The land before time: A road trip through the Chatham Islands in the new Holden SUV range

 Friendly people, wild landscapes and ancient treasures are to be found exploring the remote Chatham Islands in the new Holden SUV range.

Words and photos: Kelly Gillbanks. Additional photos and video by Simon Watts.

Chatham Islanders are a hardy bunch. The 600 residents of the island archipelago, 862 kilometres east of Christchurch, form one of New Zealand’s most remote communities. There’s no cellphone coverage, and a freighter brings supplies from Timaru a couple of times a month.

When there’s nothing but the wide blue yonder between home and the mainland, improvising and ingenuity become a way of life. Number eight wire isn’t just an expression – it’s used to fix a wonky appliance or broken car. Thankfully, there’s no need for amateur mechanics as we explore the Chathams’ rugged terrain from the comfort of the new Holden SUV range, testing the vehicles’ abilities to adapt to all conditions including gravel roads, hilly paddocks and sand as the weather flits between sunshine and blustery rain.

According to NIWA, it rains 200 days of the year here, and the wildlife has acclimatized to the environment. There are 18 bird species unique to the islands, The Chatham Island tūī and Chatham Island pigeon/parea, both sub-species of the mainland varieties, are larger and heavier than their mainland counterparts, perhaps an indication that in these parts, only the strong survive.

chatham island pigeon

Chatham Island pigeon/parea.

But there was a time when the Chathams and the mainland were not separate. The Chathams originally formed the eastern tip of the 4.9-million-square-kilometre continent, Zealandia (Te Riu-a-Māui). The areas were separated by seismic activity 65 million years ago, and parts of the land sank into the ocean, leaving the Chathams on its lonesome.

The wild beauty of the islands makes it an ideal destination for a road trip to celebrate Holden’s 65th anniversary in New Zealand. Our road trip through Chatham Island, the largest island in the archipelago, is the ultimate New Zealand driving experience, ideal for testing the premium range of Holden SUVs including the Acadia, Equinox, Commodore Tourer, Trax and the island favourite, Trailblazer, popular because it has a diesel engine.

Sunrise Chatham Islands

Our drive begins at sunrise outside the Hotel Chatham in Waitangi, the unofficial “capital” of the islands. The Chathams are 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand and are the first place in the world to see the sun. Waitangi Wharf is known as “State Highway One” as the weekly supply boat is the connection to the mainland.

Toni Croon, the publican at the Hotel Chatham, is our tour guide for the day. We drive east of Waitangi to Manukau Farm near Ōwenga village and Cape Fournier.

Tame Horomona Rehe (commonly known as Tommy Solomon).

Toni’s dog Pipi is as fit as a fiddle and runs along next to the car for part of the journey but, when inside, enjoys the heated seats of the Holden. The land is owned by the Solomon family, descendants of Tame Horomona Rehe (commonly known as Tommy Solomon), a prominent Moriori leader of whom there is a statue.

Thomas Mohi Tuuta (Rangaika) Scenic Reserve.

On the side of the Cape on the south-east coast is Thomas Mohi Tuuta (Rangaika) Scenic Reserve. It’s usually a six-hour walk to see the dramatic cliffs and their 200-metre drop to the ocean but, thankfully, a local allows us to drive through his farm to see the views, so we don’t have to put on our tramping boots.

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Chatham Islanders are incredibly friendly and wave as we drive past on our way back to the main road. Even the farm animals seem freer here – sheep, cows and emus run alongside the Holden during our journey.

Wild emus Chatham Islands.

Wild emus.

It’s a local tradition to play tricks on mainland visitors. Toni tries to convince us the wild emus – escapees from a failed farming venture – are moas. Nice try, but we’re almost caught out again as we drive further north when she tells us that Red Bluff beach is called Contemplation Bay and the three islands in the distance called The Sisters are called Toni, Simone and Monique. (I later learn these are the names of her and her sisters.)

We travel up the gravel roads – Port Hutt Road and Waitangi West Road – and put the Holden to the test further when we go off-road up hilly terrain to meet local celebrity Helen Bint.

Helen lives in a Category One-listed historic stone cottage by Maunganui hill – an area that’s quite isolated, even by Chatham Island standards (Meet Helen in NZ Life & Leisure, issue 63). Her basalt stone home was built in approximately 1868 by two missionaries.

Helen lives a simple existence with few creature comforts. There is a coal range stove, and she washes her clothes and linen in a bucket. She has a basic solar energy set up and her radio is powered through a car battery. Helen moved to the cottage from Nelson 10 years ago, putting everything she owned on the back of a truck aboard the freighter from Timaru – “a bit like in the Beverly Hillbillies”.

She discovered fossilized sea sponges from the Palaeocene era (66 to 56 million years ago) on a northwest beach, and last year she was awarded the Harold Wellman prize by the Geoscience Society of New Zealand. “I have more adventures here than I ever had living on the main road of Nelson,” she says.

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Fishing is the largest industry in the Chathams, and crayfish pots are dotted along the coastline. It’s fitting that while we’re here, we catch our dinner. We pull up the Holdens at the beach at Waitangi West and quickly gather a bucket of pāua from shallow rocks at low tide.

We use a special pāua knife, which has a measuring attachment to make sure we don’t take under-sized molluscs. But there’s no chance of that; these are huge.

At Te Whanga lagoon, we stop to look for sharks. Not live ones, but the fossilized teeth of a shark ancestor called Eugomphodus macrotus. The fossils can be found in limestone near the water’s edge. Due to its unique geological history, the Chathams is one of only three places in New Zealand where dinosaur bones have been discovered.

Theropods (the family of dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex belongs to), as well as herbivorous dinosaurs and marine reptiles such as mosasaurs and elasmosaurs, lived in this area before dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago.

The shark teeth in the lagoon are a little younger than that, a mere 30 million years old. Finding a shark tooth on the shelly shore is like finding a needle in a haystack – but I count myself lucky when I manage to find three little teeth.

Toni takes us to the Admiral Cottage, boutique accommodation owned by her parents, Val and Lois. We learn how to shuck pāua with a quick flick of the wrist, and then tenderize the molluscs with a mallet before Lois transforms them into a pāua curry.




We eat like royalty, dining on blue cod bites, crayfish and the pāua curry, the perfect end to an incredible day.


Getting there: Air Chathams flies daily from several different New Zealand centres including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The fleet includes a Convair CV-580, a propeller-driven 1950s aircraft.
Where to stay: The Hotel Chatham is a one-stop shop for accommodation, casual dining and private tours.

Holden Chatham

We drove the Holden SUV range while exploring the Chathams, and my favourite was the luxurious and spacious Acadia. More on the Holden SUV range below:

The all-new Holden Acadia is the ideal family-orientated SUV as it is incredibly spacious and is loaded with technology and safety features. It is capable of off-road adventuring onto less accessible parts of the countryside. This dynamically capable vehicle features a powerful V6 engine paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission and features a five-star ANCAP safety rating.

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Based on the hugely popular Holden Colorado, the Trailblazer delivers unparalleled levels of off-road capability, seven-seats or an extended luggage carrying capacity when seats are folded down. The Trailblazer LTZ features a 2.8-litre Duramax diesel engine, delivering 147kW of power combined with 500Nm of torque in the automatic model. The 6-speed automatic transmission with Shift-on-the-Fly 4WD offers the greatest towing ability of all the Holden SUV range.

Equinox is the most popular Sport Utility Vehicle in the General Motors new-vehicle portfolio and is sold in 116 markets internationally. Its 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine, delivering 188kW of power and 353Nm of torque. Equinox is a true enthusiast’s SUV as it offers all-wheel drive capability as well as being an outstanding driving experience.

The Trax offers interior flexibility and cargo hauling capability, which belies its size. There are 387 litres of storage space with the back seats in place and more than twice that with them folded flat. Additionally, with the front passenger seat folded flat, one can transport objects nearly two-and-half meters long, such as a surfboard.
The Trax has a five-star ANCAP rating and features six standard airbags with side curtain airbags that extend to the back row as well as driver assist technology.

The Holden Commodore Calais Tourer is a high-ride wagon designed to hit the sweet spot between a crossover and a premium sports wagon, offering customers SUV-like interior capacity and flexibility along with the driving enjoyment of a classic Commodore.
With 142mm of ground clearance and a 3.6-litre V6 engine supplying 235kW at 6800rpm and 381Nm at 5200 rpm to all four wheels on demand, Calais Tourer drivers can take advantage of an all-wheel-drive system (AWD) that enables light off-roading and plenty of grip on unsealed roads.



From city life to the Chathams Islands: Why Helen Bint chose a life of isolation in remote New Zealand 

Sheer cliffs and shear determination: An unforgettable Wairarapa road trip in the new Holden Colorado

A road trip to remember: Driving from Dunedin to Queenstown in the next generation Holden Commodore

Driving through the Forgotten World Highway in the new Holden Equinox SUV

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