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430 nautical miles from Aotearoa but not all is as it seems: The Chathams

This is the first in a series of articles from Matthew Tukaki on Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands) dealing with history, infrastructure, COVID 19, health and where to from here?

It’s a place that has been on my bucket list for the last 30 years ever since I saw it on an episode of country calendar. Enchanting, rugged and alluring. Tall tales of crayfish so big you could pass up the mini coupe because that was too small. Sweeping winds, rain, blue skies and stars you could see in the sky just by driving down the road. When I got the chance to come to the Chatham Islands to speak about Mens health there was no way I was going to pass the chance up. But, as life would have it, things get a little complicated when you are busy with mahi and added to needing to standing in for a colleague at the Radio network I needed to be creative – because nothing was going to stop me coming down to the Chatham Islands - (Moriori: Rēkohu, lit. 'Misty Sun'; Māori: Wharekauri) an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 800 kilometres (430 nautical miles) east of New Zealand's South Island.

So, after putting some mahi on hold and organising to do the radio show live from the Island on Thursday night (some pre-records in the can on the off chance the connection didn’t work) I packed my bags, got my mate in tow and off to the airport we headed. Now, the Chatham’s are a decent flight of two hours from Auckland as the seagull flies (wanted to say crow but you know) and is 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand time (a lesson I would learn when broadcasting the radio show). The flight out was a reminder (and no offence) of the old days of taking a cargo flight out to South America where you’re sitting in the jump seat and a chicken might pop out of the overhead locker. But seriously folks, the flight was awesome but this is the first reality of living life on an island – not all is palm trees and cabanas. These flights are an important link.

The new ATR planes forward seats were taken up by cargo with around 11 passengers at the rear. Why is it important to know this? Because as you’ll see in the coming days there really are only two highways in and out of the island. The first is the ship, which comes just over twenty times a year (depending on the weather) and the other is Air Chatham's. This means that cargo is paramount – food and supplies. One example is a kilo block of cheese that costs around $10 on the shelf of a mainland supermarket and is around $26 on the island. A can of Coke around $7 compared to a low price of $1 on the mainland.

Touching down in Wharekauri (the Chathams as a polite reminder) is a low fly and turn around a lagoon and then straight down. As you wind you way in you can tell the stories are all true, windswept, majestic and (at dusk) the sun just peaking through the cold grey clouds. I’m on Wharekauri for two reasons – the first is to run my radio show live (my first attempt at an outside broadcast) and the second to run a mens health workshop at the invitation of the local Runanga on Sunday – the latter being one of my other passions given my own weight loss journey that has given me the ability to discard those pesky blood pressure pills. We didn’t really have a fixed schedule; in fact we didn’t really know where we were staying but that didn’t matter my mate and I had touched down with a our bags, fresh produce and sausages (more about that later). Waiting for us at the airport was Hone Tibble who is co-ordinating this little escapade of ours and off we go, pick up the gear, into the truck and onto Waitangi.

Waitangi is the main port and largest settlement of the Chatham Islands. It is situated on the southern shore of Petre Bay, on the west coast of the archipelago's main island. With a population of just over 170 in the 2018 census, Waitangi is by far the largest settlement on the archipelago. The Chatham Islands had a resident population of 780 as of June 2021.

The Islands were largely settled by two groups, Maori, the more dominant group as a result of a series of arrivals and the Moriori. According to some accounts the Moriori arrived around 1500 CE. In the early 1800’s members of the Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama Māori iwi from the North Island of Aotearoa also arrived. Later during the period of European colonisation of New Zealand, the New Zealand Company claimed that the British Crown had never included the Chatham Islands as being under its control and proposed that it should be sold to the Germans to be a German colony with a contract drawn up for the sale of the Islands of £10,000 in 1841. The sale failed and the Chatham Islands officially became part of the Colony of New Zealand in 1842;

Arriving at our accommodation for the weekend was a wind up the hill above Waitangi, with the ship at the port loading and unloading supplies on a wet and blustery night. Past the islands small hospital, next to the mourge, which is next to the island bottle shop (lovely lady by the way) which is of course next to the catholic church and just around the corner to the “Blackbird” hosted by the amazing Lynne and trusty companion Alby (who would come to be our resident expert on all things Wharekauri).

Waiting for us was some fresh blue cod and some korero to take through into the late evening – and its that korero that taught me a thing or two about the Island – because for all its rugged beauty the reality hits home that not everything is what it seems in this island paradise – this ward of the New Zealand state 430 nautical miles from the coast of its master.

Article two: Infrastructure and empires: living life on the island and the reality that the cost of living is no walk on the beach.

Matthew Tukaki travelled to Wharekauri with the support of The Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust. Tukaki was on Wharekauri from the 16th to the 20th of June 2020.


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