Island host Toni Croon will be in attendance.

The get-together is open to anyone, although to help with catering, RSVP would be appreciated. Merv welcomes anyone interested to make contact with him at merv@teanau.co.nz.

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