Just east of New Zealand's tiny Chatham Islands is the invisible International Date Line.

The Chatham Islands are specks of land so exposed they seem in danger of being blown away by the Roaring Forties. East of them is the area where the world begins and ends each day. Some of the balmy Tongan islands are closer to the invisible date line but, in summer, nowhere sees the new dawn earlier than the 750 humans and 250,000 sheep on the Chathams.

Few New Zealanders have heard of this rocky dependency 400 miles from Wellington. The islands don't even appear on many New Zealand maps and such treatment has fuelled an air of secessionism. A flag of independence has even been designed. It depicts a green island and a brilliant rising sun on a blue background. The image is as optimistic as a Michael Fish weather forecast.

"Only one in five dawns have a sunrise," said John Sutherland, owner of the islands' only tourist lodge. "No one watches the weather forecasts on TV. They are always the same and usually wrong."

The sea is the lifeblood of the Chathams. In the Sixties, crayfish were discovered in their thousands off the rocky cliffs. The cray boom that followed made millionaires out of the fishermen, who now drive pounds 70,000 American pick-up trucks, ride more Harley Davidsons and own the highest number of fax machines per head anywhere in the world.

The cray boom was over in a matter of years, but still Tokyo's fish market demands Chatham's crays and abalone. On the wharf at Waitangi, the island's only town, each boatload of crustaceans is worth up to pounds 50,000. There isn't a poor fisherman on the island.

Yet it isn't just the seafood that put the Chathams on Japanese maps. On New Year's Eve 1989, Japanese television beamed live pictures of the first dawn of the 1990s from Manakau Point, one of the most easterly promontory's on the islands. John Sutherland helped co-ordinate the broadcast.

"They flew in two cargo planes of equipment, paid the $22,000 lodge bill from a brown paper bag of notes and drank 600 cans of Steinlager," he recalled. "But they had no idea what they were doing.

"They had promised free tucker and booze out at the Point and seven hundred people turned up. That's almost all the islanders. Then it pissed down with rain. Luckily the Japanese team had recorded the sunrise from the day before to show people what the dawn here can look like."

In reality there is only one place to watch the dawn in the islands, on the beach below Ken and Eva Lanauze's homestead on Pitt Island, Chatham's tiny neighbour. The problem is getting across to Pitt.

The 55 islanders (the population recently rose by 13 per cent when Eva's daughter Bernie returned to her birthplace with her five children) are dependent on a five-seat Air Chathams Cessna to get on and off a waterlogged airstrip. Twice our flight to the gorse-tufted islet was cancelled.

Getting anything on or off Pitt calls for a miracle. Last year's wool is still bundled 10ft high on Pitt's Flowerpot wharf. Five times the monthly ship to the mainland has been forced away by bad weather.

"I was only born on the island because it was too rough to get me to the hospital on Chatham. That was before the plane," shouted Bernie from the front of her four-wheel motorbike, the only sensible transport across the peaty landscape.

We had brought 20 litres of fuel over from Chatham on the plane, to keep the bike roadworthy. Four of us clung to its muddy luggage rack for the 20-minute jolt along rutted tracks to Kahuitara Point. Past Kahuitara, the next stop is Chile, 4,000 miles ahead and a day behind.

We sat drinking coffee and eating scones in a windblown wooden house. A giant satellite dish was hidden between bushes behind it. Television and direct dial telephones came to the islands at the same time four years ago. "Great for the kids, but it's ruined the art of conversation," said Eva, pulling more scones out of the oven.

The sun beamed in through expansive double-glazed windows. The only view is to the east, over green, waterlogged fields and sandy cliffs to an electric-blue ocean.

Ken and Eva are proud of their place at the start of each new day. "We get some beautiful sunrises here and we're always aware that we are the first to see each new day. It's not something you tire of."

Thirty years on from the cray boom, sunrises over the Southern Ocean could bring the Chathams a second wave of wealth. It will be the first place to see the dawn of the new Millennium.

On the rocks below the Lanauze homestead, Pitt islanders, television crews and a handful of tourists (reputedly willing to pay up to pounds 75,000) will witness the first dawn of the 21st Century. Pitt sees the dawn a minute before Chatham and over an hour before Gisborne, the most easterly town in New Zealand.

Gisborne is already booked up for the Millennium celebrations, but the islanders take great delight in mocking the mainlanders' plans. "Last New Year's Day, just as the sun came up here, I called the radio station in Gisborne and asked them if it was light yet," joked John Sutherland. "Of course it wasn't"

Brad Roberts, a London entrepreneur, claims to have signed rights to the three most easterly points on Pitt and Chatham Islands, but on islands where suspicion is part of their psyche, none of the three landowners will admit to signing with his First Light organisation.

"We've given them permission to do a trial run here before the Millennium, and if we are happy we will look at their plan," said a cautious Eva. "We want to make sure the plan will benefit the whole island."

The excitement of massive, tented villages and CNN broadcasting from Pitt could all be scuppered by the fickle Roaring Forties climate. "They could spend a lot of money getting here and not even see a sunrise. Knowing Pitt, it will probably be foggy," laughed Eva.

Getting out to Pitt, and back, was an achievement. Ocean flying, especially in a plane that lets in the rain through the windscreen surround, is not for the nervous of disposition.

After Pitt, Chatham Island felt like a thriving metropolis. Chatham doesn't have much - occasional tarred roads, a pub, a solitary bank, one policeman and a general store - but that's probably more than Pitt will ever have.

Things were quiet at the pub in Waitangi for a Friday night. There are 60 committees on the Chathams, covering everything from pig hunting to the annual New Year's horse races. They siphon off a huge number of the islanders each night. As does Chatham Island Television.

From five to 11, everything from The Bill to Knight Rider is played on tapes flown in (God-willing) weekly. The only live programme is the six o'clock news from Auckland, shown at 6.45pm. The Chathams sit in their own 45 minute time zone.

For five dollars, whilst the rest of New Zealand watches shampoo and dog biscuit commercials, islanders can type their own advertisements and messages on Chatham Islands TV. One made me glad I had eaten at the lodge, and not the pub. "There are no bar meals tonight. The cook has food poisoning."

John Sutherland chortled as he cleared away our plates and wandered over to turn off the television. As he reach for the knob, the weather flashed up on the screen. Uncharacteristically, it made him pause, then laugh out loud. "Tomorrow it will be flat-arse calm," he remarked.

How to get there

The Chatham Islands are best approached via New Zealand. Australian Flight Centre (0500 727747) has a fare of pounds 775 (including tax) to Auckland on British Airways/Qantas in March, if you book by close of business tomorrow. If not, plenty more cut-price fares are available from discount agents to Auckland and Christchurch. The only flights to the Chatham Islands are twice weekly on Air New Zealand from Christchurch, and cost around pounds 140.

Where to stay

Chatham Island Lodge, PO Box 43, Waitangi, Chatham Islands (00 64 3 305 0196).

Where else to see in the Millennium

Greenwich: the origin of measurements of time and space for the whole planet.

Sydney: venue for the Olympic Games in the year 2000.

Balboa, Panama Canal Zone: due to be handed back by the United States to Panama at noon on 31 December 1999.

St Paul, Minneapolis: birthplace of the artist formerly known as Prince. "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999..."

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