You Can't Get There From Here

Trip to the Pitcairn Islands (Part 3 of 5)

by Lynn and John Salmon

Back to Part 1 or Part 2

June 10, 1997 (Pitcairn Island)

We visited Meralda Warren, the island police and immigration officer in the morning to have our passports stamped. She lives with her parents, Mavis and Jacob and keeps busy designing artwork and dying t-shirts.

We chatted for a while with Meralda and looked over the recent immigration register. Pitcairn's visitors are quite an international collection. Occasionally there is a large group on one day, corresponding to the cruise ships that still visit. Most of the entries are yachties, though. They arrive one or two at a time, stay for a short time and leave. We later learn that the Pitcairners have mixed feelings about the yachties. Some, like Frank, try hard to help out the islanders by offering to take passengers to Mangareva, or to trade supplies to mutual advantage. Their contribution is valued, and their company is prized.

Unfortunately, it seems that quite a few yachts arrive at Pitcairn in sorry shape and with a bad attitude. Perhaps they didn't adequately prepare for a trans-pacific voyage. Perhaps they view the Pitcairners as uneducated "natives" to be taken advantage of. Frequently, they have little or no money or supplies to trade, and they "demand" to be resupplied with flour, milk and other staples that Pitcairn itself must have imported. This places an unreasonable burden on the incredible hospitality that the Pitcairners naturally offer, and creates a certain amount of tension. Fortunately, Pitcairners have not become cynical about visitors, and we are welcomed with open arms.

We visited the school (see photos) and museum. They are attached, and one has to ask at the school to get the key to the museum. When we arrived, the kids were in class, but one of them came out to let us into the museum. The museum is all in a single room. It has a great collection of odds and ends. A natural history department has photos and some specimens of the endemic flora and fauna of the Pitcairn islands (including Henderson, Ducie and Oeno). There is also a National Geographic department, with copies of all the issues of that magazine that include photos and descriptions of the island (quite a few). We find a picture of Tom Christian (who we will soon meet) in one of them. There is some old machinery (always fascinating) for grinding arrowroot into flour, a collection of stamps, cannonballs and other fragments from the Bounty, etc.

The museum also has a collection of letters, contracts and other written memorabilia. Apparently, Pitcairn has an incredibly complex system of land ownership. Despite the fact that islanders form a tighter community than any I have ever encountered, they also fiercely maintain their property rights to land for farming and building. Due to the tight intermixing of bloodlines, it is quite common for multiple parties to honestly believe they have inherited a parcel of land from a common forebear - a situation that sometimes leads to disputes that are resolved by the Island Council. Many of the contracts on file at the museum concern ownership and use of land.

There is also a bound copy of the extensive genealogy done by P.J. Lareau and we located Dobrey (Verna Carlean Deborah Young, born Jan 23, 1923), as well as the grandfather of Benoit, the inn-keeper in Mangareva.

[School on Pitcairn Island] [photos]

The school teacher, Barry Baronian, and his wife Debbie have been posted here from NZ and are finishing up a 2 year stretch. The kids had lunch at 11:30 and a few of the bolder ones came to talk to us. By noon we're an accepted commodity and we were invited in for play time. Mike already knows the oldest and youngest students. Adelia (13) and Ariel (6) are both children of Dave and Lea Brown with whom Mike is staying. It feels like a school full of Huckleberry Finns and Becky Thatchers - shoe-less, boisterous and more likely to be the subject of a book than reading a book. At 1:00 they were going to show the Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins version of the Bounty movie but we declined to stay. In addition to viewing the movie they were going to have discussion and talk about their roots and relevance to the island.

We walked back to Dobrey's place with Mike in tow and as soon as we rolled up food started appearing and we all ate lunch. Before coming to Pitcairn we read accounts of the great hospitality and copious quantities of food and we are certainly finding the descriptions completely accurate when it comes to Dobrey and most others we meet on the island. Mike's description of Dave's place is a bit different. Dave Brown is a likeable, though foul mouthed guy. In many ways, he's just a regular bloke, who would be comfortable on a bar stool in any working man's pub in England or New Zealand. But providing a daily feast for visitors is just not one of his strong suits. Dobrey is not surprised that Mike has decided to join us for lunch, and in fact, whenever Mike mentions that he's staying at Dave's, the other islanders usually offer him something to eat, or invite him for dinner.

After lunch, we took another walk along the main road and turned down the path near the clinic. Just as a downpour of rain began, we popped into the nearest house, that of John and Yvonne Chan the pastor and medical officer, respectively.

Although not native Pitcairners, they have adopted the traditional Pitcairn hospitality, and we stayed for a cuppa' and chatted for a while. John Chan shoots video and takes a lot of photographs and showed us some of his pictures. He has an impressive video of the last supply ship which arrived during terrible seas. As the longboat left Bounty Bay a huge wave swept under it and sent it vertical, very nearly capsizing it. It must have been quite a ride for the crew. It also gave the crew of the second boat something to think about as they set out, but they had better luck with the waves, and their roller-coaster ride wasn't quite as spine-chilling. This was a few weeks ago, and while they were able to get some of the supplies unloaded, conditions were too rough, and they had to give up before the rat poison could be off-loaded.

John Chan also gave us some rocks that he mounts on little cards with a legend,

A little bit of Pitcairn Island
May this volcanic rock remind you of Jesus - the Rock of our Salvation. Pitcairn Island Seventh-day Adventist Church

The Chans' son just had a baby in Australia, but John and Yvonne had yet to see the baby, or even a photo. They were expecting a faxed photo any day now. Pitcairn has recently installed a radio telephone that operates for a couple of hours each day. The tariff is very high (I think Mike payed about US$20 for a 1 minute call to Canada), but for important communications like a baby-photo or a brief "all's well, wish you were here," it's a wonderful alternative to the three-to-six-month delay associated with sea mail.

The Chans showed us some books that they were given by other visitors. One of them was a children's book written from the perspective of a Chilean child who was adopted by a French couple. The child was an orphan, living on the streets when he was adopted by the yachties. Since his adoption he has been to Antarctica, the coast of Chile, Easter Island, Pitcairn and beyond. The photographs are beautiful, and the story is touching. But for sheer photographic splendor the book produced by some German yachties can't be topped. These people have been traveling around the world for a few years, and have some of the most spectacular photos I've ever seen of Antarctica. No surprise, since their boat was stranded in the ice and then destroyed by fire, but they elected to stay the winter anyway!

We walked back toward Dobrey's and were met by Rick and Del on an ATV and got a ride the rest of the way. Rick and Del and their 2-year old daughter Helena stayed for dinner and Dobrey brought out another feast. Chicken, leg-o-lamb, 2 kinds of fish, salads, bread fruits, peas, cabbage, beans and more.

We learn that Rick works for the engineering company that supplies Pitcairn with diesel engines, and various other pieces of heavy equipment. He's here on a six month assignment doing general repair work on Pitcairn's infrastructure, as well some education so that future repairs can be carried out locally rather than importing an engineer, or exporting the equipment.

We talk some about life on the island. Despite having a permanent population of about 30, the island still maintains an active, and occasionally controversial, representative legislative body. The Island Council has 10 members. It seems that no matter how far one gets from modern civilization, one still can't escape politics.

Just recently, the council decided to repeal Pitcairn's longstanding ban on the importation of alcoholic beverages. This was a highly controversial decision that split the island mostly along age lines. The ban had been widely disregarded by many of the younger residents anyway, who frequently traded handicrafts and fresh fruit for alcohol with passing ships. The ban also resulted in some strange-sounding phenomena, like a special clause in Rick's contract that allowed him to import alcoholic beverages for his own consumption.

June 11, 1997 (Pitcairn Island)

We got a bit of a surprise soon after getting up this morning. Frank and Kialoa are ready to set sail for Henderson Island. We weren't expecting to leave for at least a couple of more days. The sun was just coming out for the first time and we were planning on a pleasant day knocking about the island.

Cynthia called on the radio and summoned us to Carol and Jay's place for a meeting. Intra-island communication is usually by radio. Every home has a radio constantly tuned to channel 16. When you want to call someone, Tom, for example, you pick up the microphone and say: "Tom, Tom, Tom - channel five", and if Tom is within earshot of a radio, he goes over and switches to channel five, where you can have a conversation that doesn't bother everybody else on the island. This system has replaced the island telephone system - another fascinating study in technology adoption. All homes also have a telephone with a hand-cranked ringer connected to a party line. Everyone has a distinct sequence of rings, e.g., three short and two long might mean Tom. You turn the crank the appropriate number of times for the person you're trying to call, and they pick up if they are within earshot.

Cynthia isn't too clear on what is really happening on Kialoa. It seems something happened with the anchor chain during the night, and after pulling it up Frank was eager to get under way rather than remaining tied up in the rough seas off Pitcairn. We can understand how rough it must be out on the boat for Frank and Adrian, but we're just not ready to leave yet.

At Carol and Jay's we formalized our visit to Pitcairn by paying the landing and immigration fees. I thought it was cheap at $25 but it turned out to be NZ$25 or only US$18.

A few others were gathered at Jay and Carol's mulling over whether to go to Henderson or not. One idea had been that some of the Pitcairners would accompany us in the longboat and use the opportunity to collect miro-wood for their carvings. Henderson is far enough that it isn't safe for a single longboat to go alone, and it takes most of the islands able-bodied men to crew both of them simultaneously. Thus, Kialoa's visit to Henderson was a real opportunity for the Pitcairners. Unfortunately, the imminent return of the supply ship, carrying the rat poison that couldn't be off-loaded last time, means that the men have to stay on Pitcairn, and can't join our expedition to Henderson.

Frank has offered to take anyone who wants to join us to Henderson. Many of the island visitors - including the Rat Pile, are considering joining us. Opinion on whether we should go to Henderson is mixed. Some people (especially Graham and Ed) think that a visit to Henderson is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can't be missed. Others think it's a rather inhospitable place, of interest mostly to specialists in botany or ornithology (i.e., folks like Graham and Ed). We leave Carol and Jay's still unsure what we will do, but knowing that we have to make a decision in the next couple of hours.

Mike decided to stay on Pitcairn - Henderson hadn't been his goal anyway. We are having a major crisis of decision-making. Visiting Henderson had been the impetus for our entire journey. But now that we've seen Pitcairn we are not ready to leave. Rob Abblett, the Englishman, was waffling and John and I started debating the merit of it too.

To pass the time, we took a walk and went up to the school with some gifts we had brought from home: a game of Twister and 4 frisbees. Although the school had a large collection of games, Twister didn't seem to be among them and was an immediate hit with the children. We talked to Barry some more and found out he really wanted to go to Henderson. We also discussed the Pitcairn Miscellany and how much work it was to publish each month. It's his and his wife's job at the moment.

We left school and stopped by the house with the Rat Pile. Ed and Maddie are keen to go to Henderson as are some of the others but with the expected arrival of the rat poison in a couple of days most of them must stay to work.

After much soul searching, we decide that John will go on to Henderson, while Lynn will stay behind on Pitcairn. This way, we rationalize, at least one of us will get a proper look at Pitcairn, and the other will get to visit Henderson. The plan is for the Henderson trip to take three days, which should give John a chance to see Pitcairn when they return.

[Randy at the edge of St. Paul's Pool]

We went back to Dobrey's and ate and packed up. Randy then gave us a ride on one of the ATV's up and over to St. Paul's Pool. Although the plan is for John to return to Pitcairn, we are assuming that this may be his last chance to look around the island if weather conditions are poor on his return. St. Paul's is a rock formation protecting a coral-filled pond with occasional surf splashing over the rocks. At high tide, the surf comes crashing over the rocks and the pool becomes a turbulent cauldron of mixing currents. At low tide, it's a beautiful placid swimming hole, where Pitcairn children and grandmothers can enjoy a cool refreshing dip. It was a beautiful spot with a slightly perilous climb down. The roads are also extremely steep, and on several occasions we had to lean forward on the ATV so it wouldn't flip over backwards. During one of these maneuvers I notice a safety warning placard on the fender: "do not carry passengers". On Pitcairn, the ATVs carry 3 or more people on a regular basis and John Chan admitted to taking up to 8 people at once.

When it was time for the Henderson party to depart many islanders came down to see them off. Eleven people have decided to go to Henderson (recall that Kialoa sleeps 10!) . They are Frank, Cynthia, Adrian, Dalreen, John, Ed, Maddie, Keith, Rob, Barry and Barry's son Haron.

While standing around at the dock, I met Daphne's son Pawl whose specialty is bone carving. He uses cow bones, but he'd really like to get a hold of some whale bone. His children Mason, Candice and Pania were also there to see everyone off.

There was a lot of futzing about, not by the Pitcairners who are generally very prompt. When they say dinner is at 6, dinner is at 6:00:00 and if the post office opens at 7 it opens at 7:00:00. On the other hand, they don't stand on formality, so Dennis is happy to open the Post Office other times to make it convenient for visitors. The result is very relaxed and casual as well as prompt and efficient.

[Henderson Party ready to depart in the longboat]

Ed and Graham had to go to the Te Manu and get some charts and possibly other stuff and they brought the Te Manu around where we could see it. Now the Te Manu, the Kialoa, a longboat and a dinghy are all just outside Bounty Bay. Eventually the awaiting passengers in the longboat got transferred into a dinghy and then on to Kialoa. It was an hour or more before this happened and I didn't keep a keen eye out the whole time. It also started raining and we watchers all ducked back in for cover under the longboat shed. When Randy got back I heard that John missed the dinghy from the longboat and ended up in the ocean. Randy seemed to think it pretty funny so John must be all right.

I got a ride up the Hill of Difficulty to Dobrey's and watched a bit more from the porch but Kialoa didn't seem to be going anywhere. We had a cup of tea and then walked to the post office. It was busy. Everyone on the island was mailing letters and curios for tomorrow's supply ship since the next one won't be until September. Three people were working at the Post Office. Dennis, the postmaster, Mavis, the assistant postmaster, and Pawl was in back sorting packages. Stamps costing NZ 20 cents will send my letters anywhere in the world.

Randy showed up with Dobrey's heavy packages and gave us a lift back to her place where we had dinner. Still plenty of food. I don't see her cooking constantly so I'm not sure quite how it all appears with such ease. After dinner I had a shower even though the largest spider I have ever seen was roving in the bathroom. Dobrey is busy writing letters. The post office is open one more time before the supply ship comes tomorrow.

Follow John's Henderson Island saga.


Stay with Lynn on Pitcairn Island.

Lynn and John Salmon <>{