Waitangi, Chatham Islands

Photo: Gio la Gamb [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Remote islands. Breathtaking landscapes. Wild coastlines. Hidden lagoons. Unique species. Absolute solitude. First, you found them in Iceland. The world quickly caught on. Then you discovered the nearby Faroe Islands. They aren’t a secret anymore either. So where to next?

Since everyone else is looking for the next amazing spot in Scandinavia, you should go Down Under. New Zealand isn’t a new destination for you. You’ve tramped all over both the North and South Islands. But the reserved Kiwis are good at keeping secrets. Their easternmost point is a group of islands that few people have ever heard of, much less visited.

Those islands are the Chatham Islands. The archipelago, which includes 10 islands, lies 500 miles east of the South Island. The remote islands were first settled by a Polynesian tribe around 1500 CE. In absolute isolation, they became the Morioris, who named the islands Rēkohu (Misty Sun). The Vancouver Expedition didn’t arrive until 1791. It claimed the islands for England, renamed them after their ship (the HMS Chatham), and established a base for sealers and whalers. The islands later became part of New Zealand (1842). Fishing and farming overtook sealing and whaling as the main source of income later that century. The islands are now covered with nature reserves, protected areas, and Moriori carvings.

Of the 10 islands in the volcanic archipelago, only two are inhabited. Chatham Island, the largest island, is home to the small airport (Tuuta), the shipping wharf, the main settlement (Waitangi), and about 600 people. This is where you’ll find a four-bed hospital, the one-constable police station, and a volunteer-based radio station. Pitt Island, to the southeast, has a wharf, a school, and a grass landing strip. About 20 people are hugely outnumbered by thousands of sheep.

South East Island, Little Mangere Island, the Star Keys, the Sisters, and the Forty-Fours lie beyond Chatham and Pitt Islands. They’re home to trees whose branches bend horizontally in the wind (akeakes) and endemic plants that have adapted to the cold (Chatham Islands forget-me-nots and Chatham Islands kakahas). Chatham Island taikos are returning from near-extinction. Huge colonies of Buller’s and northern royal albatrosses breed among the soft speargrass. While New Zealand sea lions, leopard seals, and lots of whales are attracted to the area’s food-rich waters.

So, are you ready to tackle the Chatham Islands? Flights depart from Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington. Your watch will jump 45 minutes when you land, since the islands, which sit just west of the International Date Line, have their own time zone. There are a handful of lodges and a single hotel, so most people stay on farms or in private homes. But the tramping trails can keep you occupied for days. The Rangaika Scenic Reserve, the Henga Scenic Reserve, and the basalt columns should be among your first stops. Those are all on Chatham Island. The Ellen Elizabeth Preece Conservation Covenant on Pitt Island, the Forty-Fours’ steep cliffs, and a boat ride around the rocky Sisters will eventually follow. For now, they’re all yours.

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