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A white man’s fantasy – and sad reality – of living alone on a Cook Islands atoll

John Summers is inspired by a dreamer who ended up living as a kind of Robinson Crusoe on a Cook Islands atoll ‘where there truly was no sound beyond the waves, the birds and whatever noise you made yourself’.

Some of the happiest hours of my primary school education were those spent sitting on the mat, listening to a teacher read from The Coral Island. It was a Victorian novel full of Victorian values – I doubt it gets read much now – and tells the story of three English boys stranded on a Pacific island. I say stranded, but this was survival as holiday. Every task held just enough difficultly to be interesting but never onerous. Within minutes you could erect shelter. Rubbing sticks together was as effective as a cigarette lighter. The temperature was always right for swimming. I went about for weeks afterwards craving breadfruit, imaging something between a baked potato and bread fresh out of the oven, and I dreamed of islands, failing to twig that I was already on a Pacific island.

In my mind it was somewhere else. These South Seas were too close, too familiar. I wasn’t entirely wrong in this. The author, a Scot named Ballantyne, had never been to the Pacific himself. His account was make-believe, a cobbling together of everything he’d read. The coral island of the title was a veritable Pak’n’Save, where the boys feasted on pigs, taro, yams, sweet potatoes, plums, sugar cane as well as “cocoa nuts” that could be stuffed a couple at a time in pockets and then opened easily with a knife, the juice lemonade-like.

It was a fantasy, and it was very much a white man’s fantasy. These were not islands where people lived and worked to make a living, but background, a stage set with all the messy business of school and work and life excised. When the locals did appear in The Coral Island they were just as phoney as the cocoa nuts, the usual cannibals and noble savages of Victorian literature.

And yet, although I know all this now, islands still have their appeal. There is surely a direct line from Defoe to Ballantyne to the House of Travel, and despite my better judgment that line runs within my brain too. The sight of hibiscus stirs something between hope and yearning, emotions similar to those I felt sitting on the mat, listening to Mr Clark. And I have holidayed in Samoa, Tonga and Niue, coming to see, in the limited way that a tourist can, the realities of island life – but also breadfruit in the wild, the opportunity to dispel that persistent myth, which is perhaps why I’ve never eaten it, have allowed it to remain the perfect fruit of my daydreams.

This is all to say that when, on another island holiday, this time in Rarotonga, I came across a battered paperback about a New Zealander who lived alone for years on an uninhabited Pacific atoll, I had no choice but to read it, to let it creep into any idle hour’s thought. I am far from alone in this. Tom Neale’s An Island to Oneself was published in 1966 in England, and would be translated into French, German, Dutch and even Persian. It’s out of print now and yet there’s a readership still. Reviews crop up on Amazon, on GoodReads, and copies float, flotsam on secondhand bookshop shelves.

It’s a short book considering the time it covers, but Neale didn’t muck around. His prose was straightforward, as taut as he was – photographs reveal that his was the physique of a coat hanger. He allowed himself only a brief exploration of the impulse to spend so much time alone on an island, attributing much of it the influence of Robert Dean Frisbee, an American writer who once spent a year there with his five children.

The rest  was his account of his voluntary marooning on Suwarrow (then known as Suvarov), an atoll in the Cooks. Its last residents had been coastwatchers, two bored men told to look out for a Japanese invasion that never came, and Neale moved into the tin shack they’d left behind. He grew a garden, raised chickens and caught fish to feed himself and the two cats he’d brought. Easy to rattle off these tasks, but each was its own small feat. Establishing the garden meant first hauling topsoil across the island and, once the plants grew, pollinating each by hand – there are no bees on remote atolls.

It was 10 months before Neale saw another person, and all up he was there, alone, for two years, only leaving on a trade ship after suffering from back pain, which in Rarotonga was diagnosed as arthritis. Reason to give it up you’d think, but he still craved his lonely island, and would have been back right away but for the Cook Islands authorities. They weren’t keen on the idea of Neale dying by himself in one of the remote corners of their territory, and refused him permission to return on any of the local vessels.

And so he went back to his original occupation: keeping shop. He ran a general store, selling kerosene, canned beef and every other dry good. Six frustrating years is what he’d call this time, describing 1950s Rarotonga as if it were an asphalt jungle. The cars at a nearby petrol station gave off stinking fumes. Life was governed by the clock, and he had to wear trousers – on Suwarrow he’d went about in a hat and loin cloth.

Return would be a relief, and in 1960 he got around the authorities by travelling back to Suwarrow on a private yacht. He lived there for another two years, the time punctuated by the arrival of three castaways, a couple named Vessey, and their young daughter Sileia, who were marooned when their yacht tore open against Suwarrow’s coral reef. They lived with him for two months until all four were able to signal a passing New Zealand frigate.

Neale left not long after their rescue, after more people arrived, pearl divers from the nearest inhabited island, Manihiki, and learnt that they would be returning regularly to dive in Suwarrow’s lagoon, other voices, turning his “heaven into hell.”

Tom Neale

Ballantyne’s Victorian classic The Coral Island would be famously updated as William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. Tom Neale’s book has been updated too. While in Rarotonga, I learnt that his daughter, Stella Neale, wrote an epilogue to her father’s book that she hopes to publish one day. I got in touch, and she shared her manuscript with me. It’s a tender but clear-eyed document that tells another story, a family story that runs alongside the original tale of the man alone on the island.

Neale had a son at the time of his first stay on Suwarrow, and by the time he left for the second he was married with two more children: Stella and her brother Arthur. The six frustrating years that he described spending stuck in Rarotonga were in fact six years with his young family. He was “a very private man… To explain a private matter was not who he was,” Stella wrote as explanation for why none of this appears in her father’s book, and her description of him is of a loving if reserved father, rationing sweets and keen to teach her his own skills of self-reliance. He had her opening coconuts with a sharpened crowbar and cutting wood with an axe while she was still in the single digits. He was also a stubborn man, certain about how things should be done. A useful quality on a desert island, where self-doubt has time to grow into despair.

On Rarotonga though, within his marriage, stubbornness was its own treacherous reef. Neale insisted that his wife Sarah, a Cook Islander 20 years his junior, travel to New Zealand to give birth to Stella and to visit a son she had there. But when she instead travelled to her own island, Palmerston, to visit her unwell mother, he withheld his money, effectively forbidding her from ever going to New Zealand and creating a distance between them. Together they had planned to go back to Suwarrow with their children, a Swiss Family Robinson except that a coral atoll had always been Sarah’s home. She was a great cook, Stella wrote, masterful at preparing fish, and had the skills to cope with the demands of a place like Suwarrow. But by the time Neale had organised his return, the marriage had broken down. He went alone.

Islands were where Neale would always go. He was born in 1902 in Wellington, the southern edge of an island. A few years later his family moved to Greymouth, the western edge of another. In his youth he joined the navy on that old promise of seeing the world, but the glimpses it gave him, of South Pacific port towns and harbours and bars, weren’t enough to sate him, and he left to wander the Pacific himself. For over a decade he island-hopped, living simply, picking fruit from the tree and taking odd jobs clearing bush or cutting copra when he needed money.

These years of his life we might picture via Somerset Maugham: Neale a character in the Pacific he’d described, perhaps invented, the beachcomber in that world of traders and tramp steamers. He returned to New Zealand once during this time – “Which Tom?” his father had said when he’d called – but was soon drawn back, first to Moorea where he settled for a time, and then to the Cook Islands where he took that storeman job, working on some of its scattered islands, selling tinned beef and kerosene to the locals. These are still remote places, reached only by small planes and infrequent ferries. Imagine how small, how sleepy they were then, in the late 40s and early 50s. Even so, Neale craved something quieter, a place where there truly was no sound beyond the waves, the birds and whatever noise you made yourself.

Islands loom even in his reading. He was a devotee of Conrad, Defoe, and Stevenson, as well as Frisbee. “No desert island story is altogether bad,” wrote George Orwell, “when it sticks to the actual concrete details of the struggle to keep alive.” It could have been Neale’s mantra – his own book was almost a manual on desert island life for all the information packed within. It covered what to take (tools, bandages, canned food and flour, but also six pairs of tennis shoes for walking on the reef), and how to strengthen a shack against tropical storms.

It’s not very well written, two people told me. But then both had read it, both were recommending I read it. I wonder whether they would have suggested it so readily had Neale allowed himself a more vivid writing style or lengthy observations on his lust to be alone. That’s what I tend to think we’d have if this book had been written now. Another story of someone finding themselves, of using some exotic place as a way to hit reset on their life and see their values afresh. Everything left behind – the children, the marriage – would be there to give the right context to their journey of self-discovery.

While Neale does give some background about his life before Suwarrow, obviously what he shared was only part of it and even that is rushed. It’s as if he feels no need to convince us, knowing that we’re reading because we’re there for the island already. Our daydreams are his, and all we want is to hear from the one man who has acted on them.

That’s not to say the book is without drama. The stakes were incredibly high, because for all those tennis shoes, one thing Neale never took was a radio. He planned to live or die by self-reliance alone. And at times, the odds were on him dying. The back pain that ended his first stay was so severe that he was forced to his bed, and lay there unable to move with only two coconuts for sustenance.

Straightforward he may be, but Neale described the dreamlike days of pain vividly, better for his plainspoken style – you feel sure that he’s telling it as it happened, knowing he’s not prone to exaggeration. He survived only through the most incredible luck. On the fourth day, while he lay there weak, a man walked in the door. An American, a Rockefeller in fact. James Jr, a scion of that wealth-dripping family, was another who dreamed of islands and had been travelling the Pacific by yacht when he decided, out of pure curiosity, to pay a visit to what he thought was an uninhabited patch of sand. Rockefeller and his travelling companion stayed with Neale for a week, and nursed him back to health, even rubbed his knotted back with liniment each evening. When it came time for them to leave, they organised for a trade ship to pick Neale up and take him back to Rarotonga.

So then there is drama there, and yet it is all of the island. Neale wrote of feeling fatherly toward Sileia Vessey, the daughter of the two castaways, but never described what it must be like to leave your own two children on the docks without knowing when you’d see them again, nor how the desire to see no one but your wife and children might turn into a wish to see no one.

Maybe we’d have a better book had he explained this, maybe we’d have a worse one, an attempt to defend the indefensible. As it is, what we have is a story self-contained. Like an Agatha Christie, a puzzle to be solved in the company of the reader. Even with Stella’s epilogue, we’ll never know if Neale truly found his peace on Suwarrow, but while reading his book we can have it for a moment ourselves.

Neale’s time on Suwarrow didn’t end with his book. In 1967, he went back, his supplies paid for with royalties, and stayed for another 10 years. Stock phrases come to mind: the island drew him back, had him in its spell. This is how he himself characterised his wish to be there, as if he were in thrall to the beauty of white sands and pale blue seas.

There is no reason not to take him on his word, but surely it was aloneness too that spoke to him over and over. It was the main feature of Suwarrow after all, and maybe, for a man so set in his ways, aloneness meant beauty too, perfection. Things could be exactly as he wanted them, without the need to compromise or the risk of discord.

When Stella came to visit him in in these years she found him fastidious still. Firewood was stacked neatly, and a shower was rigged outside. He painstakingly wiped down his fry pan after serving her a meal of cooked eggs, and fussed to organise his mail. By then, she had taken a path the reverse of his, leaving the islands for landlocked Hamilton, where she trained to be a nurse. When she came back and paid that visit, he was shocked, in disbelief she’d come all that way for him, just as his father had been when returned from the islands all those years ago.

Over those 10 years, Neale became a mascot for dreamers like himself. People sought him, travelled over oceans to learn from his example, perhaps hoping to see what their own dreams looked like in reality. Germans were particularly keen it seemed, and at one point he was filmed for German TV. And it was in the company of another man who sought islands, who had gone to the pacific to enact a fantasy, that Neale would end his days.

In March of 1977, the crew of a visiting yacht found Neale suffering stomach pains and a ship was diverted to take him back to Rarotonga. There his pain was diagnosed as cancer, and he was cared for by a specialist named Milan Brych. Infamous now, Brych was a Czech who had fled his own country for New Zealand after the Soviets had invaded. He could cure people, he claimed, with a method based on apricot kernels. It was a lie upon a lie – his qualifications were fake, he’d been in prison in the years he said he’d been studying. He was forbidden to practice in New Zealand, and travelled on to Rarotonga, where he set up shop again. People followed him there, New Zealanders and Australians, seekers too, hoping for their problems to disappear beneath the coconut palms. They would come to rest in what is known now as the Brychyard, not far from Neale’s grave in Rarotonga’s RSA cemetery, their graves recently restored after some were lost, washed away by the lap of rising seas. The vulnerability of islands.

Stella was with her father for two weeks before he died. She had heard he was ill and travelled back to Rarotonga, only to find him anxious that she not miss any of her studies on his behalf. Suspicious of Brych, she urged him to seek treatment in New Zealand, but he said that was the ratrace and refused to leave the islands. It was an awkward time.

Later she’d realise that he didn’t want her to see him unwell, but back then they formed a truce of sorts, him insisting again and again that she forget him and go back to her studies, and her agreeing to leave at the end of the two weeks she’d booked. It meant that she was back in New Zealand when she learnt he’d died and even then the news came late – he was already in the ground. Her epilogue doesn’t describe their last moment together, but it does include the story of another farewell, one from the visit she made to Suwarrow. She hugged him on arrival then, to his surprise. He was never an effusive man. When they posed for a photograph he stood rigid, her arm around him.

But it was when she was back onboard the ship, the engines pushing her away, back to Rarotonga, that he came down onto the beach with a cloth tied to a stick and waved it wildly. He waved it for as long as she could see him, as if only with the ocean widening between them could he show his love. And she waved too, grabbing a shirt from her bag. For as long as they could see each other they waved.


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