A holiday usually starts not when you shut your front door, but when you first venture out from the airport at your destination. The flight is just the necessary evil you must negotiate to get there.
But not when you fly to the Chathams. Our plane alone has an interesting history. Commissioned as a Convair 340-42A in 1953 by Philippines Airlines, it never made it out of the US, and on October 19, 1955 it was damaged by fire, dismantled at its Louisiana site, and transported back to the factory by road.
It was rebuilt as a Convair 440 on the San Diego Convair line with a new fuselage, completed in May 1956 and sold to North American Airlines in 1966, when it was converted to a 580, or Prop-Jet Convair. It moved again, to Republic Airlines, but was involved in a landing accident in January 1983 when it touched down late and hit a snow bank.
A propeller blade separated and entered the cabin, seriously injuring some passengers. Fixed again, it went to Guatemala before returning to the US and going into storage. Sold to Canada in 1995, it was modified with a cargo door before joining Air Chathams in 1996.
Its age means the seats are wide, and there’s plenty of legroom. I sat in 3C as my boarding pass indicated – followed by every other passenger, as all the boarding passes carried the same number. First in, best dressed!
No drinks trolleys here; the steward made tea or coffee – two at a time, up front, delivered with a smile – and after what felt like half a lifetime (it’s an 860km flight from Christchurch) we landed smoothly in pitch darkness.
Two ancient minibus shuttles met the plane (no taxis or buses here), and off we bumped into the dark – bumped, as there’s almost no sealed road on the island. Not many lights, either. The whole of the Chathams – 966 square kilometres including assorted small islets – houses 600 people and is serviced by power from diesel generators.
The first sign we’d hit ‘town’ was a smoother road surface – the tiny clutch of buildings and the 200 residents that make up Waitangi’s optimistically named ‘business centre’ get tarmac – but there were still very few lights until we pulled up at Hotel Chatham, a long, low building that’s been hard up against the water since 1956.