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Appeal of 'Misty Skies'.

Byline: Iain Hutchison

GET down on your hunkers, pick up a handful of shingle and let it trickle through your fingers.

You won't see anything at first but, once you let your eyes become tuned in, you'll find lots of them.

This was the advice provided as I set off for the shores of Te Whanga Lagoon, a large inland sea which takes up a third of the area of Chatham Island, a remote outpost of New Zealand.

And true enough, after a few vain attempts which were rapidly convincing me that I was wasting my time, I found one, and then another, and another.

Testimony to the antiquity of this island, I was holding the fossilised teeth of sharks which became trapped in the lagoon during a different age.

The shark teeth are just one symbol of the antiquity of Chatham Island.

There are ancient tree-carvings representing deceased images of Moriori people of more than two centuries ago which still stare silently through the dark shadows of an ancient forest.

There are the graves of some of the last pure-blooded Morioris who died nearly 100 years ago although their descendants still live today and are proud of their heritage.

And there is the dismembered carcass of a Sunderland flying boat which had its belly ripped open on Te Whanga Lagoon, illustrating how fragile communication remained with the outside world when it came to grief while attempting to take off in 1959.

There are around 700 people living on Chatham Island and neighbouring Pitt Island. Most live on farmsteads and in the four townships. Waitangi is the administrative hub of island affairs and it is here that bulkier supplies are landed by boat at six-weekly intervals, calm seas permitting.

The arrival of the Holmdale in Petre Bay with eagerly-awaited crates and boxes is a big social occasion for residents. Chatham islanders have learnt to be resourceful people as emergence from isolation has been a slow and sometimes painful experience.

Visits by occasional flying boats gave way in the late '60s to lumbering freighter aircraft adapted for the carriage of passengers. Now the islands have their own airline which provides regular flights to New Zealand from a modest but modern airport.

Things were different when the isolation of the Morioris living on Chatham was broken in 1803 with the arrival of European whalers and sealers and in 1835 with the invasion of two Maori tribes on the commandeered brig Rodney.

The warlike Maoris devastated the hospitable Morioris as they took over possession of their land. Further damage was done to the native population by an influenza epidemic brought by the incomers.

Distances are deceptive on Chatham. Gravel roads meander across moorland broken up by expanses of water, mountains and sea cliffs. The roads don't even penetrate to the island's furthest extremities, except for the settlement of Kaingaroa in the north-west.

A collection of tightly-packed cabins decorated with nets and buoys used by its fishermen, it claims tongue-in-cheek to be the most densely settled community in the Chatham Islands.

The Chatham Islands are more than three hours' flying time from New Zealand. Next stop is Chile, far across the Pacific Ocean, so pilots have to know where they are going and that the weather will ensure a safe landing on an island that the Morioris called Rehoku, or "misty skies".

The Chathams offer total escape, making them popular with the trickle of ornithologists, naturalists, hunters, fishermen, walkers and other outdoor tourists who seek out one of the most remote destinations in the world.


CURRENT AFFAIRS... the sea is the lifeblood of those who live on Chatham Island where Te Whanga Lagoon (below) is a good hunting ground for fossils
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 19, 1999
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