The Complete Guide to the Chatham Islands

stony beach with seaweed and wave crashing to shore

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Located about 500 miles east of Wellington, the Chatham Islands are about as remote as possible in New Zealand. There are about 10 islands in the group, some of which are nature reserves. The largest islands are Chatham Island and Pitt Island, which are home to around 600 people.

Chatham Island is an odd and irregular shape. It is hilly, with dunes and cliffs around the edge, and contains the large Te Whanga Lagoon and smaller lakes. The town of Waitangi sits at the southern end of Petre Bay, on the island's west coast. The broad sweep of Hanson Bay dominates the east coast.

A History of the Chatham Islands

Also called Rekohu (in Moriori) and Wharekauri (in Te Reo Maori), the Chatham Islands were first settled by a Polynesian group of people called the Moriori around 500 years ago. It is believed that the Moriori originated in New Zealand as a group of Maori. However, it was previously thought that they settled in the Chatham Islands directly from Polynesia's islands.

Europeans first came to the islands in 1791, on the HMS Chatham (hence the islands' current English name), and whaler and sealers started using the islands as a base thereafter. Diseases introduced by Europeans killed a significant proportion of the Moriori people.

In 1835, members of the North Island Maori iwi (tribes) Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama invaded the Chatham Islands, killing many local Moriori people and enslaving the survivors.

The Chatham Islands became part of the colony of New Zealand in 1842, two years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in Northland. In 1863, the British Magistrate released the enslaved Moriori people.

Nowadays, the Chatham Islands' small population consists of European settlers, the descendants of the Moriori, and Maori New Zealanders.

What to See and Do

Many visitors to the Chatham Islands join special-interest tours, either pre-arranged group tours or private tours arranged by tour operators or accommodation providers. These special-interest tours usually revolve around outdoor activities like bird watching, fishing, geology, or photography.

  • Fishing: The cold, clear Southern Ocean surrounding the Chatham Islands creates perfect conditions for sea fishing. Blue cod, hapuka, kingfish, tarakihi, blue moki, and shark can be caught here.
  • Dine on seafood: Even if you don't want to catch your own seafood, you can still enjoy eating it. There are a few cozy pubs and restaurants in the islands that serve up the local specialties of blue cod and crayfish. Book a table in advance. If you're self-catering, you can find what you need at the Waitangi Store. Keep in mind that the Chathams are very remote, so items imported from mainland New Zealand will usually be more expensive than they are there. A further reason to buy local and enjoy the seafood!
  • Birdwatching: The Chathams are a bucket-list destination for many keen bird watchers. Eighteen bird species are endemic to the Chatham Islands. Particular highlights to look out for are the black robin, which was rescued from near-extinction in the 1980s, and Chatham Island taiko, which was only discovered in 1978.
  • Nature hikes: With a hilly but not mountainous interior and a rugged coastline with cliffs and beaches, there are many walking and hiking opportunities on the islands. Guided nature hikes are the best option, as you can see and learn about many of the unique plants and flowers found here. Much of the land in the islands, including here some popular attractions are, is private land, and you'll need permission to enter (another reason joining a guided tour is advisable). The Department of Conservation also runs four nature reserves on Chatham Island with public walking tracks.
  • Geology: The Chatham Islands are a geologically diverse place, so they are a fascinating destination for travelers with this particular interest. They're located far from the tectonic plate boundary that the rest of New Zealand sits on, so they are much more tectonically stable than the rest of the country. It's believed that the islands' land emerged from the sea about three million years ago (which makes them quite young islands!) The pentagonal basalt columns at Ohira Bay on Chatham Island are among the most popular attractions on the island. They were formed from lava flows about 80 million years ago.
  • Moriori history: The best way to learn about Moriori culture and history in the Chatham Islands is to schedule a guided tour of the Kopinga Marae. Opened in 2005, this marae is inscribed with the names of 1700 ancestors and is a tribute to the peaceful Moriori culture. Visitors can also learn more about the history and culture of the Chathams at the Chatham Islands Museum in Waitangi.

How to Get There

The best way of getting to the Chathams is to fly on the small domestic airline, Air Chathams. Flights operate from Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. From Auckland and Christchurch, the flight time is a little over two hours, while it's a bit faster from Wellington. Flights operate most days of the week (although not from each city), with greater summer frequency. The airport on Chatham Island (Tuuta Airport) is located in the northern part of the island, on Te Whanga Lagoon's western side.

While sailing to the Chathams is technically possible, it's only really an option for very experienced sailors with their own vessels.

Weather and What to Pack

The climate of the Chatham Islands is cool, wet, and windy. The beaches are beautiful, but this is not a destination for lounging on the sand and soaking up the sun! The highest recorded temperature in Waitangi is just 75 degrees F, although it doesn't get exceptionally cold in the winter. Nevertheless, summer is still the most popular time to visit, with longer sunshine hours.

There are limited opportunities to shop for clothes in the Chathams, so bring anything you may need from the mainland, including waterproof jackets, umbrellas, and sweaters (even in summer!)

Where to Stay

The main town in the Chathams is called Waitangi (not to be confused with the Northland town of the same name).

It's essential to book your accommodation ahead of time before leaving mainland New Zealand. Because there are limited accommodation options on the Chathams, it's not enough to just turn up and look for a bed after you've arrived, as you might in some of New Zealand's larger towns.

There is no camping on the Chatham Islands, unfortunately.

Other Things to Know

The Chatham Islands are a New Zealand territory, so New Zealand and Australian passport and visa holders don't need any other paperwork or permits to visit them.

There are limited transport options in the Chathams, including no taxis or airport shuttles. Just as you should book accommodation in advance, it's also important to book your activities and excursions in advance here, to make sure you can get to them! Accommodation providers and small local tour operators can arrange transport and activities but discuss your needs with them before arriving. Rental car facilities are available from some accommodation providers.

There is no cell phone network coverage on the Chatham Islands! Ideal for travelers wanting to really disconnect.

Finally, be aware that the Chatham Islands observe a different time from the rest of New Zealand! They are 45 minutes ahead.

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