Welcome to one of the remote places in the world, the Chatham Islands. Planning a trip for a destination like this can be tricky, there are not a lot of resources online and the weather can be deceiving, as temperatures and the terrain here can range dramatically. This guide will take you through the planning stages, and preparation for your trip to the Chathams, give you an idea of where is the best places to stay, and what should be on your must see list. Things to consider, and to plan ahead for, as well as what to look out for to make this the most memorable experience!
What to pack - how to prepare
You might think some things are a given, that there is an unspoken common understanding of, but do not make this mistake when travelling to remote places. I asked one of the locals over here how is the weather, his answer “oh I can’t stand the heat!”, looking out the window at the cold wind bashing the tall grass and creating a wooing sound around the house I asked, “what exactly do you mean by “heat””… to which he said “anything over 14 degrees of course”, with no sign of sarcasm. I thought to return the sense of shock by recounting my last run in Athens, in the August heat, at 10 o clock at night, the temperature reading 35 degrees… he was in shock, and so was I!
The main ship that supplies the Chathams is notorious for being late. During our time, a few things went ‘out of stock”, and we heard a few locals be not-so happy for the change in schedule, as they depend on the food and supplies that it brings.
So the first thing on the “to bring” list is a bit unusual…. It’s snacks! Depending on what time and day you land, there might not be a lot open. There is only one restaurant (usually open after 5:30 for food service) and one little shop with some basic snacks and supplies on the island, and that’s on the main town of Waitangi. One little coffee shop, is also open a few days a week, serving burgers and fried food, as well as coffee. To be on the safe side, just pack a few snacks you love, in case you want to head out exploring straight-away, or have some late-night cravings. If you have dietary requirements, make sure to bring extra, as it is not a given that you will find lots of options.
Packing list must-haves:
- Warm clothes and layers
- Windbreaker (or heavier jacket if traveling between April - November)
- 2 thinner soft-shell jackets
- Short and long sleeve shirts
- Shoes (make sure they are clean, the Chathams have much fewer pests than mainland New Zealand, let’s keep it that way) a good pair of trainers is enough, there is one technical track on the south part of the island but everything else is okay with a normal pair of training shoes (always a good idea to make it a waterproof pair as the rain comes and goes a lot around here)
- Medications (take extra just in case)
- Snacks (you will thank me later)
- Wifi hotspot (if you are planning on connecting multiple devices, this is a must - TK Amazon affiliate?)
- Camera or phone (you will to snap at least one picture over here!)
- Forwarding - make sure you have prepared anyone that might need to reach you. There is no cell phone reception on the islands, and wifi can be extremely limited and unreliable (we were only able to connect on phones, forget about videos and heavy files!)
- Binoculars - there is lot to see up close and in the distance in this trip, packing a pair of binoculars made the difference
- Hat and sunscreen - still in New Zealand, where 10 min of not so aggressive sun can leave you with a sunburn to remember. Although the weather tends to be overcast or rainy, I would highly recommend you bring a hat, as you can get four season in a day!
The airline that services the islands is Air Chathams. Flights run from Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington and their schedule seems to have a winter and summer mode.
Although only a few people make the trip to the Chathams every year flight schedules can change quit a bit, or fill up quite fast, as most New Zealanders visit in big arranged groups of (20+ people), and thus book out whole flights. If you are planning to return to the same city, expect at least a week of turn-around time, do not worry, there is plenty to do and your week will be filled with lots of adventures!
Head to the AirChathams website or give their friendly staff a call directly if you want to arrange your flight there.
Bonus tip: If you are visiting Pitt island (which I highly recommend you do!) book your visit ahead of time. Best is always to call and arrange that ahead of time, as sometimes getting flights to or from the island can be limited!
During my visit in the Chathams we opted to stay at Hotel Chathams, the main accommodation operator on the islands, with lots of other little lodges, motels and guesthouses under their management. I wouldn’t recommend this to independent tourists, and small groups of friends, as this hotel is geared towards big groups of older tourists that come in the islands with arranged tours.
An amazing alternative is the Seaside Container Cottage, which is suitable for couples, families or small groups of friends. The views from the cottage are amazing, and only a few minutes away from all the attractions at the southeast part of the family. Megan was an amazing host giving us lots of important info and arranging a few of the activities we planned, including a trip to Pitt Island. Megan’s family also runs Owenga Charters that operates fishing experiences, which I would highly recommend if you want to get closer to the raw beauty of the Chathams, or to get a chance at catching your dinner.
What to see
The main island of the Chathams has the wonky shape of a stretched out square, with a large lagoon named Te Whanga in the middle, thus dividing it into 4 distinct corners, northwest, northeast, southeast, southwest, and one central part! Easy!
One thing to be mindful of is how 99% of the Chathams is private land, which includes beaches (quite unusual for many parts of the world). That means, you will need to secure access ahead of time when you are visiting the main attractions. Don’t worry, your host will be able to arrange it for you, it only takes a quick phone call to the owners of a certain paddock ahead of time, and a small fee. Make sure to be respectful and practice some rural New Zealand unwritten rules 101 (i.e. close gates when you find them closed, and keep litter with you). Hiring a car during your stay is a must.
The roads are mainly gravel, and the recommended speed is 60 km/h. A large pick-up track is what will come the most handy, as most of the attractions pass through rough terrain. Make sure to let someone know where you are heading on any given day (usually your host), as it might come in handy, but also to make sure the owners of attractions know to expect you.
We devoted almost a whole day to each part of the island, trying to see as much as possible, including one day for Pitt island, which was my favourite part of the whole trip.
Below you will find the lists of the things I mostly enjoyed discovering around the main island. For the best chance at seeing everything, as well as lots more information of how to get to each place (trust me you will need it!) grab a copy of the Chatham Islands tour guide locally. It supports the local writers and tourism industry, and it will be your best companion while going around the islands.
1. Moriori Rock Carvings
2. Kopinga Marae
3. Te Whanga Lagoon
4. Henga Scenic Reserve
5. St. Augustine’s Church
6. Admiral Farm & Gardens
7. Nikau Bush Scenic Reserve
To ensure you will both find and enjoy the history behind the Moriori rock carvings, you will need to arrange a guide. A visit to the Kopinga Marae will immerse you further into the Moriori philosophy and you will get to experience true Chatham Island hospitality. Make sure to plan ahead for guided tours, or you can opt to stay in the Marae doing your stay.The lagoon will be a constant companion during most of your road trips, however make sure to stop and wonder around. The beautiful black swans that wonder around its shores only add to the beauty of the scenery.
1. Kaingaora Harbour
2. Point Munning Seal Colony
3. Flying Boat
4. Missionary settlement in Te Whakauru
At Kaingaora harbour you can enjoy the scenic views from one of the smallest settlements in the Chathams. The rest of the sights listed above are located in the Muirson’s farm. The flying boat is located inside one of the farms sheds, while a few kilometres down the road you will find the missionary settlement, now completely abandoned, with the exception of the hundreds of sheep, and another kilometer down the road you can take a short walk to the seal colony. Definitely one of the road trips that we enjoyed the most, as we got to see baby seals playing with wekas, read about the history of Moriori and sustainable sealing in the 1700s and photographed lots of friendly cows on the way. As always, make sure to get prior approval to enter the farm.
1. The Stone Cottage
2. Basalt Columns
3. Cape Pattinson
Geological phenomena and the Chathams go hand in hand. The Basalt columns are on the islands most known attractions as you can can see this stunning 5-sided black stones rise from the ocean, that were formed around 79 million years ago. Further north, you will find the historic stone cottage that was first built by German missionaries. The scenic drive takes you right next to the imposing volcanic rocky cliffs formed millions of years ago. Today, the cottage is inhabited by the amazing Ms. Helen that will show you all its secrets and tell you some incredible stories about life in and around the cottage. I will not spoil the surprise!
2. Manukau Point
3. South Coast Cliffs
4. Saint Barnabas Church
At the little township of Owenga and surrounding area is where we got the chance to come close with most of the sea birds of the Chathams. The rocky shoreline where most of these species call home offers some incredible views. We combined some of the sights found on the way to Owenga, such as the Kopinga Marae on this road trip.
1. Tuku nature reserve
This is definitely the most rugged part of the Chathams. We opted to make a slow road trip to the end of the road for this part of the island, as the track for the reserve required several hours, and the weather was not cooperating when we decided to visit. Nevertheless, some incredible photos and views were found here.
Where to eat
At the moment of our visit, there was only one restaurant operating on the islands. That’s the Hotel Chathams restaurant and bar. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options to taste local delicacies, like kina (sea urchins), paua, or crayfish on the menu. An alternative to dining out is the Waitangi seafoods factory down the road from the hotel, which sells lots of fresh seafood for you to cook or frozen to take home.
If you are staying away from the main town of Waitangi, make sure to ask your hosts what meals are included with your accommodation, or whether there is the option to add them. Preparing ahead of time and the Chathams go hand in hand!
What to take home (also what NOT to take!)
I must admit that keepsakes are not my strong point. I prefer to keep the memories and photos of a place and rarely buy anything at souvenir shops while traveling. The only thing I kept from the Chathams is a beautiful paua shell I came across while on a stroll to the beach. I would love to turn it to a piece of jewerlly to remember this trip every time I wear.
The most important thing to remember is that there are certain things, such as seafood, that are restricted or regulated. If in doubt make sure to ask how much and what you can keep, as it is important to comply with the laws and regulations to keep this beautiful part of the world for future generations to enjoy.