The Joy and Boredom of Being Young in New Zealand's Most Remote Outpost
No cell reception, one pub, few faces you haven’t seen before. What life is like on the Chatham Islands, the most isolated corner of one of the most isolated countries in the world.
VICE travelled to the Chatham Islands courtesy of Air Chathams, serving regional New Zealand for over 30 years.
“I’ll probably die here eh. It’s a pretty mean spot to live. A pretty good spot to be bro.” Sticks Ogilvie, 22, spoke with one hand on the boat’s throttle, the other on its wheel, his black wetsuit folded at his waist, a cool breeze raising goosebumps on his torso. The swell—the reason he wasn’t out working that day as a commercial diver—swilled between the rocks, lifting the boat as we spoke. He kept an eye on the waves, manoeuvring the boat to meet them head on.
The red cliffs of Chatham Island, the biggest landmass in the archipelago of the same name, towered over the ocean, and occasionally the snorkel of 19-year-old Kodie Croon-Prendeville broke the surface as he scoured the sea floor for crayfish. Sticks isn't his real name. It's Devon, but the nickname fits—he’s enormously tall. Sticks moved to the Chathams from Taranaki about four years ago, following his parents when they resettled on nearby Pitt Island. He started life on the island working as a fencer, but soon got into diving. “Haven’t looked back. It’s pretty mean bro. It’s different to New Zealand: you can go and do a lot different shit over here eh. People go to nightclubs over there, we do this shit.”
Chatham Island lies some 800 kilometres east of Christchurch, its 920 square kilometres inhabited by just 600 or so people. Its main town, Waitangi, consists of a pub and hotel down by the water and on the rise above it a general store, an erratically open fish and chip shop, a petrol station, and perhaps three-dozen homes. Waitangi looks out over the bay, where its fishing fleet sits tugged by the wind or the tide to face in the identical direction in the lee of the wharf. It’s that industry—by far the island’s biggest—that keeps young people like Sticks employed: diving for paua and kina, fishing for cray and blue cod.
The radio crackled a weather update. “This is like our One News bro,” Sticks said. “Find out whether you’re working or not tomorrow.” There are no days of the week on the Chathams, just good days and bad—days where the wind is up and that fleet sits in the harbour, days when it’s out on the water. “We can go like two-three weeks without work. And then we can do like three weeks, diving every single day. That’s where you make your coin.”
On a good day, Sticks can make as much as $4000. He lives in a caravan at the back of his boss’ house—“free rent eh”—as he saves to buy some land on the island and build a house. A lot of guys, he says, start off like this, with a job on a boat, before working their way up the ladder to their own boat. “At the top of the ladder is cray-fishing on a half-a-million-dollar boat earning a million dollars a year as a skipper. That’s where all these old fellas are at, but they won’t tell you that.”
Kodie emerged clutching a bright orange crayfish. He wanted out of the water: “Dirty as down there. Scary as fuck.” Visibility was bad, and that’s when the work is most dangerous. Great white sharks make their home here, and several divers have been attacked over the years. Once, Sticks and Kodie were diving not far from this spot when Sticks felt a black dread wash over him. “I just seen a shadow that looked like a shark and I let my crayfish go and I grabbed him and I was just like”—Sticks made the sign of a shark, his hand upright on his forehead. “You get a real sort of hot fuzz come through you eh. Hot fuzz bro, it’s quite scary.”
There’s not much to do other than work. “Just dive, really. Try to get a few toys over the years, make your own fun I suppose.” That day we first met Sticks when he had pulled up behind the boat on his jet ski to surf the wake behind us. The ocean is like a tonic against the smallness of the community, and it’s only when the weather’s bad and he can’t get out that its size bothers him at all. “You’re stuck doing fuck all for days on end. That’s when you just go binge drinking and smoke dope and do fuck all each day.”
Still, he loves life on the island, and the sense of freedom it comes with. “When you go to New Zealand, you miss it. Straightaway. You can’t just jump in your car, go for a cruise and do whatever you want. You can’t just do that over there. You miss that straightaway. I can only do it for so long then I’m like, ‘Fuck I wanna go back home now.’”
Tazzy Peni, 25, was born on the island. If she had her way, life would follow a similar rhythm to Sticks’. “I’d be on a boat, but it’s hard finding a fisherman who wants to take on a full-time female deckhand, I suppose. But women are just as powerful down here; they all work three-to-four jobs.”
As it is, she works at Waitangi’s general store. We spoke outside in the sun, after she’d knocked off one afternoon, smoking post-work cigarettes while she sat beneath a whiteboard with a note advertising the arrival of the next freight ship: everything on the island has to be shipped from New Zealand, and you pay for it. Five bananas and a box of muesli bars set me back $15 at the store, petrol at the station next door goes for more than three dollars a litre.
There’s no high school on the Chathams, and Tazzy studied in Napier and then in Western Australia. But she always felt the homeward tug of the island. “I cried every day to come home.” As we spoke, she waved at every single car that passed; there are no strangers on the Chatham Islands and—other than the scattered tourists—no faces you haven’t seen before. “We have to make our own fun. A lot of it is about trying to be creative.” Camping, horse riding, pig hunting, taking your four-wheeler to some remote spot.
The self-sufficiency forces you to grow up quicker, she says. “I think you have to down here. You actually have to. You get a lot of pressure too, from your family and stuff: grow up, stop being a fucking idiot.” Her sister has just finished high school and all she wants is to come home and start working. She won’t listen when Tazzy tries to tell her she has her whole life to do that. “But, you know, that’s all she wants to do and I suppose it’s because it’s all she’s seen growing up, is Mum and Dad working, hammer down, two or three jobs.”
She tries to get off the island a couple of times a year “just for my own sanity”, but her partner, a cray fisherman, recently travelled to New Zealand for the first time in two years. “That’s a long time, eh, not to be out.” Chatham Islanders refer to New Zealand by its full name, as a completely separate place, not as “the mainland”—just another place like all the others that are not the Chathams, somewhere out there across the sea. “It is real isolated, but I suppose it’s how you make it, and how you want it to be.”
A stream of beat-up trucks pulled up in front of the Hotel Chathams, picking up beer from the pub’s bottle store, or a feed. Kodie and his mate Josh Lanauze, also 19, leaned against Kodie’s dented black Hilux, his dogs relaxing in the shade beneath.
No one understands, Josh told me, what it’s like to grow up on the Chathams unless you’ve done it. He spent his early years on the even more remote Pitt Island, a 20-minute flight away, where only 30 or so people live. It was difficult to relate to his peers when he went off to boarding school at Christchurch Boys’ High. “Growing up on Pitt, every time I went to a party or something, I’d be the only one there that was under 18. All my uncles would be the ones there drinking, so you’re getting on the piss with 50-year-old men your whole fucking life. It’s good. You mature a lot faster, I suppose.”
Stuff that is second nature on the Chathams, he says, gets you into trouble in New Zealand. “Someone’s out on the town, one of the boys, they need to take a piss. They just stop and do it. ‘You can’t do it on the street man, you gotta use the bathroom.’ Here, you come outta the pub and take a piss just here off the road if you want to. Shit like that.”
Neither Kodie nor Josh made it far in high school; both were kicked out or asked to leave, Josh from Christchurch Boys, Kodie from St Bedes in the same city. Both now work on their dads’ boats. “You’ve got big responsibilities down here. Things that we do on a day-to-day basis. Out there like it’s a big thing to probably go and tow a boat down and launch it, but for us it’s an afternoon.”
There are some things he’d like to change on the island. “A few more girls would be good.” Maybe the long-promised cell phone tower, but he’s not too worried. “In a way that’s fucking good. I love coming back, especially when you’re going to school. Come back and you don’t have to check your phone all the time.”
It’s a good place to be young, he reckons. “Fuck, we’ve got a fucking lucky lifestyle… If we’re not working, we’re diving, smoking bongs or fishing. Fuck, that’s about it man. Taking our trucks, looking for mud. Four-wheel driving, hunting.”
Kodie, who had been quiet until that moment, now sitting on a parked up four-wheel motorbike, looked up. “It’s actually boring, really boring.”
Kodie was relaxing at his mum’s house above town, sitting outside, smoking cigarettes and admiring the view of bay below. Night was falling. Sticks buzzed around in the kitchen behind us, cooking the crayfish Kodie had pulled up from the depths earlier.
Kodie had hardly spoken with me before I sat down with him alone, always willing to let his more outgoing companions fill the gaps in conversation. He said that growing up on the Chathams—despite the practical skills you acquire—leaves you unprepared for life elsewhere in the country. He speaks quietly and slowly, his voice croaky. “When I go out to New Zealand, you feel like you’re different to everyone else. I really do. I feel like it’s a bad thing. When I go out there, you’re just like, whoa. ‘Cos everything’s just such a fast pace. You sort of feel like you can’t keep up.”
Sticks has chosen to live on the Chathams, and has an almost evangelical glee about the life he has found. Kodie, however—three years younger and born into life on the island—has, by circumstance, so far had that decision made for him, and feels almost segregated from the wide-open opportunity of young New Zealanders elsewhere in the country. There’s no dating scene—“No potential. It’s pretty fucking sad really”—and after a close friend of his died recently in a drink driving accident, the island has gone quiet. “There’s no parties, nothing. The pub’s dead every night.”
He has a lucrative life mapped out for him on the Chathams, if he follows his family into the cray-fishing business. But he knows there’s more out there, those indefinable possibilities of a life lived elsewhere. “Yeah, every day. Shit yeah… I’m deciding whether to go and just dive and dive for as long as it lasts, but then this will be it for me.” He motioned at the expansive lawn, and further afield to take in the sweep of Waitangi Bay, the boats on the blue-grey water, the last of the sun hitting the cliffs across the sea, his life on the island.
“This will be it, if I do that.”
VICE travelled to the Chatham Islands courtesy of Air Chathams, serving regional New Zealand for over 30 years.