A few weeks ago, DriveLife received an invitation from Holden along with a press release.
“It is claimed the Chatham Island rose from the sea 65-million years ago, so there is a great synergy with 2019 being the year Holden celebrates its 65th anniversary in New Zealand,”
Okay, bit of a tenuous link but I’ll go with it.
“We had a strong desire to make a real statement to mark this milestone so decided to venture where no other automotive brand has ever been before and sent a fleet of five new SUV models to Chatham Island. By visiting this far-flung outcrop of New Zealand, it reaffirms our commitment to all Kiwis that Holden is very much here to stay and is an important part of the landscape. It also allows us to showcase our impressive new portfolio in an equally as impressive environment.”
This is sounding better and better, I thought, and put my hand up like a shot. I’m all for visiting far-flung places. And if cars are involved, even better!
Finally the day arrived, I packed up several layers of warm clothing and my gumboots, as advised by Holden, and set off to Wellington Airport. Air Chathams only fly to and from Wellington one day a week, so I was flying out via Christchurch, and back via Auckland. In Christchurch I met up with a group of my journalistic colleagues, where we were disappointed to see a two hour delay on the flight, which turned into four hours. We eventually found out that a component had failed on the landing system, so nothing important. As they only have one plane on that route, we had to wait for the part to be flown from Auckland. As this meant we wouldn’t be driving when we arrived, we retired to the pub. It’s a hard life sometimes.
Talking of the plane, it’s a Convair, built in 1953, one of the last of its type in passenger configuration, and it’s quite an experience to fly in compared to more modern planes. This plane has quite a history too. In 1955 it was seriously damaged by fire, dismantled, then re-built in the original factory. It belonged to various airlines around the world until in 1983 it hit a snow bank on landing, detaching the propeller blade, which entered the cabin, causing several injuries. It was repaired, re-commissioned, then later had the cargo door fitted before finally coming to Air Chathams in 1996.
It’s seriously old-school inside, and I have to admit I was nervous as we got on board. But the flight, though loud, was uneventful. We even got a hot drink and a Tim Tam. Finally we started descending, with no sign of any light outside apart from the wing markers, and it was a bit of a surprise when we touched down with a good thump.
We all piled into a minibus and headed out to the settlement of Waitangi, to Hotel Chatham. Driving through the blackness, with gravel from the road clanging and pinging up into the wheel arches, sacrificing the occasional possum that was too slow to dodge the bus.
We all set our devices forward 45 minutes to local time while we waited for our long-anticipated dinner of fresh blue cod, a Chathams speciality which was delicious.
After a good night’s sleep, with the sound of the waves lapping on the beach a few metres outside my window, I was up bright and early to see the sun rise over the harbour. Hotel Chatham is in a lovely spot, right on the beach, with a great view across the water.
After breakfast, we were heading out of Waitangi, for a little exploratory drive. First there was what our guide Toni described as the CBD tour. Blink and you missed it as there are only really three buildings. About 100m out of the town, the asphalt ended and it was gravel for the rest of the way. The whole island has just a few kilometres of sealed road around the main settlements and the airport. The rest is gravel, but we all commented on how well maintained and smooth the gravel roads were.
For the first drive of the day I had jumped into the Acadia. The keys were already in the cars – no-one seems to worry about locking their cars here. Then again where would someone go if they decided to steal a car on such a tiny island? They don’t worry too much about WoFs or rego either.
We headed out of town in convoy, and I got my first proper look at Chatham Island. It has the hallmarks of a remote and unforgiving place to live. It’s green with rocky outcrops, and narrow gravel roads winding through the fields and paddocks. There are farms and settlements dotted about, and the occasional abandoned car or farm vehicle slowly rusting away at the side of the road. It’s the sort of place where practicality overcomes aesthetics when it comes to buildings. But it’s also ruggedly beautiful, in some places desolate, in others majestic. While I was there it was constantly cloudy, with occasional quick rain showers, and rainbows in the distance almost constantly. At one point we passed a hilly paddock full of sheep, with a single rugby post at one end. Maybe they play a different game in the Chathams.
We carried on driving into the countryside, having a bit of fun, gradually building up more speed and confidence on the gravel surface, but never reaching the speed limit of 80kph. I don’t think there are many places on the island where you would want to, or could do so safely. The Acadia rode smoothly and felt solid and planted, handing the surface and corners well.
Eventually we came to a herd of sheep in the road, which seemed a good time to turn back towards the hotel.
After swapping into a Trailblazer back at the hotel, we headed out again, this time to the South East towards Manukau Point, where there’s a statue of Tame Horomona Rehe (known as Tommy Solomon) who was born in 1884 and died in 1933. He is recognised as the last pure blood Moriori.
Next was an outing onto a farm, through a few gates, and onto a gravel track past the Chathams’ attempt at adding some renewable energy to replace the diesel generators that currently provide their electricity. Unfortunately it was mothballed due to technical issues.
The track gradually disappeared and we were driving along a couple of ruts in a peaty field. All of the cars handled it well, even the 2WD Trax. The Trailblazer had no problems of course, even in 2WD mode. The track ended on top of some cliffs with a spectacular view, and across the sea we could just see Pitt Island in the distance. After a good blast in the wind at the top of the cliffs, we headed back in the direction of the hotel to collect our lunch, taking the back road, which was barely a track. This was our chance to see the famous Chatham Island Moa – there are emu running wild on the island after a failed attempt at farming them.
Our next outing was in the Trax, to see Helen Bint, a famous local personality. The Trax, being smaller, felt less refined and comfortable than the bigger cars on the rougher gravel. But it still handled the gravel well and was comfortable enough. We headed North towards Port Hutt, along a road with spectacular views, and constant rainbows out over the sea. We saw cows on the beaches, eating seaweed, and at one point one of the local Police trucks. We found out later that the day’s court case had finished so the Police took advantage of their free afternoon before flying out, by going fishing. On a quick detour, all of the cars easily climbed to the top of a hill, for a spectacular 360-degree view across the island.
Eventually we came to Helen’s driveway, which was a paddock with some vague tracks through it, and lots of livestock wandering about. We left the Commodore Tourer behind at this point as it didn’t have the ground clearance for some of the ruts, but the Trax managed it well, with hardly any scrapes.
Helen Bint lives in an isolated cottage on her own, 10km from her nearest neighbour, with no power or running water. And she likes it that way. She does have a few cats, a couple of dogs and some chickens to keep her company. Over our picnic lunch she regaled us with stories about shooting possums on her roof, driving cars at 100mph down the beach on avgas borrowed from a crashed plane, and the missionaries who built her house from the rock of the nearby cliffs. She’s a real character and a lovely woman, and it was all very entertaining.
Eventually we said our goodbyes to Helen and headed out to the coast to hunt for Paua for dinner. It didn’t take long before we had a bucket full of good-sized Paua, which we found in knee-deep water. Then it was back into the Acadia as we headed off to our last destination for the day – a meal at Admiral Gardens.
When we arrived, Ed from Holden got straight into shucking and cleaning the Paua ready for the barbecue. After a couple of weeks on the island and several of these trips, Ed was pretty much a local.
We dined on smoked blue cod wings, barbecued and curried paua, deep fried blue cod, steak, and an array of salads and vegetables, followed by a delicious raspberry trifle. All delicious and beautifully cooked. Finally we headed back out into the darkness to our hotel.
Our next morning it was an early start to fit in a delicious breakfast at the hotel before heading to the airport, for a full flight back to Auckland. I grabbed a window seat (they don’t allocate seats on this flight) and was treated with fantastic views of the island and the lagoon as we flew out.
The Holdens we drove will be heading back to the mainland by boat in the next few weeks.
Ed has gone native and decided to stay. Just kidding, he flew home the next day.
Thanks to Holden for this chance to experience their cars in such a remote and beautiful location. I think if I was living there, the diesel Trailblazer would be the logical choice of vehicle to own, especially as petrol is $1 a litre more than on the mainland. But I’m also a big fan of the Commodore Tourer, which handled the trip well and was seriously comfortable and composed on the gravel roads.
To celebrate their 65th Anniversary, Holden have some specials on their SUV range, available for June 2019 only. These include a saving of $6,000 on Equinox LS, $7,000 reduction on a Trax LS, $6,000 off a Tourer and $13,000 saving on the Trailblazer LTZ. Check out the details at holden.co.nz