Views from Down Rope (Mark Stratton)
Article Words : Mark Stratton | 13 May

Welcome to Pitcairn: the far-flung British island you've (probably) never heard of

Settling into local life is inevitable when 'marooned' on the UK's furthest-flung island among the descendants of the Bounty mutineers – but it's also what makes Pitcairn unique

At Matavai Bay the incoming waves hurried through a gap in the reef before breaking on the chocolate-coloured sand. I sensed history in the warm breeze on a beach that, two centuries ago, saw one of the most remarkable travel stories ever told unravel.

It was 26 October 1788 and the HMAV Bounty had slipped through the reef to anchor in this northern Tahitian bay. The Bounty’s mission was to collect breadfruit saplings to transport to Britain’s West Indian colonies. Lieutenant William Bligh’s discipline had been so exacting that Tahitian life proved a hedonistic sojourn as the crew consorted with the island women and feasted well. Discipline had collapsed.

Weeks after departing Tahiti in April 1789, Fletcher Christian led the famous mutiny on the Bounty, seizing control of the ship and casting Bligh and his loyalists adrift. By a navigation feat to rival Shackleton, Bligh guided his men to safety in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Yet it would be nine further months before the mutineers reached the object of my own long journey: the British Overseas Territory of the Pitcairn Islands.

Pitcairn remains a distant, almost fictional quest. I had travelled first to radiant French Polynesia before truly sensing the Pacific Ocean’s immenseness during a further four-hour flight from Tahiti to Mangareva in the obscure Gambier Archipelago.

By this stage, a fellow passenger had introduced herself and slapped a seasickness patch on my neck. “I’m Nadine Christian,” she said. “You’re staying with us on Pitcairn”. The native New Zealander had married into Pitcairn’s historic Christian clan and settled there around 2002. This almost fictional island, whose remoteness I’d craved to experience since reading Mutiny on the Bounty as a child, seemed really very real. I was eager to see how life played out there.

HMS Bounty cannon (Mark Stratton)

HMS Bounty cannon (Mark Stratton)

A taste of paradise

In Mangareva, a cargo vessel (Claymore II) with six passenger cabins waited for us in a lagoon so blindingly turquoise that it dazzled me. Overlooking her mooring was a 19th-century twin-towered cathedral, while a woman by the waterfront sold mounds of black pearls.

Later that afternoon the Claymore II slipped beyond the reef’s protection for a boisterous 550-kilometre voyage south-eastwards, towards British territorial waters. During 32 hours of a swell that left my senses lolling like a hammock, I experienced empathy among this horizon-less ocean for the mutineers who spent months looking for an island that had been wrongly charted in 1767, when the British first sailed by, and thus made an ideal refuge – an island called Pitcairn. Fortunately for those not green around the gills, Linda, the Kiwi cook, had preempted any ‘Mutiny on the Claymore’ by providing ship-shape meals. Bligh could’ve done with Linda.

Midway through the second night, the engines finally cut. Through sleep-filled eyes I made out a shadowy lump to starboard in Bounty Bay, where the mutineers dropped anchor in January 1790.

Nadine was excited by first light. “That’s our house,” she exclaimed, pointing towards ‘Flatland’. “I wonder if my children can see me?” She’d been off island for three months, settling her eldest daughter into school in New Zealand, as Pitcairn has no secondary provision. She hadn’t seen her remaining three children or husband, Randy, an eighth-generation descendent of Fletcher Christian, since then.

Her four kids are among the few remaining on Pitcairn, where just 42 locals now live. The island is tiny, only a fragment of an undersea volcano at just 5 square km, and domed like a tortoise’s carapace. It is awash with mango trees and banana groves alongside endemic flora, while a sprinkling of homes dots the northern slope, above steep lava cliffs, lending a fortress-like aura of inaccessibility.

The mutineers scuttled the Bounty offshore shortly after arriving, partly in expectation that the Royal Navy would pursue them. They did. Yet Pitcairn’s nascent society remained undetected until 1808, when discovered by the whaling ship Topaz. By then, only one of the nine mutineers, John Adams, remained alive alongside the Bounty’s Tahitian women and the first generation of Pitcairn children.

Claymore II prepares to cast off from Rikitea (Mark Stratton)

Claymore II prepares to cast off from Rikitea (Mark Stratton)

A day in the life

On such a small island there is no choice but to live cheek by jowl with the Pitkerners, who were never anything less than welcoming. Coming here is like no other travel experience. It’s not a sightseeing holiday and there are few beaches. It’s about becoming part of an archaic community fashioned by trial and tribulation, where history and circumstance dictates everyday life.

Visitors are billeted with the islanders and I was soon comfortably ensconced in Flatland. My ‘granny flat’ had big views of the richly blue Pacific Ocean, and Nadine’s children – Ryan, Adrianna, and Isabel – wasted little time showing me the melon patch and citrus garden before we fed the goats with bananas plucked from the wild.

Two centuries of self-sufficiency has become habit here. Hot water, harvested from rain, is produced in a wood-fed copper boiler, though frozen food supplies are refilled by negotiation with the infrequent passing cruise ships. Among Pitcairn’s wild bounty is breadfruit, the green starchy globes Bligh sought, which are delicious both fried and mashed.

Like all islanders, Nadine wears many hats. “Life is hand-to-mouth,” she affirms: she’s an admin assistant, mows the lawns, runs the homestay and helps her husband sell wooden curios to visiting cruise ships, all fashioned in his workshop. She also coyly admits to having published five ‘bodice ripper’ novels. “They’re not as racy as Fifty Shades because I don’t call a penis a penis,” she laughed.

My first two tasks were essential. Eleven-year-old Ryan teaches me Pitkern, an idiosyncratic dialect of 18th-century English. When spoken quickly, it’s almost unintelligible.

Wussing you bin doing des day,” I asked?

I gwen start down landing narwhi,” replied Ryan, explaining that he’d been swimming.

Next up, my driving test. Hosts can loan one of the many quad-bikes the islanders use to bump around Pitcairn’s dirt tracks – “Nobody ever fails the test,” reassured Pitcairn’s duty policeman, Sergeant Trow. Thereafter I motored around an island of wild coasts, piecing together the craggy history simmering beneath Pitcairn’s surface.

The 'Down Rope' descent (Mark Stratton)

The 'Down Rope' descent (Mark Stratton)

'Down Rope' sign (Mark Stratton)

'Down Rope' sign (Mark Stratton)

A genuine cliffhanger

The island is hilly and richly forested yet the uninhabited southern backside is barer, with rust-stained patches of soil alongside naked black lava. The cliffs possess quirky names scarcely concealing past mishaps such as ‘Where Dick Fall’ and ‘Break Im Hip’ – another, ‘Oh Dear’, is reputedly Fletcher Christian’s last words when murdered.

Several hikes around the island’s extremities reveal how Polynesian traders settled here around 800 AD, long before the mutineers arrived. They established a trade route with Mangareva for Pitcairn’s fine-grained basalt, to create adzes (similar to an axe), and volcanic glass for cutting tools. The petroglyphs they left behind are located below hair-raisingly sheer cliffs, where I carefully avoided adding ‘Where Mark Fell’ to a geographical litany of woe.

Brenda Christian, Pitcairn’s barefoot immigration officer, took me on a particularly perilous descent called ‘Down Rope’. Only there is no rope. But it was no problem for the 64 year-old Brenda – sixth generation of Fletcher Christian and fifth generation by her mother of mutineer Edward Young – because she’s as agile as a mountain goat.

“I don’t miss the outside world,” she said. “I feel free here and have no restrictions,” she adds, revealing how she attended her daughter’s UK wedding wearing a long dress to hide her bare feet.

We clambered onto Down Rope’s sandy cove, fringed with pandanus trees, where rollicking surf pounded glistening coal-black boulders. The mayor, Shawn Christian, was down there, scavenging washed-up tyres. Tropicbirds and fairy terns flitted above a scalloped rock shelter etched with petroglyphs. We identified primitive human outlines – one resembled a jellyfish, and another, Brenda called the ‘Easter bun’. Their creators had vanished by the 16th century.

The mutineers also found stone statues but pushed them into the sea, she explained. But some Polynesian artefacts remain in Pitcairn’s tiny museum. I would visit later, but I awoke on my second morning to a frenzied kitchen at Flatland. Food was being made for a traditional communal dinner, held in honour of Adrianna’s 10th birthday. “Expect to leave Pitcairn 5kg heavier,” warned Nadine, whisking up a pavlova.

Sailor Bob points out petroglyphs at 'Down the Gods' (Mark Stratton)

Sailor Bob points out petroglyphs at 'Down the Gods' (Mark Stratton)

I ventured into Adamstown, which is barely a hamlet. Near the solitary grocery store, the communal area has a post office and a doctor’s surgery with a two-bed ward. In the museum, pride of place went to the Bounty’s anchor, salvaged in 1957, and among Polynesian adzes and cutting tools, I found there a veritable reliquary of Bounty paraphernalia, including sheathing tacks, ballast and a restored cannon. Little remains of its wreck off shore, which is possible to dive but the sea is often too rough. One of the museum’s most prized sights is Bligh’s bible, but I preferred the dripping vindictiveness of a vengeful list he had compiled profiling the mutineers.

He described Christian as: 24, ‘dark and swarthy’ and strong, then wrote rather unflatteringly: ‘He is subject to violent perspiration, particularly his hands, so that he soils anything he touches.’

Bligh underwent character assassination post-mutiny by Christian’s well-connected relations and subsequent Hollywood portrayals. I still detected some enmity towards Bligh here, whereas the islanders wouldn’t hear a bad word said against Fletcher Christian.

“There has been some bad blood down the years between the descendants of Bligh and us,” said museum attendant Carol Warren. Then she conceded, laughing, “I visited Bligh’s grave in London once and thought, ‘Well, you old bastard, if you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be here.'"

Brenda Christian shows off the island's petroglyphs (Mark Stratton)

Brenda Christian shows off the island's petroglyphs (Mark Stratton)

The grave of John Adams (Mark Stratton)

The grave of John Adams (Mark Stratton)

Looking to the future

Only the grave of the Hackney-born John Adams, who was the last male survivor of Pitcairn’s violent inception, can be seen today. The other mutineers’ remains were never found. By 1793, Pitcairn’s society had erupted in civil war; the Tahitian men brought to the island killed five mutineers in one day, including Christian, before they turned on each other. When Edward Young died in 1800, it left Adams alone with nine women and around two-dozen children.

I walked to where Adams’ headstone was enclosed by a picket fence. The weathered engraving is unreadable but he died naturally in 1829 and is buried alongside Teio, his Tahitian wife, and daughter, Hannah.

By then, Adams had become the island’s father figure, yet with his death Pitcairn endured more hard years. The population was wholly relocated 6,000-kilometres away by Britain to Norfolk Island in 1856 owing to few resources. Two of the descendents’ families, the Youngs and the Christians, returned soon after, to form the nucleus of today’s island names, alongside the Warrens. The Adams never came back.

I met a Warren descendent, 57-year-old island songwriter Meralda, at the Pulau School. I listened to her teaching the children local songs. Possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of her ancestry, Meralda explained her forebear, Samuel Warren, a whaler by trade, emanated from the USA and arrived on Pitcairn in 1864.

“The Warrens can be traced to the Pilgrims’ Mayflower in 1620,” she explained. Then, offering a different perspective on her ancestry, she added: “I’m the 6th and 7th Bounty generation of the Tahitian women Teio, Toofaiti and Vahineatua. We forget that without those women there would be no Pitcairn society.”

She, too, worries about their future lineage: “These four children are so precious because we’re all getting older. We’ve had people apply to live here but they’ve never arrived.” Yet I imagined breaking into such a close-knit society so intertwined by history must be difficult.

Adrianna Christian’s communal birthday dinner in Adamstown that evening reflected the best of island life and featured delicacies like pineapple bread. The whole island turned out, and I felt privileged to gatecrash this age-old community gathering. Yet seeing everybody reinforced how time is against Pitcairn. Soon, Ryan Christian would leave for New Zealand to continue his education, and Nadine won’t be encouraging him to return.

“This is an idyllic place for a child but not real life. There’s little in the way of jobs for our children,” she lamented.

Brenda and Isabela Christian (Mark Stratton)

Brenda and Isabela Christian (Mark Stratton)

Decks of the Claymore II (Mark Stratton)

Decks of the Claymore II (Mark Stratton)

“There’s 51 million displaced people in the world and we only need 50 of them,” suggested Leslie Jaques OBE, the island’s amiable former commissioner and now Pitcairn resident. He told me that as long ago as 1938, there were 233 islanders.

Leslie predicts ecotourism may hold a brighter future, and as the Claymore II anchored, I saw the sea teemed with tiny sharks. Pitcairn became part of one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas (834,000 square km of ocean) recently, with world-class shark diving and calving humpback whales. But there isn’t anything in place to exploit it yet.

During my remaining time, I narwhi (swam) in the sea, visited the Seventh-day Adventist’s Sabbath service (offering thanks for surviving a hike with Brenda called ‘Down the Gods’) and sought out Ms T, a Galápagos tortoise that arrived in the mid-20th century aboard the brigantine Yankee. She devours cucumbers and melons at a mean rate.

The indefatigable Brenda also took me to Christian’s Cave, a sheer scramble up a gritty volcanic flank for a view spanning half the island and off shore, to where the Claymore II rocked on a liquid mercury tide.

“Island folklore says Fletcher Christian came here to look out for Bligh because he suspected he’d send ships after them,” said Brenda. “He foresaw trouble, so told his Tahitian wife, Maimiti, about this secret cave, so the women could hide.”

Fletcher Christian sensed Pitcairn faced turbulent seas ahead. Hewn from mutiny, resilience, feuds, isolation and an unlikely dream, I had temporarily lived the islanders’ relaxed sense of ‘us against the world’ freedom amid an all-pervading pressure-cooker of an intense history. For just a few days I became a footnote in that remarkable history that imbued in me a new sensation of being part of something very unique.

Down at the ‘Landing’ the Claymore II was ready to depart and would not return for three months. I was the last passenger to arrive at the jetty on my quad. I didn’t want to leave so soon, and the sea looked mutinous. Thankfully, Nadine’s parting gift was another seasickness patch.

St Paul natural pool (Mark Stratton)

St Paul natural pool (Mark Stratton)

Getting outside in Pitcairn

1: Whale-watching

Superb opportunities exist for seeing humpbacks breaching and calving during whale-watching season (March-October), with the largest numbers spotted from May onwards. Boat trips are available.

2: Hiking

From Adamstown, there are good walks (two hours each way) to both Tedside’s Western Harbour and the magical St Paul’s pool.

3: Wild swimming

Locals mostly swim at The Landing, which is like a wave pool, but St Paul’s is special; a sublimely gorgeous natural pool, it can be dangerous due to wave-driven tides.

4: Diving

There is basic equipment available to dive the remains of HMAV Bounty and the sunken HMS Cornwallis. Take precautions, as conditions can be treacherous.

The Trip

The author's sea passage, accommodation and activities were arranged through the Pitcairn Island's tourism coordinator (tourism@pitcairn.pn), a useful first port of call for prospective travellers.

Accommodation

Travellers will need to book a stay in Tahiti (French Polynesia) when flying to and from Mangareva. Manava Suites Hotel (Tahiti: +689 40 473100) is a beach hotel with huge rooms and sea views at Puna’auia, close to Fa’a International Airport.

On Pitcairn, Flatland (pitcairngirl@hotmail.com) offers a lovely annex flat with kitchen and veranda; all meals are included, as is a fridge stocked with drinks.

For all accommodation options on the island, visit www.visitpitcairn.pn.