Country number: 40 (Australia)
Territory number: 215
When? July 2019, coming from Sydney, going on to Niue
‘Sans moon, Norfolk is wrapped in a mantle of pure, unadulterated blackness, leaving the stars to twinkle in harmony above. It thoroughly disorientates me.’
Tim Latham, Norfolk: Island of Secrets
Before I’ve even arrived I’m made aware that this island is fiercely proud of its independence. I’m exhorted to applaud the success of the Norfolk Island sports team, who are on my plane. They’ve been competing in the South Pacific games.
My landlady is a blow-in, a Kiwi who holidayed here and kept coming back. She whisks me off to her B’n’B cottage and a hire car ready and waiting. They’ve told me to mark any scratches on the diagram on my paperwork and hand it in later. I figure I’ll wait till I’ve finished my driving before I do it….
Next, a tour, with my host, for orientation purposes. It takes about ten minutes to view the cluster of wooden buildings that is the only town, Burnt Pine, and the south western historic district around Kingston and I’ve already come from the airport in the southeast. Then I’m off on my own exploring. It’s an exceptionally rewarding small island. The grass really is emerald green; the pristine sandy bays are dotted with craggy islets and the waves are crashing in a deep ultramarine sea. Elegant and beautifully symmetrical Norfolk pines frame the backdrops, marching across the velvety hills. The solitary tree at the end of Emily Bay (known as Lone Pine of course) was mentioned in Cook’s dispatches.
Landlady takes me down the Bowlo (Bowls Club), which is packed out and does surprisingly good food – prune stuffed chicken from a Vanuatuan chef.
I’m forward another hour time-wise, so it’s not surprising that I wake up at 4 am. I’m happily writing in bed until the power cuts out for two hours.
My very hospitable and efficient host has suggested I join the Tag Along Tour of the World Heritage historic area this morning. My guide greets us in Norf’k speak: ‘Wataweih yorlyi’ (Hello and how are you?) and announces, with a grin, that she is a Pitcairn descendant (as are nearly half the inhabitants of the island). The renovated Georgian buildings house, amongst other displays, a multitude of relics that the Pitcairners brought with them when they journeyed across the Pacific – this includes a cannon from the Bounty. Their legacy is reflected all around the island, with names like Fletcher Christian Road. The shops even proudly display Bounty bars.
It’s gorgeous sun interspersed with heavy winter rain showers today, so I’m zipping around trying to take in all the views without getting drenched. There are several hills to climb for wonderful views across bays and one of the most southerly reefs in the world, where HMS Sirius was wrecked, bringing much needed provisions. Instead, they lost the supplies and doubled the population. The country lanes form a maze, rather than taking you round the edge of the island and navigation is interesting. Mottle-faced cattle wander the potholed roads. It’s mandatory to give way to the animals. I’m also having to weave to avoid the feral chickens (brought in on the first convict wave). But it’s very quiet, hardly any traffic and no parking meters. You can generally just pull up by the side of the road.
Landlady has instructed me to raise a hand at anyone I pass. This is known as the Norfolk Wave, she says. Not everyone returns my greeting, although no response is better than some of the gestures I’ve seen offered to others. The Pitcairners delight in insulting each other. I think it’s all done with a sense of camaraderie.
There’s a sign on the point at Crystal Pool informing me that the road is impassable when it’s wet. I scramble up the steep tussocky hillside to look down on basalt formations , creating boiling pools in the ocean. This path too has warning signs and is booby trapped, with holes once created by nesting petrels. The indentations must be old – the starving population ate all 170,000 or so of the petrels after the Sirius wreck. Tasty eating – I’ve read- the locals called them mutton birds. I can see dark clouds rolling in from the west, so I hurry (carefully) down to make my escape.
The feral chooks ensure that I’m still waking up early. Today, some glorious sunshine and a bus tour – it is free – to make sure I haven’t missed anything. This guide also proudly traces her ancestry back to Pitcairn; she is a seventh generation descendant. As one would expect, their versions of the mutiny story depend on their lineage. Lynne assures us that her ancestor, Quintal, (the name features on many of the businesses), was not a pyromaniac and alcoholic after all. The older families know everyone else of course and most are known by nicknames. There’s a page in the local phone directory: ‘Faasfain Salan Bai Dems Nikniem’. Favourites are: Dar Bizziebee, Geek, Gumboots, Honkey-Dorey, Lettuce Leaf and Pooh.
As we are driving alongside the airport Lynne tells us that the island is subject to unpredictable cross winds. Some of the locals give the pilots marks out of ten for the quality of their landings.
Delicious creamy prawns in a café; the food here is unexpectedly tasty. The islanders raise livestock and grow their own produce, but much has to be imported, via the ship that docks every six weeks – if they are lucky – and it’s calm enough for it to land. Jill says she’s seen fights in the supermarkets.
I’m accosted by an excitable local who tells me I’m too young to be here. ‘Didn’t you see all the people on the plane?’ I’m sure he uses that line on everyone. He’s not wrong about the average age of the tourist here. I’ve already heard that Norfolk Island is only for the ‘Nearly Dead or the Newly Wed’. My new friend goes on to tell me that he used to live in the cottage where I’m staying. He says it’s haunted. I’m certainly finding it a little chilly, despite the winter sunshine, but I think it’s just the lack of central heating. The islanders boast about the absence of snakes and other predators. Instead, I’m noticing an abundance of large spiders (some have a vicious bite but aren’t life threatening is the semi-encouraging tag). Their webs form glistening canopies along the streets. There’s a lot of property for sale. Many islanders have no cash to pay the new taxes and so they’re leaving. Houses are generally sold complete with all contents – for obvious reasons.
Even more stunning views in the north of the island. Gorgeous coves and bays beckon from precipitous lookouts, though at an air temperature of 18 degrees I’m not tempted into the water. I’m also hesitant about attempting the steep ascent of Mount Pitt in my car, (one metre less than Mount Bates, but you have to walk up that one). However, the car park at the bottom is occupied by snoozing cattle so that settles that. The reward is a wonderful 360 degree view of the whole island and the islets. On my return, I take in the botanic gardens, (actually a disappointingly gloomy rainforest trail).
Finally, a four man play (the posters show six people, so they’re economising here too) which runs me through the island history, just in case I’ve missed anything. The acting isn’t exactly Oscar standard, but it’s armchair seating – and a good place for a doze after all that fresh air.
Today, I’ve decided to drive round any roads I’ve so far not explored. There’s Cascades, which is estate agent speak for a trickle of water over a cliff. Prince Philip Drive and Queen Elizabeth Avenue tie British heritage in with that of the Pitcairners. Then there’s a Country Road thrown in for good measure. What else to call it? The cemetery, up a dead end of course, is a fascinating wander. There’s the grave of Collen McCollough, the author, who lived here (so did Helen Reddy – one of her awards is on display in the tour office). Also, of course, all the Pitcairners and a row of epitaphs commemorating sailors’ executions – there seem to have been more than the average number of mutinies around here.
There are numerous other cul-de-sacs, though one way or another most of the narrow, steep byways, eventually lead to Burnt Pine, the cluster of wooden buildings in the centre. It’s named after a pine stump that was used as the local noticeboard. This is a genteel neighbourhood, with cafes and shops rooted firmly in the last century – there’s an eclectic variety of wares on sale. One place is even called The Norfolk Emporium. And of course, it’s attendant service at the petrol station.
I’m darting around trying to avoid the rain, which is back with a vengeance today. I’m destined for a watery comeuppance whatever. The bottle of water I bought has leaked all over my bag. The brand is Two Drips. That’s about all I’ve got left and my selfie stick is looking rather poorly. It seems as if I’m not going to be able to eat lunch either. Most establishments (and businesses) close in the early afternoon. At least that gives me an excuse to try the fish and chook shop this evening. The local fish is called trumpeter.
Just time for a last walk in the Hundred Acre Wood (more Pooh and huge gnarly tree roots) and to enjoy more of the gorgeous views before I head off to Niue.
Norfolk Island was initially the western most settlement of the Polynesian peoples, before it was ‘discovered’ by James Cook on the Resolution. He named the land after his patron, the Duchess of Norfolk. Unfortunately, she died before he was able to tell her. He also reported that the island was perfect for settlement as the trees were ideal for ship masts and the local flax would provide useful material for sails. He was wrong on both counts. The wood proved too brittle for anything larger than roofs and furniture and no-one knew how to weave the flax. One commander kidnapped two Maori men from New Zealand so they could show them but they didn’t know. ‘It’s women’s work’, they explained.
The UK used the island as a support settlement for Sydney Cove before lack of natural resources and a decent harbour forced its closure. Ten years later they tried again, the government keen to establish another convict colony. In 1856 the island was handed over to the Pitcairn Islanders, who had outgrown their original home, which was lacking in water and sustenance. Some of them weren’t sure that Norfolk was any better, although the soil here is said to be good, and they returned home. Norfolk Island became the first external territory of the newly federated Australia in 1914.
Today, the island population of just under 2000 is two thirds ‘blow-ins ’- immigrants, mainly from Australia and New Zealand and one third the descendants of the resettled Pitcairn islanders.
The island is 5 kilometres by 8 kilometres in size.
The main language spoken is English, but the Pitcairners also still speak ‘Norf’k’ – a mixture of old English, Creole and Tahitian.
To see more of my photos of Norfolk Island visit this page.