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The archipelago lies at 44o south and 176o west, roughly 800 km to the east of Christchurch, New Zealand. The islands have officially belonged to New Zealand since 1842. They cover a total of 966 km2, almost all of which is in the two main islands, Chatham and Pitt. The two main islands are the only inhabited islands, with the smaller islands mostly conservation reserves with access restricted or prohibited.
Names of the main islands are (in English and Moriori):
- Chatham Island/Rekohu (and Wharekauri in Maori)
- Pitt Island/Rangiauria
- Little Mangere Island
- Star Keys/Motuhope
- Mangere Island
- South East Island/Rangatira
- The Sisters/Rangitatahi
Most of the land is fern or pasture covered, although there are some areas of forest. The islands are hilly – Pitt more so than Chatham – with the highest point being a 290-metre summit on Pitt Island. The main island of the chain is dotted with numerous lakes and lagoons, notably the large Te Whanga Lagoon. Other lakes on Chatham include Huro and Rangitahi. The main island has streams including Te Awainanga and Tuku.
The first human habitation of the Chathams involved migrating Polynesian tribes who settled the islands about 1000 AD, and in their isolation became the Moriori people. The exact origins of these people remains a matter of some dispute. Some have thought they arrived directly from more northerly Polynesian islands, but the now more current theory sees them as Maori from mainland New Zealand. The debate has political overtones as modern Maori inhabitants, descendants of those who invaded and conquered the archipelago in 1832, claim access to ancestral Maori fishing rights. An extensive report on these claims, "Rekohu", has been published by the Waitangi Tribunal.
The Moriori population of the islands numbered about 2000. They lived as hunter-gatherers, taking food from the sea and from native flora. The society lived peacefully, resolving disputes through consensus rather than warfare and keeping its population stable by castrating a certain percentage of the male children.
The name "Chatham Islands" comes from the ship HMS Chatham, whose captain William R. Broughton landed on November 29, 1791, and claimed possession for Great Britain. Sealers and whalers soon made the islands a centre of their activities. Fishing activities continue to contribute significantly to the economy, although the sealing and whaling industries ceased activities about 1861.
The invading Maori from New Zealand – as well as European whalers – all but wiped out the indigenous Moriori population. Today, however, some island families continue a Moriori lineage, and the Moriori culture continues to recover. Moriori have recently established a national marae and united under the Hokotehi Trust.
Chatham and Pitt islands are inhabited. The population of about 700  individuals has European (70%), Maori and Moriori origins. The town of Waitangi is the main settlement with some 200 residents. Other villages are at Te One and Kaingaroa (where the two primary schools are located) and the fishing villages of Owenga and Port Hutt.
Waitangi facilities include a hospital with resident doctor, trading bank, several stores, and engineering and marine services. The main shipping wharf is located here.
Visitors to the Chathams may arrive by air or sea. While freight generally arrives by ship, the sea journey takes too long for many passengers, and is not always available. For many years a Bristol Freighter served the islands, a slow and noisy freight aircraft converted for carrying passengers by installing a passenger container equipped with airline seats and a toilet, in part of the cargo hold. The air service primarily served to ship out high-value export crayfish products.
The grass landing-field at Hapupu, at the northern end of the Island, proved a limiting factor, as few aircraft apart from the Bristol Freighter had both the range to fly to the islands and the ruggedness to land on the grass airstrip. Although other aircraft did use the landing field occasionally, they would often require repairs to fix damage resulting from the rough landing. In 1991, after many years of requests by locals and the imminent demise of the aging Bristol Freighter aircraft, the construction of a sealed runway at Karewa allowed more modern aircraft to land safely. The Chathams' own airline, Air Chathams, now operates services to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The timetable varies seasonally. It operates turboprop Convair aircraft in combi (freight and passenger) configurations.
Visitors to the islands should pre-arrange their accommodation before arrival with The Ultimate Hideaway, Chatham Lodge, Waitangi Hotel, Chathams Motel, or local homestays. The islands have rental vehicles, but no taxis or public transport.
The international date line lies to the east of the Chathams, even though the islands lie east of 180 degrees of longitude. Consequently, the Chatham Islands observe their own time, nominally 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand time, including daylight savings. (New Zealand time orients itself to 180 degrees longitude.)
In Parliament, the Chatham Islands form part of the Rongotai general electorate, which mostly lies in Wellington. Annette King serves as the Member for Rongotai. The Te Tai Tonga Maori seat (held as of 2004 by Mahara Okeroa) also includes the Chatham Islands. The term of all current Parliamentarians expires after the next General Election, no later than September 2005.
Local government on the islands, uniquely within New Zealand, involves a council established by its own Act of Parliament (Chatham Islands Council Act 1995). The Chatham Islands Council operates as a district council with regional council functions, making it in effect a unitary authority but with not quite as many responsibilities as the others.
Because of the isolation and small population, some of the rules governing daily activities undergo a certain relaxation on some of New Zealand's smaller islands. For example, every transport service operated solely on Great Barrier Island, the Chatham Islands, or Stewart Island need not comply with section 70C of the Transport Act 1962 (the requirements for drivers to maintain driving-hours logbooks). Drivers subject to section 70B must nevertheless keep record of their driving hours in some form. See New Zealand Gazette 14 August 2003.
The partially-elected Hawke's Bay District Health Board provides the Islands with health services.
Policing comes courtesy of a sole-charge constable appointed by the Wellington police district, who at various times has often doubled as an official for many government departments, including court registrar (Department for Courts), customs officer (New Zealand Customs Service) and immigration officer (Department of Labour — New Zealand Immigration Service).
- Chatham Islands
- 1998 Information
- Department of Conservation information
- Unofficial Flag
- New Zealand Outdoors
- Chatham Islands Council Act 1995
- Massey University study of Chathams ecology