“Want a ride?” called the lady from the door leading to the tarmac.”

This is how they announce boarding the aircraft at the Chatham Islands for the trip home, and it sort of sums up the mojo of the place.

While it may be 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand – as the islanders refer to the mainland – it is more like going back in time by 30 years.

There is a rich maritime history
There is a rich maritime history

When you arrive you drive along the gravel road from the airport to the main settlement of Waitangi and you can’t help noticing the stunted trees growing at an angle of 45 degrees with the tips parallel to the ground, and you realise that the wind is a constant companion.

Farming and fishing are the main businesses for the 700-odd residents, along with the support systems needed for government and management. Much is iwi-based and new social housing is the result of collaboration between iwi and the government.

For a group of 10 members of the plumbing industry a week on the island promised adventure, diving, hunting, fishing and getting to meet locals. A couple of keen hunters spent a day roaming the scrubby, low hills as they searched for wild cattle and the rare curly-horned Arapawa sheep; while the rest of the group boarded a large tinny with twin 300hp V8 engines strapped to the back. Fishing for crayfish and blue cod have long been the mainstay of the fishing industry, with some paua and kina export thrown in from time to time.

Local fisheries rules are generous with 30 blue cod, 10 paua and five groper and six crayfish allowed to be taken by each angler each day. But the locals are more protective of their fishery resources and will allow visitors to take home only the equivalent of one day’s catch and some charter skippers impose their own boat limits which are much less.

And the fishing is like it was 50 years ago on the mainland. You only have to steam for 10 minutes from the main wharf and drop a bait and you will have a blue cod instantly. That is then chopped for bait, and it is all on.

Rods and handlines – they all catch fish at the Chathams
Rods and handlines – they all catch fish at the Chathams

The skipper looked sideways at the rods and handlines which came across on the plane from Christchurch, and produced half a dozen handlines which comprised rope, not line, with a huge weight on the end and a couple of heavy traces inside plastic tubing with circle hooks which looked as if they could handle a marlin. But they work. And wow, how they work! He demonstrated the special technique – drop the terminal bits and just let the rope run out. When it stops, take up the weight gently then when a bite tugs on the end jerk the rope savagely to set the hook. Do that a couple of times then haul in the rope hand-over-hand as it slides across the gunwhale, then lift the whole lot including a couple of fish over into the boat. He flicks off the fish with a special tool, re-baits the hooks, then slits the throat of each fish and they go straight into a bin full of cold seawater.

It’s a slick operation, and when a small gropercomes in the smiles get even broader. For while you are fishing in only 20 metres of water, you can often hook school groper – as they call hapuku here and in the South Island – among the blue cod.

“What do you reckon? Blue cod or snapper?” asks one character from Dunedin. The two Aucklanders were seriously outnumbered so it was a tricky question.

“Snapper is so popular in the north only because it is so common,” we suggested. “But the colder the water the better eating the fish are, and the best come from the bottom. So the blue cod here and in the South Island are probably better.”

Another blue cod comes over the side
Another blue cod comes over the side

It was a political sort of answer, which is important when you are going to be sharing a vehicle, and meals, and evening drinks with a bunch of South Islanders.

But there was never going to be any doubt that the blue cod and the crays and a few paua would be warmly welcomed when they arrived in the north.