The Chathams. A collection of a few tiny and a couple bigger islands more than 600km far from any other place in New Zealand. Known for being the first place in New Zealand to greet the new year and every new day. This little-known part of New Zealand is only visited by a few tourists each year, so why did I come here and what did I find? The real story of this trip starts a few months before.
The rarest bird in the world
New Zealand is home to a lot of interesting and bizarre species. Walking around you get the feeling of being somewhere just... different straight away. The trees look different, the birds sound different, and the little creatures you usually encounter... also look different! Luckily, unlike the neighbouring Australia, none of these little creatures actually can or tries to kill you.
So why I am saying all this? A few months before I moved in with Tudor, he asked me to pick a bird to go on a flowerpot on our balcony. After a bit of research I found the little fluffy ball called the Chatham islands black robin. Although not as pretty, or big, or interesting as some of the other birds in New Zealand, it had a fascinating story. The male and female usually mate for life, and care after their young for much longer than other birds. Unfortunately though, they were almost extinct, with a battle to save them by the department of conservation lasting decades. At some point there was only a single breeding female left, named "Old Blue", and she is the ancestor of every single black robin still alive today.
So in short, we were going to the Chathams, as Tudor was trying to surprise me by arranging a trip to a remote and beautiful place, with the added bonus of being able to see this little bird that sparked a lot of interesting conversations early in our relationship... adorable right?
Are we going to take off?
The more you travel, the more you find out how many things can go wrong! Traveling at the time of a pandemic and you might just have to multiply the "travel surprise factor" by 100. Everything can be changed or cancelled at any given moment. In New Zealand, a rigid quarantine system of two weeks in a government facility was put into place in 2020, that was overbooked and overstretched in every way. Luckily, there were no restrictions in place for travelling to the Chathams, however with every new community case found in Auckland the possibility of not being able to fly or drive away from the city was increasing.
Leading up to our trip, the lockdown restrictions in Auckland relaxed and we were able to board our flight to the Chathams with very few surprises.
After overcoming the initial surprise of going to see this little bird that we both adored so much, there were a few tears I am not going to lie, we arrived early in the evening in a tiny little airport.
Soon we realised that although seemingly tiny on the map, the main island of the Chathams is actually the size of a small country. The long roads that run through it are primarily gravel, making the vehicle of choice a definite 4-wheel drive with a good suspension. The Chathams are so far east of mainland New Zealand, that they have a different time zone to the rest of the country.
With only 663 permanent residents, spread out around the island we came to realise just how isolated this place really was.
Our plane ride, a loud and bumpy Saab 340 was three quarters full of supplies from the mainland as the ship which normally supplies the islands was more than three weeks behind schedule. The locals told us that although common, this kind of delay add a lot of stress, as most common goods, including diesel that houses use for electricity is imported from the mainland.
With only one restaurant in the whole island, our choice for dinner was already set, and we made our way to the local bar and restaurant were the majority of other tourists were dining as well.
We soon realised two very important things. Firstly, there is no reception on the islands at all. The locals depend on the landline system to communicate and most of them could tell you any other persons phone number by heart, as the only difference between phone numbers are the last three digits with the first part remaining the same.
Secondly, looking around the restaurant, we realised that we were on the younger end of the crowd, by a lot. On our last night on the island we met a friendly lady that was working in the tourism board of the islands. She told us the average age of travellers in the Chathams is a whooping 74 years!
Exploring the Chathams
We spent the first couple of days blissfully exploring around. There is no single building, monument or museum that serves as a must-see in the Chathams, but everywhere you go the nature and landscapes you encounter have something unique. It's raw, rugged and beautiful. We drove around stopping to admire the cows, emus, and sheep that were as curious about us as we were about them.
We made stops at little towns and read their history from the guide that we purchased on our first night. Looking back it was the best decision we made, as the signage was sometimes absent or complicated, and believe me when you are trying to find a paddock in the rain, they all look the same.
Most of the little townships we came across were set up by settlers, missionaries or whalers, and by the end of our trip we came to appreciate what life must have been like in the 1800s in one of the most remote places in the world.
Every night we would head to the only restaurant on the island, at the township of Waitangi blissfuly exhausted from days full of hiking, exploring and learning. You might think that a place like this doesn't have a lot to offer, but I believe that with amazing company and a thirst to learn new things, you will never be bored.
You can't go
Sadly, the little bird that had brought us all the way here was nowhere to be found. We soon came to realise that during the process of rebuilding the black robin population, all the birds were moved to Mangere and Rangatira, two tiny islets, completely uninhabited by humans, and in the middle of the ocean, only a few hundred meters off the coast of Pitt island, the smallest island of the Chathams with only 38 inhabitants.
With unrelenting enthusiasm we asked to be put on the list for the next trip to Pitt island, in the hopes that even from afar we would be able to catch a glimpse of these special little birds. They assured us that there were plenty of seats, and we headed to another day of adventures anticipating our visit to the even more isolated Pitt island.
When the day came to organise our much awaited trip, we approached reception, but we were met with an indifferent look. "You can't go, everything has been booked, and there is a 40 people waitlist at the moment" the person at the counter told us in a flat voice. But how, we thought, it wasn't possible, only a few days before we were assured that Pitt island was there waiting for us to go any moment.
The two islands communicate by the local air charter service, a tiny Cessna plane that carries up to 5 passengers, and a few pieces of luggage. The flights are quite unreliable, and the chance of getting stranded for a night or more when the weather turns unexpectedly is high, so we were running out of time, if we were to go to Pitt island we had to arrange something in the next 48 hours, or we would risk losing our flight back to Auckland.
We thought we could persuade a local fisherman, or boat charter to bring us over by sea instead of air, but all our attempts failed. The local charters were already booked, and there was little chance to arrange something with such short notice. More than that, they told us that even if we managed to get to Pitt island, the only tourist-operator there, is already overbooked by tourists arriving in one of the cruises that visits the Chathams on the way back from the subantarctic islands.
The local connection
We started looking for more alternatives. Many friendly locals took the time to put us in contact with the airline directly, in hopes of getting a private charter or arranging something in a cargo-load. Unfortunately, the next day was the pilot's day off and there was only one more flight the very next day (our final day to make it), only with a little catch... there was no return flight, and the cost for arranging a private charter for the 20 min flight, and booking the tour of Pitt island last minute was ... let's just say you could pay for a round trip to Hawaii for a small family for the same price.
I couldn't tell you if it was sheer luck, our "no is not an answer" attitude, or our heartwarming black robin romantic story (that we 100% told every single local in hopes of tugging on their heart strings), but 24 hours later we managed to get a ticket to Pitt island. There was an accident on the island and they needed the local electricians to fly over ASAP and fix a generator, the rest of the flight was open... we were in, and we were ecstatic! The lady that helped us arranged it all, was born on Pitt island and kindly arranged for a relative to pick us up and give us an unofficial tour of the island. We couldn't believe our luck, and so grateful for all the people that it took to make it happen.
Flying over the Chathams
The very next day we woke up at 6:30, full of excitement for what's to come. Cameras fully charged, smiles on our tired faces, and binoculars within reach, we were ready in case the black robins decided to make a surprise appearance on Pitt island the very same day we were there.
We headed to the airport and waited sleepily around while the little Cessna was undergoing a minor repair. Finally it was time to board the tiny airplane and fly a step closer to what we came all this way to see. The next 20 minutes were magical. The weather at it's finest, with little clouds diffusing the morning sun in a million rays over the ocean, and our eyes filling with pictures of the magical landscape sights from above. As a cherry on top, we got to experience first hand a grass-strip landing.
Our friendly host was waiting us at the edge of the grass runway and spent the next 5 hours showing us around. I couldn't believe that the landscape was yet again different, as if we had come to a completely different place. Pitt island was hilly and grassy, with no paved roads at all, and hundreds of sheep and cows just a few steps away, no matter where you stood.
We went to the very edge of the island and came as close as possible to the islets that were home of the black robins. Although we never got to see one, it was a special moment looking over the giant waves and rugged cliff-sides, thinking of how even a place as unforgiving as this can be a sanctuary. We learnt that both Chatham and Pitt island had attempted to foster a small population of black robins, but both were unsuccessful. These jagged pieces of rock in the middle of the ocean was were they needed to be to survive.
We left a few hours later with many stories, pictures, and jaw-dropping moments looking at the scenery to remember.
On our very last night on the Chathams, as fate always has it, we got to meet some of the best people. People that had come from all different walks of life and found a home in this seemingly harsh environment. We got to exchange stories, and talk about what makes this place so unique. It couldn't have been a better last night on the Chathams.
For everyone out there that feels a little discouraged with how the outlook on traveling the world looks like right now, keep the hope up, there are always little parts of this world that will be there for us to explore.