A brief flirtation with fame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2000, 12:00am

Bleak and windswept, New Zealand's Chatham Islands are a place that time forgot - and then remembered again in a blaze of media attention. For one night only, a geographic twist of fate put these remote islands in the ranks of New York, London or Paris as a hot ticket destination.

Usually it is the island's wildlife and wildness that draws a steady stream of hardy visitors to its 66 tourist beds. With extra tented and homestay accommodation, that night the island's population soared.

Returnees, press and a different breed of millennium tourist flew in from as far away as Europe and America, some even by private jet, to these isles at the edge of time.

Eight hundred kilometres and a crucial 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand, the countdown to the new millennium started on the Chathams before the timekeeper of the Greenwich Observatory had poured a mid-morning cup of tea on December 31.

Unlike Pacific rival Kiribati, the Chathams are no place for grass-skirts and bikinis. An hour's drive over rough tracks and peat bogs, islanders and outsiders massed at a cliff-top site peppered with wild sheep, TV crews and cow pats. There, watched by the world, the islanders would claim their moment as the first legitimately inhabited place to witness the dawn of 2000.

Being in the right place at the right time brought a brief bonanza to the islands. The size of the SAR but with just 700 residents, Chatham Island hardly seemed overcrowded. The islanders like it that way. With a hotel reservation required to secure a flight, visitors are not allowed to arrive unannounced.

The locals are gruffly welcoming on the island, more so at the island's sole watering hole, at the Chatham's Hotel. There is just one police constable, one doctor, a handful of churches and several elementary schools but the island boasts its own brewery - the Black Robin. Just up the road from the pub is the island's hardware store, home of the millennium's first wedded couple, who tied the knot on the chilly cliff-top.

Mainly farmers and fishermen, locals make their living from the rough land and choppy seas that yield crayfish and the 'black gold' so prized in Hong Kong. But paua, or abalone, Chathams-style takes on a more rough and ready form, served up as burgers or grilled whole with eggs and bacon for breakfast.

Tours of the islands take visitors past vast empty beaches, expanses of sand dunes, shallow lagoons, rocky cliffs, sheep farms and the densely wooded groves and offer insights into the island's harsh history.

Tree carvings and rock paintings are evidence of the earliest settlers, the Moriori, who arrived in the islands as early as a millennium ago.

Blind Jim's Creek, meanwhile, is known for its fossilised sharks' teeth, an incredible 40 million years old. But their descendants still patrol these waters; one local paua diver lost an arm to a great white predator. Then he became a long-distance runner. They make 'em tough on the Chathams.

On foot and horseback, nature-lovers hunt the island's rugged beauty through the camera lens. Conservationists strive to preserve the fading species of flora and fauna from the last millennium. Others come to blow them into the next, hunting wild mutton, wild pigs, the elegant black swans that grace the island's lagoons and even the flightless weka, an endangered species in New Zealand (as islanders call the mainland) but a non-native menace on the Chathams.

Galapagos-style, the Chathams' isolation creates a distinct environment. There remain 18 species of bird and many more kinds of plant life unique on the islands.

Inevitably, with the arrival of man in the late 18th century came new species which altered the natural balance. Mammals such as possums and hedgehogs flourished; penguins vanished.

The old millennium was not always kind to residents of these unforgiving volcanic lands, where gnarled trees grow sideways, bent double against the constant winds. In this rugged landscape, flora and fauna were not the only players in the brutal survival game.

The Chathams' indigenous peoples came from the same Polynesian roots as their warring cousins, the Maori, yet the Moriori developed peace-loving ways. For hundreds of years their only enemies were the bleak conditions and poor diet.

But in 1791 they received the first uninvited guests - the British HMS Chatham, from which the island gets its name. European whalers and fur sealers followed, clashing with the 2,000-strong Moriori as well as wreaking havoc on the island's population of sea mammals.

But the final act arrived in 1835, from more familiar quarters: a Maori tribe who came, saw and conquered the Moriori in a brutal whirl of slavery and cannibalism. Disease and despair followed, decimating Moriori numbers.

These days about 40 per cent of the islanders are of Maori or Moriori descent. It was the Moriori who took their island into the future, on the chilly cliff-top at Rangaika, with messages of peace and goodwill in traditional songs and readings.

For information on visiting the Chatham Islands, go to www.chathams.com or chathams.napier.govt.nz/