One Question Quiz
Pitcairn island (Image design: Archi Banal)
Pitcairn island (Image design: Archi Banal)

SocietyJanuary 29, 2023

Essay on Sunday: The sense-defying magic of the Pitcairn Islands

Pitcairn island (Image design: Archi Banal)
Pitcairn island (Image design: Archi Banal)

When you consider their remote location, perilous terrain and dark, sometimes ugly history, it seems incredible that anyone still lives on Pitcairn Island. But almost 50 people do and, as Graeme Lay discovers, they live very well. 

The supply ship Claymore II stands off the north coast of Pitcairn Island. She rolls in the swells; the water’s far too deep for her to anchor. From the mid-deck, we passengers peer toward the island. Someone points, shouts, “Here they come!”

Two aluminium longboats are heading towards the ship, disappearing then reappearing amid the swells.

Cabinless and broad-beamed, each of the longboats holds a crewman and a helmsman. Yellow buffers dangle from the boats’ gunwales like fat plastic earrings. The first boat is manoeuvred adroitly alongside Claymore II by its helmsman. Lines are thrown, the boat is tethered to the ship.

In the longboat is a petite, bare-footed woman wearing a T-shirt and shorts. She looks about 60. Leaping about constantly, she deftly catches our bags as the ship’s crew toss them down. We passengers line up at the railing gate. Both vessels are rolling, and I eye the longboat warily. One slip and a person would be crushed between the two.  I stand in the gateway, waiting nervously. The small woman holds up her hand. “Right, jump!” she commands, and I drop down into the longboat. After I steady myself, the woman shows me where to sit. Then she announces brusquely, “I’m Brenda. Brenda Christian.” She points to the man on the tiller. “And that’s Jay. Jay Warren. You must be Graeme.”

I sit on the thwart and watch the others follow, feisty little Brenda still leaping about like a jumping bean. And I’m wondering: How did she know my name?

Later, I find out that she has to know the name of every arrival on the island. Because, among other things, Brenda is Pitcairn’s immigration officer.

The helmsman guns the motor and we head towards Bounty Bay. The island’s rugged, cliffed features become clearer. The bush that covers the island is dense, but in places its slopes are gullied, exposing patches of ginger earth. I can see houses perching on a hillside, a road winding up a hill.

A wall in Bounty Bay shelters a landing from the ocean swells. The longboat rounds the mole and cruises up to the jetty. She’s secured to bollards by two burly, bare-footed men. At the top of a concrete slip is a wide boat-shed with a sign above it stating Welcome to Pitcairn. The island’s flag – dark blue with a Union Jack of Britain in one corner and a green coat-of-arms in the centre – and the full Union Jack, fly from poles alongside the boatshed.

Dozens of people have turned out to meet us: old men, young men, middle-aged women, a few children. The island’s dress code is obviously very informal: singlet, shorts, bare feet. Parked on the landing are mud-splattered quad bikes, along with cartons of all sizes, coils of rope, plastic canisters and gas bottles. Everything looks rough but functional.

After I disembark, a couple approach and introduce themselves, smiling broadly. My hosts, Charlene and Vaine Warren-Peu. Charlene kisses me, Vaine shakes my hand. He’s about 60 and bearded, Charlene is much younger, large and pale. Vaine scoops up my heavy suitcase as if it’s a bread roll and drops it into a big basket on the front of his quad bike; Charlene shows me where to sit on hers. Then we take off up the Hill of Difficulty, as Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian named it in 1790.

My host Vaine Warren-Peu, an apiarist. Pitcairn abounds in tropical flowers and honey bees. (Photo: Graeme Lay)

The name is apt. The hill road is twisting and very steep. As we grind our way upwards, I can’t help imagining the displaced Bounty men and women, in flight from the wrath of the Royal Navy, lugging all their worldly goods off their ship – clothing, crockery, cutlery, cordage, tools, muskets, ammunition – up a primitive track to … what?

Charlene’s quad bike continues up more steep, winding dirt roads before turning onto a long terrace. This is the property of the Warren-Peu family.

Their large house is surrounded by gardens and tropical shrubs and has a concrete terrace along the front. Vaine has built a self-contained unit on the property, to accommodate visitors like myself. The little unit also has a terrace. I walk out onto it. Below me is a lush vegetable garden, surrounded by banana palms, passion fruit vines and paw paw trees. There are 180-degree views of Pitcairn’s northern coast and the Pacific Ocean.

The view is astonishing.

The writer on a quad bike. (Photo: supplied)

Pitcairn is so high and solitary that there is nothing out there but the Pacific. From where I’m standing the curvature of the Earth is discernible, and from that curved horizon to the island there is nothing but dazzling blue. The intensity of the colour and the boundlessness of the sea emphasises the Pacific ocean’s enormity. Later, after darkness falls, I see that the sky is saturated with stars, more brilliant against the satin blackness than any I have ever seen before.

As well as growing their own vegetables, Charlene and Vaine keep chickens and goats. They also dry bananas and paw paws for export. Mainly though, they’re apiarists. Pitcairn abounds in flowering plants, and hence, honey bees. Vaine owns 50 hives, and the honey their bees produce is clear and pure, totally free of invading insect pests, one advantage of being many hundreds of kilometres from any other land. (That same isolation kept Pitcairn totally free from the Covid virus during the pandemic that afflicted the rest of the world).

Charlene proudly shows me a story from the London Evening Standard, reporting that Pitcairn honey is a favourite of Her Majesty the Queen and Prince – now King – Charles, and that it is sold in ultra-posh Harrods, in London.

The day after I arrive, a fellow traveller, Dave Evans, calls by and offers to give me a tour of the island on his quad bike. From Alaska, Dave lived and worked on Pitcairn as a geophysicist for several years, so knows every inch of the island. And he’s so respected here that the islanders named a landmark after him, a clifftop viewing platform, now called Evans’ Lookout.

Pitcairn influenced Dave’s life in other ways – he married a Pitcairn woman and was converted to Seventh Day Adventism. He’s also a strict vegetarian and gave up the booze. And now he’s determined to show me every inch of the island which was once his home.

The island is criss-crossed with unsealed, red-dirt roads. Crash helmets and roll bars are unheard of on the island, and I feel very vulnerable without these safety features as Dave’s bike bumps and grinds its way up to the crown of the island, with me hanging on grimly to the back rack. If earlier I thought the island’s topography looked rugged, I now discover that that this is an understatement. On its edges, it’s precipitous.

But it’s also obvious that its red earth is very fertile. We pass garden plots everywhere, clearings where there are plantings of paw paws, bananas, passion-fruit, limes, mangos, taro, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, sugar cane, breadfruit, corn and coconuts. Fletcher Christian and his Bounty fugitives must have relished the fertility of their island sanctuary. Combined with the surrounding ocean which teemed with fish, this guaranteed them an abundant supply of healthy food.

Everywhere too there are free-ranging chickens and goats. But uniquely in the Pacific, there are no pigs. They are unclean, the Seventh Day Adventist missionaries declared back in the 19th century, so the pigs were all destroyed.

Dave’s quad bike grinds its way to the top of the island, where the terrain opens onto an expanse of relatively level land called Taro Ground. This was formerly the site of Pitcairn’s radio station, which for years connected the island to the rest of the world. Antenna and radios transmitted morse code and voice messages from here to listening posts all over the world, and to any ships in the vicinity. The station’s function has been superseded by a satellite station that Dave helped establish. This facility means that Pitcairners can now easily and cheaply phone up anyone, anywhere in the world.

With me still hanging on tightly to the back of Dave’s bike, we reach Pitcairn’s highest point, 347 metres above sea level. Here a multi-directional signpost makes it even clearer that the island is a very long way from elsewhere. Wellington 5,333km, Sydney 7,493km, Paris 15,127km.

Dave points towards a long ridge.

“I’ll take you out there. It’s got great views.”

We ride out onto the ridge. It’s only about three metres wide and its surface is red gravel, with orange lantana flowers sprouting from it. On both sides the land falls away steeply; to our left to a rocky bay, to our right a deep, forested gully. I grip the bike’s rack harder. Studying a map of Pitcairn earlier, I saw that the place-names documented a litany of misfortune. Dan Fall, McCoy’s Dro’, Down the Hole, Break ‘im Hip. And the minimally stated but somehow even more ominous, Oh Dear.

Several of the Bounty’s people died after falling from the island’s high, unstable cliffs.

Only too aware of quad bike fatalities at home, I close my eyes and hang on. Then the bike stops. I open my eyes. We’re nearly at the end of the ridge.

The perilous edges of Pitcairn. (Photo: Graeme Lay)

“Can’t go any further on the bike,” Dave says, dismounting. “We’ll have to walk the rest of the way.”

I heave a sigh of relief.

We’re on the tip of the ridge. It’s like being on the prow of the Titanic. Ahead, and on both sides, the land plummets to the sapphire-blue sea. There are white-capped swells, reaching all the way to the horizon. It’s beautiful, terrifyingly beautiful. Dave pulls his cap down hard on his head against the wind. “Not a bad view, eh? Next landfall, South America.”

Back on the bike, we rock and roll our way up past more plantations to the eastern corner of the island.

From this easternmost point there are also glorious views of the ocean. This is St Paul’s Point. From here we look down on Big Pool, a tidal pond enclosed by jagged spires of basalt. The water’s translucent, the pool strikingly beautiful. Well-built wooden steps zig-zag down the cliff, making access to the pool straightforward. “These look fairly new,” I remark to Dave. He nods. “They are. They were built by the island men convicted of sex crimes, as part of their sentence.” A constructive way to “do time”.

We walk down to Big Pool. Gaps between the basalt pillars allow the ocean to pour into the pool and replenish its waters. It’s one of the few places on the island where swimming is possible. Dave points to a gap at one end of the Pool.

“A visitor was flushed out through there recently by the tide, and was only just pulled back.”

Everywhere on Pitcairn, it seems, perils lurk.

The Big Pool is one of the “safest” place to swim on the island. (Photo: Graeme Lay)

The ridges and headlands on this corner of the island are comprised of crumbly red scoria, making them hazardous. Dave tells me, though, that Pitcairners have no fear of heights. They climb down the cliffs regularly, to go fishing or gather seabirds’ eggs. A popular place near where we are is called Down Rope. The cliff here looks sheer to me, but the islanders go down and up it all the time, Dave says. “Like mountain goats.”

Although I have my own motel quarters, I take my meals with my host family. We eat well. The island’s staples are chicken, fish, fresh fruit, cake and huge desserts. Often other members of the extended family join us for meals, walking into the house bearing plates piled high with food. Pitcairn is not a weight-watcher’s island.

The language they speak is the Pitcairn dialect: an amalgam of Tahitian and 18th century Cornish and Cumbrian English. In dialect, Fletcher Christian becomes “Flatcher” and Pitcairn Island becomes “Pitkern Eye-lan”.

When Charlene apologises for speaking “Pitkern” in front of me, I say, “Please, don’t apologise, keep talking, it’s fascinating.”

Some common Pitkern phrases: “Wussing you bin do?” means “What’ve you been doing?”, “Bout you gwen?” means “Where are you going?” and if you’re asked to dinner they say, “Yourley come eit a weckle.” The word “weckle”, meaning food, features prominently in conversations.

Most evenings, I sit with the family as they watch CNN News live from the US. On this serene, beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we watch live broadcasts from some of the world’s most murderous locations: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. Often the irony is too much and I have to walk away.

The most conspicuous feature of the island’s houses is that they’re surrounded by debris: plastic canisters, timber off-cuts, lengths of rope, bits of corrugated iron, sheets of plywood, plastic tarpaulins, builder’s mix, outboard motor parts, rowlocks, oars. But it’s not trash, it’s stuff that’s kept lying around because one day it will be useful. On an island, and particularly an island as isolated as Pitcairn, nothing is thrown away. Everything’s kept or recycled. It might make the properties look like junk yards, but there’s method in the mess.

One morning I walk down the hill below Charlene and Vaine’s property until I reach a road running from right to left. It’s different because it’s concreted, and I realise I’ve come to the main street of the island’s capital, Adamstown, named after John Adams, the last survivor of the Bounty mutineers.

“Town” is something of a misnomer. It consists of a square, a post office, public hall, administration office, museum and the Seventh Day Adventist church. On the hall wall is a public noticeboard and in front of it, a crusty, blackened anchor and a swivel cannon. Both were salvaged from the wreck of the Bounty, a plaque informs me. I study the noticeboard (For Sale, quad bike, old but sound, $1,200; Computer, works well, $100).

I walk on, down a track lined with dense vegetation, then come to a newish-looking building, surrounded by a high wire fence. I’m puzzled. What’s the fence for? To keep goats out? Then, duh, realisation dawns. It’s Pitcairn’s prison, built in 2004 to accommodate the island men who were charged, then convicted, of historic rape cases. The accused men built the prison, then after being convicted, were awarded residence in it. But whenever a ship arrived off the island, the prisoners were let out, because they were the only ones who could work the longboats.

The sex abuse trials of the early 2000s traumatised the Pitcairn islanders. A tiny community, with virtually everyone related, how could it not be traumatising?  And with the aid of today’s sophisticated telecommunications technology, the world’s attention became focused on Pitcairn as never before. Its reputation was besmirched, internationally.

Now though, most agree, people have moved on. There has been reconciliation and forgiveness in the community. Everyone hopes that once again Pitcairn will be renowned primarily for its unique, Bounty provenance.

After a breakfast of cornflakes and paw paw one morning, Vaine says: “Like to come fishing today?”

“Yes, I’d love to.”

“Okay. We’ll go out this morning, in the government boat.”

He means one of the island’s longboats. It’s launched down the slipway at Bounty Bay and we climb aboard. On the tiller is Vaine’s father-in-law, Jay Warren, and in charge of the fishing lines is Randy Christian, Fletcher’s great-great-great-great-great grandson. His tall, powerful build, dark skin and black goatee give Randy a piratical appearance.

We round the breakwater, then power out into the ocean. The swells are strong but unbroken, the sea a very deep blue.

Randy tosses a hand-line overboard and we begin trolling. Then he points further out to sea and shouts: “Wheel! Wheel!” Puzzled, I follow his finger, then understand. “Wheel” is “whale”. And there it is, a humpback, breaching. Its massive body emerges from the water, followed by its huge fluke, and it spouts like a geyser. Jay takes the longboat within a respectful 20 metres of the creature, which spouts again, then submerges.

A few minutes later Randy yells, and hauls on his line. A strike. He begins to pull the line in, hand over hand. Vaine goes to the gunwale, gaff in hand, and hauls the fish aboard. It’s a wahoo, about 1.5 metres long. Deep blue along its backbone, its sides are striped, its nose very pointed. Vaine whacks it on the head with a spanner, blood spurts, the fish quivers, then dies.

The Bounty mutineers found the waters surrounding Pitcairn a rich source of food. The ocean teemed with  wahoo, tuna, marlin. Closer to the shore there was an abundance of smaller fish, and from the rocks, mussels, oysters and other shellfish. The sea became their larder, and fish a staple of the Pitcairners’ diet.

When we get back to the landing at Bounty Bay there are five wahoo in the bottom of our longboat. They’re big, about 30kg, and one by one they’re hoisted from the boat by the landing’s crane, then deftly filleted by Vaine. His share will go into the family’s freezer. He chucks the guts into a bucket, to be later dug into his garden to help fertilise his vegetables. A combination of rich soil, high temperatures and fish guts produces abundant crops of vegetables for the family.

Meanwhile, on the landing, indomitable little Brenda Christian is carefully dividing up the other boat’s fish catch, for distributing to the various island families. Another tradition which goes back to the late 18th century.

On Pitcairn, everything is shared. Especially food.

From many parts of Pitcairn Island, there is a landmark in the north-east of the island that draws the eyes to it, irresistibly. I’ve stared across at it, time after time. It’s a deep cavity in a dark rock face, resembling an eye socket in a blackened skull. It’s Christian’s Cave, the place where Bounty mutiny leader Fletcher Christian is said to have gone, alone, when he needed to contemplate his fate.

The man had much to contemplate. Primarily, the knowledge that he would have to remain on this island for the rest of his life and so would never see his family or friends in England again. After HMAV Bounty was burnt and scuttled, there was no means of escape. And if a Royal Navy ship ever found this island, Fletcher and his fellow-mutineers would be returned to England, tried by the Admiralty and after being convicted, sentenced to death by strangulation from a yard arm.

Determined to visit Christian’s Cave, I walk through Adamstown, then past a stand of huge banyan trees and on to Betty Christian’s house, which doubles as Flatcher’s Cafe. There I stop for a chat with Betty. A staunch member of the community, she and her late husband Tom used to run the radio station which was once Pitcairn’s sole source of communication with the outside world. Tom and Betty were both honoured by Queen Elizabeth II for their work, and the couple’s framed OBEs are proudly displayed in the house.

A fine cook, Betty also wrote Betty Christian’s Cookbook, whose recipes feature local ingredients, such as arrowroot and yams. She also has an extensive library which seems to contain every book that’s ever been written about Pitcairn.

After a cup of tea and a piece of Betty’s sponge cake, I walk on along the forested road. Then onto a track.

The track climbs, passes around a huge volcanic boulder, then opens out to a wide, sloping hillside of solid, raw rock. A signpost points upwards, in the direction of Christian’s Cave.

The track passes across the hillside and climbs higher. Far below me is a magnificent sweep of coastline, where there are hundreds of coconut palms, a rocky shoreline and the sapphire-blue ocean.

I stare down at this scene for some time, entranced by its beauty, then continue up the track. The solid rock surface gives way to a steep slope of red gravel, at the top of which lies my ultimate destination.

The pathway to the cave climbs higher and higher. Higher, and much steeper. It now becomes angled, and very, very steep. I can see the cave’s yawning mouth and its craggy portal, about fifty metres up ahead of me. A huge bluff looms over the cave. The problem now is that the track’s surface is so gravelly that my boots can’t get a decent grip on it. I skid rather than walk. I go down on my hands and knees, to see if that helps. It doesn’t, it’s just painful.

I stop, peer around, then freeze. Below me is a vast slope, hundreds of feet long; above me is the basalt bluff which dominates the cave entrance. I now have to decide: Go on? Or go back? If I go on, and reach the cave, I’ll have to somehow get back down. And if I lose my footing I’ll slide all the way down, hundreds of feet down, to certain death on the rocky shore. No thanks, I’m not an intrepid traveller. So, I inch my way down the slope, backwards, on all fours, thinking, Fletcher Christian must have been a good climber, if he did this regularly. But then he was a navy man, well used to going aloft.

Christian’s Cave, where Bounty mutiny leader Fletcher Christian is said to have gone to contemplate his fate. (Photo: Graeme Lay)

With great relief, I’m back at the Eco-Trail. Hot and thirsty, I carry on back to Betty’s house. When I tell her what’s happened, she’s perturbed, tells me sternly, “Oh, you must have a guide to get to the cave, it’s too dangerous otherwise.” I can only concur.

My time on Pitcairn Island is drawing to a close. I’ve explored the island from top to bottom, met most of its inhabitants, and written another draft of my novel based on the life of Captain James Cook, my writing inspired and sustained by the view of the South Pacific Ocean from my motel.

Now that I’m due to leave the island, I’m concerned that the supply ship Claymore II will not arrive on the appointed day to uplift me and the other visitors and take us back to Mangareva. From there we will fly back to Tahiti. My concerns intensify as the departure date draws nearer. From my motel unit high on a terrace, I find myself scanning the horizon for the ship. But she’s nowhere in sight. Now I’m seriously worried that the ship won’t come. If she doesn’t arrive, I’ll be stuck on the island for another four months, and as much as I’ve come to love Pitcairn, I’ve seen all there is to see, done all that needs to be done.

Then, the first thing next morning, there is Claymore II, standing off the north coast. She evidently arrived in the night. Relief.

Now the atmosphere on the island changes, markedly. Its usual easy-going ambience and languorous pace are replaced with earnestness and efficiency. An impetus begins to build.

The landing down at Bounty Bay, the island’s main port, seethes with activity and purpose. Quad bikes roar up and down the Hill of Difficulty, laden with goods – cartons of honey, boxes of frozen fish and fresh vegetables, food parcels for relatives in New Zealand.

Bounty Bay (Photo: Graeme Lay)

Just before Claymore II’s appointed hour of departure, midday, the whole population of the island comes to say goodbye to those leaving.

There are hugs all-round on the landing, and a big kiss for me from Charlene. Then we all pile into the longboat and it begins to roar out to the ship, with Jay again on the tiller.

The boat is crammed with locals as well as the departing visitors. Seeing the ship off is a ritual, obviously. And fortunately, sea conditions are favourable, with only a slight chop. In minutes we’re alongside Claymore II. Lines are thrown down and made fast.

Vaine and his children are in the longboat with us. Farewelling them all, my voice catches in my throat. Vaine gives me a hug. “Come back,” he says, his eyes as misty as mine. Randy Christian gives me a high-five; Dave wipes away tears as he farewells old friends.

One by one, we jump from the longboat and on to Claymore II. The lines are cast off, the longboat and the ship drift apart.

We passengers and crew gather on the ship’s mid-deck. The ship’s engines are thrumming, she’s keen to get away. The longboat circles her once, then does a high-speed drive-by, with everyone aboard waving wildly to us – another Pitcairn ritual.

As Claymore II makes way through the glassy sea, bound for Mangareva in French Polynesia, I watch the profile of Pitcairn Island become smaller until it melts into the sea.

Some places, when visited, are interesting at the time, but quickly fade from memory. Even photographs of them are hardly ever looked at again.

But there are a few special destinations that remain in one’s memory for years, that leave an ever-lasting impression. Pitcairn Island is such a place. Its blend of historical provenance, physical beauty and welcoming inhabitants make the island unique. It’s a place that for 232 years has witnessed everything: romance and tragedy, love and hate, passion and pathos, success and failure, trauma and tranquillity.

And I wonder, what does the future hold for remote, inimitable Pitcairn Island?

Like Gibraltar, Bermuda and other remnants of Empire, the Pitcairn Islands (there are four, but only Pitcairn is inhabited) are still a British Overseas Territory, and thus still subject to British law. However the continuation of this relationship also pays dividends for Pitcairn. The UK government underwrites many of the island’s costs, subsidising the supply ship, along with electricity, the health centre, schooling and other necessities.

The cost of all this to Britain is about $NZ 7m annually. Seven million dollars, today for fewer than fifty people, or about $160,000 for each person, every year.

Pitcairn’s permanent population has shrunk to fewer than 50 people, the size of a hamlet. It desperately needs more people. But few can get to the island, let alone live there. The resident population is ageing, markedly. The few young people have to leave for their tertiary education, in New Zealand, mainly, and most don’t return. The island’s economy is barely viable, kept on life support by infusions of money from the British Government on the other side of the world. Whose naval authority the first Pitcairners violently resisted, in 1789, then fled from. Logically, this situation cannot go on, I tell myself.

Yet Pitcairn is not logical, and I have the strong impression that the island will never die. There are too many people all over the world who remain fascinated by the mutiny on the Bounty and its extraordinary aftermaths: William Bligh’s epic voyage of survival in an open launch, Fletcher Christian’s search for, and discovery, of the island sanctuary, and all the Hollywood movies that followed.

If it were possible, hundreds of people would come to Pitcairn as tourists. But it’s an island that’s difficult, and costly, to get to. Although cruise ships now call in, bringing short-term visitors and much-needed income.

Surrounded by an ocean moat thousands of nautical miles wide in all directions, Pitcairn has an environmental purity that has successfully kept out everything undesirable, from Royal Navy authority to bee diseases and Covid viruses. There are many, many islands in the South Pacific, but none as special as Pitcairn. The few remaining residents on the island are aware of this and love the place, ardently. Betty Christian, now living in New Zealand for family reasons, still refers to Pitcairn as “home”.

I understand the feeling.

Keep going!