New Zealand’s Living Fossil

The Chatham Islands are a world we have left behind.

The Chatham Islands (Rekou in Moriori, Wharekauri in Maori) lie about 800kms to the east of New Zealand but given they are on the other side of the 180-degree meridian one might think of them as New Zealand’s most westerly isles, way past Australia.

Oddly, the geology of the Chathams is more like Australia's than the Mainland's. Like everywhere else, the Chatham Rise from which the islands poke up has fault lines and the islands are more prone to tsunamis triggered from Chile 8000kms to the east. But it is not riven by the clash of tectonic plates which dominates the Mainland geology. I know this because I have just been on a geology tour led by Hamish Campbell and Deborah Crowley.

Officially Chathams time is 45 minutes ahead of the Mainland’s. (Unofficially their times are a bit slack. We used to call it ‘Maori time’; a Race Relations Conciliator said that is when the people involved were more important than the clock.) But there is a sense that the Chathams are 45 years behind the rest of New Zealand.

I do not mean they are technologically primitive. I saw solar panels everywhere (it is too windy for turbines) which is not surprising given that electricity is 76 cents a unit because the diesel which generates it is imported. (Surely they should get a double winter energy supplement.) Almost everything is imported. A live sheep costs an eye-watering $24 to ship. There is an internet connection, but no mobile phone – which made tramping trips seem quite old-fashioned.

No, the 45 years is about ambience, about a New Zealand which some of us grew up in and has long since disappeared on the Mainland.

We did not bother to lock vehicles. There were not a lot of them. Sometimes we saw more road-kill than cars. We passed three cars on the 10kms to the airport. Tom, our driver, explained it was rush hour.

There was old-fashioned humour. Told that a tyre was flat, Tom said it was only at the bottom and it would rotate to the top. But when we got a puncture – the basalt shingle on the roads is tough on tyres – the wheel was changed faster than we slackers had time to have a cup of tea.

‘Mine host’ at the cheerful Hotel Chatham owned the place and lived on the premises rather than in Hong Kong. Apparently there are a couple of cops on the island but they seem to police according to common sense rather than the rule book. (They do come down firmly on drunken violence.) The island has no accountants, lawyers, public relations specialists, generic managers or even economists – not sure about tax collectors.

There is a local health centre but it is under the Canterbury DHB. They told me they had the best health service in the country, citing that they were flown to Christchurch for their mammograms.

The history of the Chathams is frequently misunderstood – at least as I was half-taught. The Moriori are not Melanesians who preceded the arrival of the Polynesians who became Maori. They are the same Polynesians. About 500 years ago some left the Mainland and became isolated in the Chathams. While there has been some cultural divergence – from the isolation and from a different resource base – they are evidently from the same origins as Maori.

One of the divergences was ‘Nunuku's Law’ which forbade war, cannibalism and killing in any form. Sadly, when some Maori iwi, fleeing from some other iwi, came to the Chathams in 1835, they were welcomed by Moriori, but the guests attacked them and massacred some, enslaving the rest.

There is no ‘full-blooded’ Moriori today – but there is no ‘full-blooded’ Maori either. About half the islanders claim some Polynesia ancestry. (Tom is Nga Puhi.) I met some who were descended from both sides of the early settlers and from more recent ones.

The Moriori have had Treaty settlements with the Crown, and have built themselves the splendid Kopinga Marae with magnificent views. The wharenui is not a rectangle but a pentagon echoing the shape of basalt columns.

Probably the population is slowly declining; it is thought to be around 600. Sorry I cannot be more precise but the reliable data from the 2013 census is six years out of date.

The economy is dominated by fishing which employs a third of the market workers, who are mainly scattered around the island in fishing villages. The ‘capital’ at Waitangi has but three commercial buildings. (A major difficulty is a housing crisis; I saw a lot of building.)

The 60 farms directly employs another sixth and tourism half that. (I would regret if the island was to become as popular a destination as some Mainland areas even if it deserves to be. The charm is that it is not overwhelmed by tourists.)

The Islanders can be innovative. In 1999 they issued banknotes (of odd denominations like $8 and $15) to celebrate the Chatham Islands being the first human-inhabited land to enter the third millennium. As the Reserve Bank sternly said, the notes were not legal tender adding ‘whilst these Chatham Island dollars are a bit of fun, ... if people want to use them to undertake transactions, that's fine too.’ So you cant use them to pay your taxes.

There are a lot of public servants. My guess is that a relatively high proportion work for DOC preserving the environment including rare fauna and flora which have not yet suffered those predations of civilisation which have occurred elsewhere. But increasingly they are also under threat,

The Chathams way of life, protected by distance and the costs of transport, may be under pressure too. Social change is inevitable and we cannot go back. Except by catching an Air Chathams turboprop Convair 580.

The very popular comedy film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Sticks) is about a French postmaster who is punished by being sent to Bergues in northern France, a place considered ‘the sticks’ – a cold and rainy place inhabited by unsophisticated Ch'tis. He has a wonderful time. The film concludes that you cry when you are sent there, and you cry when you have to leave.

Thus it is with the Chathams.