Ironically, the Chathams was one of the first places in New Zealand to feel the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, with live crayfish exports to China suddenly suspended in the first week of February. Tonnes of quota-fished rock lobster were held in pots and tanks with nowhere to go; on a day trip to Pitt Island – a hop, skip and hair-raising 20-minute Cessna trip across Pitt Strait – we flew back with a cargo of 50 crays destined for local dinner plates instead.
Lynda Hallinan wishes she could turn back time, even if only for five weeks.
If a week is a long time in politics, it must feel like a lifetime for our devastated tourism and hospitality sectors. Just last month I spent a week on the Chatham Islands, admiring the unique plant life while eating my bodyweight in blue cod, weka, kina, paua and crayfish. It was, I joked in the daily Instagram posts I dispatched via Hotel Chatham’s satellite wifi (there’s no mobile phone coverage on the islands), a bona fide #isolationvacation.
That was then, this is now. Even though self-isolation comes naturally to the 600-odd permanent residents of the Chatham Islands, 800km east of New Zealand, I suspect that life there must also now feel preternaturally quiet, the tourism season snuffed out prematurely by the Covid-19 lockdown.
If you go to the Chathams, you absolutely must go to Pitt Island to see its endangered birdlife, shaggy sheep, unusual rock formations and the Scandi-style red DOC cottage at Glory Bay. At Flower Pot Bay Lodge (www.flowerpotlodge.co.nz), we had a lunch of cold mutton with cabbage pickle and new potatoes dug from owners Bernie and Brent Mallinson’s garden, as the first ship in five months unloaded much-needed supplies at the wharf at the bottom of the garden: a new tractor, groceries and several boxes of beer!
“It’s a man’s world here,” everyone told me on the Chathams, yet Rēkohu, meaning “misty sun” in the indigenous Moriori language, seems to have more entrepreneurial female foodies per capita than any other place in the world.
Take our witty tour bus driver, Toni Croon. Toni grew up on the island but was a professional jockey and horse trainer before coming home to “run the pub”. The pub is Hotel Chatham, complete with bar and restaurant, posh rooms upstairs, dorm-style single rooms downstairs, plus the Traveller’s Rest B&B and Toni’s new Forget-Me-Not luxury suites up the hill. Did I mention she’s also a beekeeper? You can buy her honey in the hotel shop.
Toni’s sister Monique is the island’s first “lady mayor” and their parents, Lois and Valentine Croon, boast the island’s most beautiful backyard. Admiral Gardens is a sanctuary for native red admiral butterflies and hotel guests are hosted here once a week for a magnificent homegrown feast of paua curry, buttery cray tails on the barbie, plus the best selection of tossed salads I’ve ever seen.
Then there’s head chef Kaai Silbery, who runs the Hotel Chatham kitchen by day (and night) and has an enterprising side hustle as a freeze-dried honey merchant with her Italian partner Francesca Bonventre, the hotel’s marketing manager. (The couple met online, hilariously, when Kaai’s sister set her up an internet dating profile and instead of stipulating a 500km zone for cupid’s arrow to fall, accidentally made it 5000km).
Kaai and Francesca’s Go Wild Chatham Islands Freeze Dried Honey brand (www.gowild.shop) is as pure as honey can be, for there are no varroa mites, nor foulbrood diseases or colony collapse disorders in the island’s hives. Queens are prized for export while worker bees forage on biodiverse fodder including wild brassicas, elephantine echiums, yarrow, koromiko hebes and flax. The local honey is pale amber and candy-sweet with floral notes, but Kaai and Francesca’s freeze-dried version is pure white and fluffy as a cloud; it’s decadent as a dessert garnish or cheeseboard flourish.
Helen Bint, who lives in a historic stone cottage at the far end of a gravel road-less-travelled, will need no introduction to insomniac radio listeners. She’s a regular caller in to Newstalk ZB’s midnight-to-dawn programme and an absolute hoot in person. A keen gardener, fisher, forager and teller of tales (when she talks about “illegal Tegel”, she doesn’t mean deep-fried weka wings), she has a pet hen who lays eggs on a woolskin rug on her windowsill and grows tomato plants in her long drop, which is weighed down with bags of wheat (for the chooks) to stop it blowing away in the gales.
River Onion, the beachfront A-frame bach lovingly transformed into a cafe and art gallery by photographer Celine “Bubbles” Gregory-Hunt, is open Saturdays for the locals and by appointment to feed tour groups. The groovy dining rooms, upstairs and downstairs, are kitted out entirely with vintage and retro finds from the mainland.
And the food! River Onion’s clever and charming chef Jacqui Lanauze served us puha and native spinach pesto on tray-baked bread with turmeric sauerkraut, blue cod topped with cauliflower and caper crumb on caramelised potatoes, a colourful salad and a refreshing infusion of foraged blackberries and kawakawa leaf and crunchy granola bars to finish. Watch this space as Jacqui has a green-fingered sister and her plan is to either grow or forage for all her ingredients.
When I was on the Chathams, it was a significant time for Moriori descendants who welcomed us onto the Kōpinga Marae two days before the signing of their historic Deed of Settlement and apology from the Crown. Moriori were pacifists who inhabited the Chathams peacefully for many centuries before being invaded by Maori in 1835. Rather than fight back, they chose to uphold their ancient covenant of peace, only to be murdered en masse, enslaved and later dispossessed of their lands in rulings by our Native Land Court.
Moriori held firm to their beliefs, and one of those beliefs couldn’t be more appropriate for the surreal times we find ourselves in today. “Waewae atawhai,” they’d say, which literally translates to “give legs to kindness”.