The lure of the Chathams

WHERE SEA MEETS LAND: Basalt columns, at Ohira Bay, northern Chatham Island, were formed between 85-80 million years ago and reveal the island's volcanic past
WHERE SEA MEETS LAND: Basalt columns, at Ohira Bay, northern Chatham Island, were formed between 85-80 million years ago and reveal the island's volcanic past

They have their own flag, time zone, whitebait season and "national" bird. The Chathams are a distinct and special part of New Zealand - as Naomi Arnold discovers from a Motueka couple who have visited annually for the past 12 years:

There are wind-wrought akeake trees growing on Chatham Island's southwest coast, their backs bent almost to the ground by screaming salt blasts from across the sea.

They're unique to the island, one of the many endemic species that have evolved to survive here, cast off the east coast of New Zealand in the middle of the Pacific.

It's a place as lonely as it is close-knit, as harsh as it is beautiful, as simple as it is difficult - where the history is fraught and the weka are tasty. It's been enticing Motuekans Lois and Dr Alan Brookes back a dozen times over the last 12 years.

Last week, the former doctor and nurse at Central Medical Motueka returned from another three-week stint, with Dr Brookes working at the lone medical clinic in Waitangi, the Chathams' main town, which shelters several hundred people - plus a bank, a craft shop, a petrol station, a pub, a primary school and a store - in the hook of Petre Bay.

The Brookes often return to New Zealand with a few frozen and plucked weka packed into their carry-on - but alas, when the Nelson Mail visits, there are none in sight. "We did Weka au Vin," Mrs Brookes says. "They're not unlike a gamey sort of chicken," Dr Brookes says.

The Chathams are New Zealand, but not; not only is the island 45 minutes ahead, but the islanders refer to themselves as "Wekas" rather than Kiwis, and they have their own flag, an optimistically bright yellow sun over a green island on a blue background. Even the whitebait season is different, running from December 1 to the last day of February.

"The first thing you learn when you're over there is you don't talk about ‘the mainland' - you talk about ‘New Zealand'," Dr Brookes says. "They see themselves as being quite distinct." He quit his Motueka practice almost six years ago, ending a "really good" 32-year relationship with the town. "Since then we've been going all over the country doing locums, from Kaitaia to Haast," he says. "We're not into cities," Mrs Brookes says.

"Just interesting places - quite a nice way to end one's career really," her husband says.

The first time they visited the Chathams was for three weeks during the millennium, when the 20th century ticked over and the population doubled as swarms of people flocked to watch the misty skies part for the world's first sunrise of the 2000s. The authorities must have been nervous about the implications for the island's small health centre and lone, long-serving GP.

"They thought they might need another pair of hands, " Dr Brookes says, and he and Mrs Brookes, a nurse, arrived to help. Luckily for the assembled thousands, the sunrise was spectacular - and the hordes of revellers sustained no serious injuries.

The Chathams, about two and a half hours' flight from Christchurch, are made up of 11 small islands, two of which are inhabited - Pitt Island and Chatham Island - with the rest conservation reserves.

Although argument bubbles around when and how they were settled, current research indicates that the indigenous people, the Moriori, arrived at the Chathams from New Zealand in about 1500, although "Moriori" is now largely considered a technical term as they share the same Polynesian ancestry as Maori.

They called the place Rekohu, translated variously as "misty skies" or "misty sun". The Moriori lived by a code of non-violence and passive resistance that was essential in their precarious island home, until conquered and largely killed or enslaved by Māori of the Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama tribes, both of Taranaki, in 1835.

A cultural renaissance in the 1990s saw the Moriori gradually begin to revive their culture and identity, and in January 2005 Moriori celebrated the opening of their marae and cultural centre, Te Kopinga (meaning "kopi grove").

Chatham Island is about double the size of Nelson in area, though a fifth is made up of a lagoon in which tourists hunt for the brownish thorns of fossilised shark's teeth.

The island's fossil history is much richer than New Zealand's; there are fossils of theropod dinosaurs, three kinds of carnivorous dinosaur, three kinds of herbivorous dinosaur, one kind of flying reptile and marine reptiles such as mosasaurs and elasmosaurs. There are also dendroglyphs, 300-year old carvings that Moriori inscribed into karaka trees, though clear-felling around the trees has left them exposed to wind. Also ravaged by disease, they are fading to the point of extinction.

The population is also dwindling, with Dr Brookes saying it's down to under 500 as people leave with their families for the mainland, finding the economics of island life untenable. Groceries and domestic goods are much more expensive on the Chathams, with petrol about 30 per cent more expensive. The installation of two wind turbines in 2010 supplies most of the power, with diesel generators used as a backup.

The population is mainly of European, Māori and Moriori background; in the last census, 64 per cent said they identified as Māori (which includes Moriori), and about 75 per cent identified as European or New Zealander. Though Dr Brookes says there's a "pretty high" incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure amongst the people, he has noticed one strange thing: a distinct lack of sickness benefits in a world dominated by physical jobs: fishing - blue cod, crays, paua - and farming.

"I've put people on to ACC for short periods of time, but most of them don't want it - they've got jobs, either farming or a fishing boat, and they've got to keep it going; or if they don't have a boat they're working for someone and only get paid while they're working, so they want to get back to work as quickly as they can. It's quite a different mentality; quite different to Motueka, where we had a lot of people drifting."

Like quite a few special rural areas in New Zealand, the Government provides free healthcare to Chatham Islanders, and pay if they need to fly to the mainland for treatment. There's nursing, counselling, mental health care, respite care, and prescriptions out of Kilbirnie pharmacy on the island.

Babies aren't born there unless it's an emergency, and the islanders can link up to big tertiary hospitals in Wellington and Christchurch for higher care. Specialists such as gynaecologists and dentists go to the island to hold regular clinics.

Though it used to be managed with Canterbury health dollars, the island's health care transferred to Hawke's Bay District Health Board, although with direct Chathams-Napier flights recently discontinued, the island's MP - it is part of Wellington's Rongotai electorate - Annette King says there are murmurs that they'll join another health district just one flight away.

King says the island's facilities are "excellent". "It reminds me of a health service you'd find in Takaka or Collingwood or Murchison - one of those unique cottage hospitals, all-generic provision of services. But having to leave when things are outside their scope," King says.

"Sometimes they don't realise how lucky they are. But they need it and they must have it because they are so remote. It can take so long to get a person back from the Chathams to New Zealand for emergency care."

The system was tested when a great white shark mauled local man Vaughan Hill in October 1996, as he was diving off Pitt Island. The shark took his head and right shoulder entirely in its maw, left behind a tooth in his back, slashed the back of his neck, and shredded both arms. Sixty people queued up at the aerodrome to give blood, and 95 units were pumped into him during the plane ride home. He lost his leg, gall bladder, and spleen, though recovered to develop a passion for running. He later became a Chatham Islands Conservation Board member - and once took Dr Brookes on a weka-hunting trip.

The Brookes have made a lifetime out of practising in remote places where it's difficult to find doctors - the Canadian Arctic, Great Barrier Island - so the Chathams weren't too much of a stretch for them.

"I must say, I've always hankered to do the more remote stuff," Dr Brookes says. "You are a bit more independent; you don't just have the specialist round the corner. You've actually got to rely a bit more on your medical wits to sort things out and deal with the here and now as best you can, knowing that there's not an emergency centre just down the road.

"I do like rural medicine, really. Now, it's easy to go and fit in there again because I've done it before. If I go down to a new practise you've got new staff, maybe new software, new systems to adjust to - there's only so much new stuff I actually want to learn."

But they've always enjoyed the rural touch. "That was the special thing [in Motueka] for us, and still is. Just wandering down the supermarket and talking to people in the aisles, and stuff. It's really quite neat, feeling like you're part of a community.

"Often in Auckland, doctors might live in one suburb and work in another, so they really don't have any contact with people who they see professionally. But that barrier went down very quickly."

"It's a great place for children, everybody knows who the kids are," Mrs Brookes says. "When you're out at a rugby game or a festival everyone knows who that child belongs to and he's probably got six aunties keeping an eye on him. And when the children come back on the plane from high school the island gets quite excited."

They've found new connections on the Chathams, which strengthen every time they return. Dr Brooke holds a clinic five days a week and is permanently on-call, but a satellite phone and radio - there is no cellphone coverage - means he's able to be out and about exploring while still tethered in case of emergency.

The islanders suffer the usual array of injuries and illnesses, and Dr Brookes stitches wounds and cuts off skin lumps and bumps like a "normal" GP - but the hospital is not equipped to deal with anything beyond simple X-rays.

There is no undertaker or morgue; a dentist and dental hygienist visit several times a year, and the islands' monthly newsletter, The Chatham Islander, runs regular adverts urging women to book mammograms when they're in New Zealand.

Dr Brookes is also the vet, stitching up the occasional dog and pulling fishhooks out of cats' gums - though Mrs Brooks says the islanders are so self-reliant that they're used to doing everything themselves. "People do lots of jobs; because there are so few of them they have to drive the school bus and join committees, clean the hospital and school."

The islanders also value their solitary life - Dr Brookes knows a couple who'll drive the metal roads in their 4WD down to the northern coastline, ditching the car and picking up a 4WD motorbike to drive another 7km up the beach to their cottage - just to get away from it all. "So nobody can get hold of him and bother him," Dr Brookes says. "That's fairly extreme, but a lot of people live quite a way off the road, tucked away."

As well as enjoying the people, the Brookes also like the weather - blustery yet largely frost-free - the outdoors, the fishing, the enormous paua, and the odd little snippets of island life: a hunt for pestilential black swans on the massive lagoon; hunting for plump weka using soft-mouthed dogs; a local pilot reassembling pieces of a Sunderland flying boat that crashed during takeoff in the 1950s, piecing it together over years from scattered parts used by Islanders for dog kennels, goat houses and glasshouses.

"Nothing gets thrown away," Mrs Brookes says. She fondly recalls the regular sight of locals dragging old cars home to reuse bits of them.

Waitangi's long-serving doctor of 11 years recently took his family to New Zealand, and Hawke's Bay DHB is having trouble filling the role permanently. Will they return once more?

"I don't know," Dr Brookes says. It takes a lot to keep up the ongoing professional requirements demanded of a general practitioner, and there are grandchildren, golf, singing, and their small vineyard to keep them entertained at their waterside home in Motueka.

"When we left, I thought this might be the last time," Dr Brookes says. But he finds that now, whenever they step out of the plane to begin another stint as temporary Chathams residents, the islanders say: "Welcome home".