Leaving Pitcairn was not easy. Three days before my departure, it hit me. I was leaving. I was returning to the outside world. I was returning to the unknown, to strangers, to mobile phones, to unlimited internet, to roads, to news and deadlines and utility bills. It was one of the few times in my life that I have felt scared.
It was not just my return to ‘real life’ – I use that term loosely, as Pitcairn has led me to question what is real on more than one occasion – but also the idea of goodbye. Goodbye is a word that rarely rings of permanence. These days, with cheap travel, Facebook, email, etc, we all live in a state of constant flux. Nothing is concrete apart from our own transience – our lives are international, spanning time zones and languages. Leaving Pitcairn is quite different. Saying goodbye had a permanence that made me feel uncomfortable – partly because it is a concept so at odds with my own experience of reality.
In the three days preceding my departure, a feeling of impending dread started to creep in. My world had shrunk to a 2 mile by 1 mile lump of rock – my patterns and behaviours dictated by the roads down to Adamstown, by shop hours, post office times, the VHF announcing the arrival of yachts. I had melted into island life, and I could no longer remember who I was before it, and nor could I imagine how I would be after it. I now know how people can get stuck there, or how certain behaviours become normalised – because if two or three people on an island of 40 behave in a certain way, that defines normal. Each person has an influence that ripples throughout the island, one word can cause a tsunami. The islanders have, however, become a kind of extended family. Some despise me, some have taken me in, some have offered refuge against the turning tides of opinion. Many have surprised me.
Youngest person on Pitcairn island
It is difficult to explain, but even in hostility there can be comfort. There is comfort in familiarity, and on Pitcairn, it is such a small bubble that you get to know a person’s peculiarities quickly. You get to learn that buying AA batteries in the store will provoke a vulgar joke, and you come to expect it, and perhaps even miss it when it doesn’t come. I know now what sets a person off, and how to avoid it. I know which buttons to press should I want to get a rise. I have probably spent a greater proportion of my life with some of the people on Pitcairn island than I have with many of my closest friends out there in the world. They are not all people I would choose, but necessity had thrown us together, and with some pushing and pulling, we have, for the most part, learnt to coexist.
I realise now that I had the odds stacked against me from the outset. I knew that the island hated journalists, but I somehow expected that more people would Google me, realising that I wasn’t one, and instead finding a bunch of Polaroids of lighthouses. I thought that would change things. When it didn’t, I tried talking to people, offering to show my work. That didn’t work either and the suggestion was usually met with derision – as one islander commented “I know what you do, I don’t need to see it”. Of course they had no idea, but on Pitcairn opinion can become fact in the blink of an eye. When an island and identity is so built by myth, why should my identity be any different?
I didn’t realise quite why I was so demonised until the last 10 days, when the Claymore returned, bringing with it a raft of visitors. Some were country collectors, and would have been happy to have stood on the soil, collected the passport stamp and left again, some were adventurers who just wanted a different sort of experience, and some were artists and filmmakers. It was this latter cohort that most intrigued me. I watched with interest as they fled from the landing in a convoy of quad bikes, wondering what they would take away from this craggy lump of rock. After a couple of days, it transpired their experience was quite different from my own. They were almost glowing. The islanders are ‘so friendly” they exclaimed. “Hmm” I thought to myself.
I was puzzled. The very people who had, and have continued, to avoid my lens and talking to me, seemed to be the very same people performing for others’ cameras. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became, until I had – at 3am as is so often the case – an epiphany of sorts. I was a long stay visitor, a female long stay visitor no less. I fit the profile of the island’s two least popular long stay visitors almost exactly – unfortunately for me. I followed in the footsteps of the universally despised Kathy Marks, author of Trouble in Paradise, and the equally loathed Dea Birkett, author of Serpent in Paradise, the latter of which had, according to islanders, arrived under false pretences, pretending to work for the post office while actually writing a book. This book had been cited in many of my showdowns – on one occasion Dave Brown (island nickname “Mouth”) brought it up point blank, saying over morning tea that he was sure I was “another Dea Birkett”.
Bounty replica made by postmaster Dennis (aka “Sambo” Christian)
After my epiphany, it transpired that the short stay visitors who came in with the Claymore held several distinct advantages, the first that should have been glaringly obvious was that there were males in the mix, handsome males at that. The women who had escaped me like mercury (and could be just as poisonous) fawned for the cameras and fluttered their eyelashes. By comparison, I had nothing to give.
I think I may have mentioned it before, but the island lives through different psychological phases depending on the proximity of the supply ship. When the Claymore leaves at the end of its runs, the island reverts to its working state. It battens down the hatches, closes its doors, wipes the “hypocriting” smile off its face and reveals its true colours, warts and all. There were no longer enough people to warrant the performance, the long stayers would get to know reality soon enough, so why bother to mask it? The public shows of community dry up, the polite dinners evaporate, and life returns to normal. Having now witnessed the full cycle of the Claymore, I have now experienced both versions of Pitcairn ‘reality’ – the party thrown for tourists and officials, and the other – the Pitcairn in survival mode which lets its unsightly belly flop around from beneath a too small Pitcairn Island vest.
It is a clever scheme on the one hand – by appearing generous and open to short stay visitors, the myth of Pitcairn being the idyll of community is protected. The islanders can continue to believe their own hype. The island’s fans receive their positive affirmation. The legend continues. Pitcairn remains quaint – a South Pacific pet. On the other hand the smoke and mirrors may contribute to the island’s downfall – if you can’t identify a problem how can you isolate and solve it?
It is only those rare few who ever visit for a long haul that can experience what Pitcairn is really like. I had wondered why the islanders would risk my own negative experiences escaping into the world and tarnishing their image, but then I realised that the balance is always tipped in their favour, that the mythical and romantic image that has been cultivated for the last two centuries will outlast anything I could ever say or do. That every Claymore run brings in more tourists who leave believing the hype that has been created for them. It is their voices that will be remembered, for they fall into step with the power of wishful thinking.
Having said all this, I can’t deny that the process of saying goodbye to Pitcairn was painful, and reached a crescendo on the weekend of my departure.
Steve and Olive Christian’s fridge
The day before I left, the Saturday, was an uncharacteristically busy Sabbath on Pitcairn. Hosts were delivering their guests final wishes and requests, and a new pastor had arrived on the island from Moorea on the Thursday. Saturday would be his first service, and a community lunch was planned at the square to welcome him. This meant that Keane, a church elder (Pawl Warren’s father) would be stepping down and handing over, much to many islanders’ (and Keane’s) relief. I had mentioned my own departure wish to Keane, making a special request that the Sweet Bye and Bye be sung in church as the hymn, and so was committed to attending church.
I have never been a churchgoer, but on Pitcairn I have been a few times. It’s something to do, and a social occasion, and it feels nice that there is one place where you can, theoretically, leave animosity at the door. The Sweet Bye and Bye, taken from the Seventh Day Adventist hymnal is about as close as you can get to the Pitcairn national anthem. It has been sung numerous times since my arrival, usually on special days like ANZAC, or VE-Day. It is intrinsically linked with departure, and would sometimes be sung aboard cruise ships along with the hello and goodbye songs. When the community gets together to sing it, lyrics sheets are cast aside and the full force of the voices can bring a tear to your eye and cause the hairs to stand up all over your body. When the bass voices split off from the chorus and echo the refrain, something magical happens and the sound engulfs you – you can almost believe, in that fleeting moment, that there is hope. If I have ever seen a true semblance of togetherness on Pitcairn, it is within the unbridled singing of the Sweet Bye and Bye.
I had thought that Keane would forget. But after I had sat in the second row, sharing Daphne’s hymnal throughout a long, in fact double length, service – part taken by Keane and part by the new pastor, Keane’s parting gift took me by surprise. “By popular request” he said, as he stood down from the lectern and caught my eye, “the Sweet Bye and Bye”. It seemed fitting – for he too would now be taking a back seat. Though I had hoped it was coming, I was caught a little off guard, and Daphne turned around and flashed me a broad and comforting smile. She held out the hymnal for me, and we both clutched it tightly though we both knew the words – it was her way of holding my hand through it, because on Pitcairn that wouldn’t have been the done thing. There was a Danish film crew, who had been on the 4 day stint filming the whole service, and I did try to hold it together. But suddenly the fact that I felt that the community were behind me, despite the rocky road I had travelled, brought me to my knees. For those few minutes, the whole of my Pitcairn experience flashed in front of me, and Keane and Daphne’s kindness reverberated through me. I hadn’t realised how important they had become until that moment. They have been my island grandparents, and a major part of my own Pitcairn tapestry.
After church, I sat in the pews unravelled. Most people had cleared out, only Jacqui remained, playing the electric organ for a member of the Danish film crew. The pastor approached me and checked that I was ok. He seemed a kind man, and said I could always call on him or his family should I ever find myself in Moorea. After I pulled myself together I walked out of the church for the last time, having waited until the usual crowd had left the square and I could make a clean exit. I headed blindly to Merelda’s house which sits just behind the Public Hall for a few minutes of sanctuary. We haven’t always had the easiest relationship, but at the end things seemed ready to thaw, and I knew it was one of the last places anyone would expect to find me, not least myself. I took refuge from the rain, and soon Merelda had left taking her Japanese house guest off for a final island tour in full waterproofs, and her mother Mavis had wandered down to the pastor’s lunch. I was left alone in the rain on their porch, watching the water run from the roof in streams like a kind of pathetic fallacy, reflecting my mood. I noticed for the first time a double handled long saw hanging over the entrance way spanning its breadth. The irony didn’t escape me.
As I was gearing up to leave and reaffix my staunch mask of unflappability, Mike appeared on foot en route to the lunch. “I’m glad I’ve run into you” he said. He thrust a plastic bag towards me, which turned out to be a going away gift – some jars of honey, a map, and some chocolates for my journey as well as some tissues – “I thought you might need those tomorrow”, he added. There are some relationships on the island that have been quite unexpected, and at the end, it has been these unprovoked acts of kindness that have let me know that my presence has mattered, that I have been valued by some, and that perhaps I have done some good, even if it was just a small amount, even I just helped to fight the loneliness for one person and just for one minute. As Mike said as he walked off, there is “something about Pitcairn that gets under your skin”.
For that 24 hours, every little thing would set me off. I had the best intentions of making a goodbye tour, of going around and saying individual goodbyes to those who had mattered most. But when it came to it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had wanted to see Daphne and Keane properly, to see Irma, to see Nola and Reynold, to see Royal. The older generation that have, after ups and downs in some cases, been my salvation. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just a matter of time – of the usual chaos that descends upon departure – but rather that I couldn’t bring myself to look in their eyes and know, deep down, that I would never see them again. I couldn’t trust myself not to break down in a heap.
Goodbye. When Goodbye really means goodbye.
I know for instance, that in ten years time, most of the people I have been closest too will be dead and gone. The people in the next age tier down will have taken their place – Olive and Brenda, for example, will be the age Daphne is now. Vaine, my most recent host, will be nearing 80. Without repopulation, the island’s demise seems certain, and despite the number of settlement enquiries going through to the immigration email address, no applications have resulted in settlement.
The island I know will cease to exist. That is an inevitable truth. When each personality is felt so acutely, one loss is not just a personal loss, but a chunk taken from the island’s fragile identity. One new settler could change the dynamic drastically. There is perhaps nowhere on earth that is at once so adverse to change but so defined by the passage of time.
In every Pitcairn home there is a staunch yet subtle reminder of this – for in every home, you will find a ticking clock. Not just any ticking clock, but as if by communist issue, it is the same clock that graces their walls – bought in bulk by the warehouse, and resold to islanders. It’s a black rimmed, Chinese made, white faced Quartz clock. The type you find in pound shops. It has a loud and familiar tick that permeates your consciousness and follows you seamlessly as you move between houses, a pulse, a heartbeat. It is impossible to forget time on Pitcairn. Though the name Pitcairn conjures visions of Arcadia or Utopia, places where time stands still, it is only the myth that eschews time. There are probably more clocks on Pitcairn per capita than anywhere else in the world, and time marches on relentlessly, the only constant in an uncertain future.
The costs of reaching Pitcairn as they currently stand are too prohibitive to contemplate revisiting. It is now, at my departure, that I also understand what isolation means. When I arrived, I was caught up in the getting here. Over the last three months I have been wrapped up in being here. But now, leaving, I wonder about the future – about whether I could ever come back, about what will happen when I leave. I know this life so well, that I can tell you what each person is likely to be doing at any given hour over the coming week, month, even year. But while time matches forward, underlying it all deep change will rip this community apart, probably while no one notices. On departing, I now know this to be true. I try to imagine all the ways that I could ever find myself back here, all the routes and possibilities, and at each one I see a dead end, and I know in my heart of hearts that my experience has been finite. Even if there were no temporal or financial restriction to my return, this island will never be the same again.
It sounds ridiculous, but I will miss the daily challenges. Wondering whether today will be a good day, or whether I’ll find myself crying in the disused Sabbath school building at the left hand corner of the square tucked in behind the church, the only place where I can be sure no one would look for me. I will miss the fact that you only have yourself to rely on, that no one stands up for you in public. Pitcairn has taught me hat I am tougher than I thought I was, and softer too, in places.
It has been extremely arduous at times. I have been viewed with such open suspicion, that I have even started to doubt myself. At times the islanders vehemence has caused me to question my own motivations and wonder if I am as they see me after all, and that maybe I am going mad. I have experienced a whole raft of negativity, and it really has, at times, felt like carrying an anvil on each shoulder. As I leave too, aside from the sense of overwhelming loss, I also feel catharsis.
It is a true tragic ending.
The weight has been lifted, and I will soon return to being myself again, whatever that means. I feel a huge sense of release, now I can put down the weight I have been carrying with me. It seems almost alien to be able to re-enter a world where I am taken at face value, where a supposition of trust is wordlessly exchanged through a handshake. I have forgotten how easy life can be.
Without visiting Pitcairn, it is very difficult to explain how insular it really is. The world could end and Pitcairn would stand, dissident, expecting to be excepted from that inescapable fate. Somehow Pitcairn exists at the centre of its own universe. Little permeates. It is slippery, as if covered by a film of oil – nothing sticks. Visitors come and go, and only the myths perpetuated by Hollywood and history retold and rewritten remain. Now that I have left, there are only the contracted professionals and islanders left – as one local remarked “now we can go back to normal”. I wonder what he meant, as there is surely nothing normal about Pitcairn.
I think at some point, everyone who visits the island for a prolonged period, hits the hump. The hump comes at different points for everyone. I think mine was probably on day one, after a showdown with Nola outside of the store who took exception to my audio recorder. That incident set the tone for my stay – I was already on the back foot, already labelled, already marked. There was little I could do to change opinion. I was always playing catch up.
After diplomatic interjections, and a few trusted souls putting in good words for me, the wall with Nola came down, and Nola is now one of the people I will miss most on the island. So to say change is impossible would be a lie – the Nola 180 is a testament to adaptability. Though the damage her initial judgement caused did flavour my entire experience on the island – another example of how one person or one comment can cause such huge and lasting effects. But perhaps by the same token, it may take only one person to change things.
I have many regrets about my time on Pitcairn – not for myself, but for Pitcairn. I felt as though there were many areas that the island could have taken advantage of my presence. But Pitcairners are not terribly good at joining dots – once you arrive for one purpose, there is no reinvention, You are there for that purpose alone in their eyes. For example, I felt as though I were a good test for their repopulation plan – could I fit in? How did the community treat me? I also felt that I was able to put forward a more full and interesting portrait of life on the island, which was thwarted at every turn. I could have been used as a record keeper, preserving their history for them. I could have used my photography skills to boost the image of the island – there have been multiple photo opportunities that have been covered by the office digital camera and sent to the media. I could have been used on the island as a worker. I offered my services multiple times, and though noises were made, nothing ever came to fruition.
But more simply – I could have been a friend.
It is this that feels the biggest missed opportunity, for in spite of all the bluster, Pitcairn is incredibly lonely. A remote lump of rock filled with isolated people. If you feel lonely on Pitcairn, you are surely one of the most lonely people on earth. I wish more people had welcomed simple friendship, we both would have had a lot to gain.
As I prepared to head to the landing to leave, I had a quick conversation with Shawn. He asked me how my stay had been, and I thought that it was very typically Pitcairn – that I was being asked when I had one foot out of the door at the most inopportune of moments, when it was too late to do anything.
Afterwards, I dashed up to Vaine and Charlene’s where my clothes were still sitting on a drying rack. Still not dry, I threw them into a bag and clambered onto my quad. I started speeding down the hill, and then remembered that this would be my last downhill trip. I slowed to a stop, and switched off the engine – I looked up to my left at Christian’s cave, this triangular shape that dominates every view on the island, and I listened to the goats, and the rustle of wind in the leaves. Though it is underwhelming when you are inside it, Christian’s cave has become a kind of talisman, and I’ve spent a lot of time gazing back at its watchful eye, wondering what Fletcher Christian would think of us all now, and wondering if he’d say it was worth it.
I started the engine and went back to Steve and Olive’s home, Big Fence, where my Pitcairn journey began. I had spent my last night there, sorting through my bags, for I had left many of my belongings in one of their many spare bedrooms. I quickly packed my bags, and the cavalry formed, whisking my bags down to the landing. Before I know what was happening, I was parking my quad for the last time alongside the boat shed, and carrying the last of my belongings through the crowd that had formed at the jetty.
I was taciturn. A rarity for me. I felt that if I opened my mouth I would fall apart. It all happened in such a blur, and I was still vainly attempting to record everything. Linda and John approached my bike and I gave Linda the present I’d found her from Henderson, one job down. Daphne was my first real hurdle. She was sitting on the green park benches in front of the boat shed, and when I saw her I gave her a big hug and had to turn away before I cracked further. John had kindly taken charge of the last of my belongings, spiriting them towards the waiting long boat, though I was still clutching my recorder hopelessly like a kind of crutch.
I began my rounds and was determined to give every person on the jetty a hug. I managed, bar one. I gave Royal a squeeze, and she said that she was sorry I was going. I headed to Nola, who was all bluster, but then I heard her voice crack and a tear formed in her eye and she too looked away. I hugged Daphne again, and buried my head in her shoulder, and she said she would really miss me and that she was also sorry I was going, and then her eyes welled up too. As I turned to leave, Linda caught my arm and said in my ear “you’ve done it”.
I eventually turned away from the group on the jetty and boarded the longboat for my one last time, unwilling to prolong my torture anymore. The inevitable was upon me and I just wanted to get it over with. As the longboat pulled away from the jetty and zoomed out from the landing, I could barely believe that this was it. I tried to photograph my parting, and the camera provided a good distraction from catching anyone’s eye. I did steal one long last look at Daphne who never stopped looking back at me and then watched through my viewfinder as Keane, Nola, Reynold, Olive, Jacqui and Betty were all stood in the rain waving feverishly. I tried to take a picture with my eyes rather than through the camera – an image marked indelibly on my brain.
The Claymore was anchored away from Bounty Bay on the lee side for the sea had become rougher, and the longboat swiftly made the journey around the island. For one last time I took in the steep cliffs, the foreboding shapes, and took a last look at Christian’s cave and a vanishing Adamstown. The island was cloaked in low lying cloud, as though it had closed up already and was hiding from me. The smoke and mirrors in tangible form, the mysticism closing in, shrouding it from view. I tried to take pictures, but my heart wasn’t in it, I was just using it as a kind of distraction. At one point Shawn, seeing the tears still streaming, leaned in from the back of the boat and said “You could always lead by example and become the first migrant” – I laughed.
When the longboat pulled up alongside the Claymore, I did my boat rounds, saying swift goodbyes. A number of the islanders boarded the boat, and I had a chance to give them a proper send off too. Once I had gathered myself, I headed astern to watch the long boat wave us off till they disappeared from view, tumbling over the seas in a wake of sea spray.
And then there I was. Standing on the deck of the Claymore, like I had all those months ago, looking back at the island. I suddenly felt very alone. That there were too few people in the world who had shared my experience, that no one would really ever understand what this moment felt like. I felt possessive of that experience, and for a brief moment I knew what it must be like to be from Pitcairn. My island. Mine.
I peeled some of the Polaroids I had taken from the longboat and they were faint and milky, I had overexposed them all in my haste to distract myself. But it seemed fitting somehow. That my lasting memory of Pitcairn should be bleak and absent. Enigmatic like the island itself.
As we hauled anchor and headed into the blue abyss, I climbed the stairwell to a picnic table on the upper level aft deck and watched as the island shrank. I photographed it rapidly, as its profile slunk into the blue pacific looking like a sleeping platypus. Smaller and smaller. And then all of a sudden it was gone in the blink of an eye. Like it had all been a mirage, and that it had never really existed, like coming out of a wardrobe of furs and leaving Narnia. I was no longer Rhiannon on Pitcairn, I was some other Rhiannon, one that I had long since forgotten about, and was about to rediscover.
Pitcairn is not for the weak. But if you were to look for an experience you’d be hard pressed to match it. It has been immersive to say the least, and now leaving I feel reborn.
Thank you Pitcairn, for testing me, for pushing me to my limits, for the hard times and the moments of joy. It’s been… an unforgettable adventure.
The vanishing island