It’s been a week since I landed on Pitcairn and it feels like so much longer. As a result this post is rather longer than I intended too. I’ve already lots track of days and times. The red dust seems to ooze from my every pore, and my legs are on fire from mosquito bites, but I am in good spirits.
My hosts Steve and Olive have been fantastic, including me in everything that they do, and are making me feel less of an outsider. They’ve both got a great sense of humour and have no qualms about making fun of me!
There isn’t much that feels British about this place, particularly because the New Zealand connection is felt so acutely, but sometimes the prevailing sense of humour, irony, and ability to make fun bears much similarity to the Brits, though I’m sure most Pitcairners would rush to deny it! There isn’t much love lost on Britain here, for some obvious reasons, and some not so obvious reasons. Andy (RSPB) and I were in the shop yesterday and he was buying baked beans, and I ended up with some chocolate digestives and the first thing Olive had said to both of us was how we “must be British” – apparently McVities are in stock purely for the British contingent. Though I don’t feel terribly British most of the time, and consider myself more of a mongrel, there are some things I can’t escape – cups of tea and biscuits are seemingly one!
Much has happened since I arrived at Big Fence. My first day passed quickly, with my first evening spent on the landing fishing with Steve and Olive. I caught a few, which was a few more than what I was expecting – I’ve never experienced such easy fishing. One of the types of fish I caught was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen in (or out) of the water – turquoise blues and pinks. I felt bad eating it!
Our next fishing trip took us to Tedside, down the other side of the island. It’s a steep dirt road down, and meets a new concrete area as part of the new harbour. Steve, Olive and I went out further, wandering around the cliff, clambering over rocks, and ducking under overhangs, and edging our way towards Rat’s Hole, a good fishing spot. Olive and Steve wanted to catch some fish to be frozen and taken on the Claymore, for Claris, Olive’s sister in New Zealand who loves the local Nanwi. We caught a load. Each time we dropped the line, we were hauling them in. Steve was catching two at a time of his double hooked rod. Olive gutted them then and there in amongst the rock pools and the water ran red like the killing fields. She and Steve hand fed the circling frigate birds, some of whom were islanders’ pets, brought back from Oeno years before and hand reared. I loved every minute of it.
For the first couple of days, the island was a hive of fervent activity in preparation for the arrival of a German cruise ship, Amadea. At home with Steve and Olive, I watched as they churned out fridge magnets bearing Pitcairn stamps on small pieces of sanded wood, signed by Steve on the back with lacquering and magnet attachment by Olive. Steve was also selling wooden shark carvings, whittled down from a gorgeous red hued wood and set with real sharks teeth caught from Pitcairn’s waters. It was a production line in full swing. In every home I passed, everyone was making something. For that first day the island had a frenetic energy and sense of excitement.
Soon after my arrival I met Kevin Young, older brother of Kerry, and brother in law to Heather the tourism coordinator. Kevin is the only one of the Young brothers to be born on Pitcairn, but has been living in New Zealand most of his life forging a career and having a family. Kevin is in the process of moving back to Pitcairn, and hopes to set up a business that he can run from here. He is taking over Cari and Brian Young’s home Up Tibi which sits just up the hill from Steve and Olive’s. Not that ‘up the hill” is terribly descriptive when everything on Pitcairn is either “up the hill” or “down the hill”, depending on which spot you’re standing in. Kevin gave me a bit of an “orientation” of Adamstown and took me to meet Mavis and Merelda, a mother and daughter who also live in Adamstown. Mavis has an infectious smile and wicked laugh, and Merelda is Pitcairn’s unofficial cultural hub. When we walked in she was grinding a coconut, and welcomed us in, despite being busy preparing for cruise ship time.
Cari, the previous owner of Kevin’s house (originally from Norway), has now left the island permanently, and has moved to New Zealand to be with Brian, a diabetic, who had been medically evacuated because of gangrene and lost a toe in the process.
Adrian, a PhD student in the history of Science at Princeton also left with the last Claymore, as did the government rep and his wife, albeit for a short holiday as they are aiming to hitch a ride back on the next visiting cruise ship. Adrian was a lovely guy, who, from what I understood, was examining the way the island has been taken advantage of and used as an experimentation ground, and how that has impacted on the attitude towards outsiders from the locals. Quite an interesting facet as this is certainly something that I’ve been experiencing from a few select individuals! I think the island has been understandably burned by reporters, but also from decades of Bounty interest with people coming ashore and pilfering artefacts, as well as misrepresentation on the silver screen, and a few photographers who have “borrowed” family photographs, promising to restore them, which have never been returned. I feel as though the islanders want to grasp their own culture back, and feel it has perhaps become hijacked by the outside world, and that their own strong identity has been consumed. It must be a little like living in Disneyland at times – “come ashore and meet the mutineers”. I can see how it would become tiresome.
The tension was in the air the day the cruise ship arrived – would they come ashore, would they not. Everyone was watching the seas. Apparently German ships usually try to come ashore, and the Americans never do. I am guessing its probably got something to do with insurance and the American penchant for suing, but whatever the reason, the Germans were true to form. Some of course, had no desire to face the long boats, or prefer to live exclusively on the water (one woman I spoke to had been at sea for 4 months and had not been ashore once), and for that reason the islanders split into two groups, one heading out to the looming white mass anchored off Bounty Bay, and another contingent remaining ashore for the more intrepid visitor.
I headed out to the ship, though was torn between watching people struggle up the Hill of Difficulty and photographing them traipsing across people’s gardens. The next ship is the Marina, an American vessel, so in all likelihood I won’t witness the cruise ship tourist ashore. Adrian had a similar internal struggle – it was his last day before the Claymore departure, and for his PhD it probably would have been more fitting, but we did orchestrate a few photos of me photographing a tourist photographing an islander which might help back up some of his PhD theory! My trouble is I can’t resist a longboat journey, so off I went to the ship. It was my first real look at my new home from the water, as the Claymore disembarkation happened so quickly. It was the first time I’d had an opportunity to really look at it in all its colourful glory, this dusty and fertile rock.
The cruise ship experience was an interesting one. Our reduced Pitcairn contingent headed out on a loaded longboat, filled with suitcases and wooden boxes containing a variety of goods for sale. The vessel had erected a pontoon, with caged area for boarding. The cage was low, and my fellow passengers told me that they disliked the pontoon as it was actually more dangerous than the ladder – I heard one story of the swells pushing a longboat underneath the pontoon. I could see why. The pontoon hovered just below our gunnel, with no structure beneath it to protect us against the swell. The cruise ship’s weight means it doesn’t budge in the water, but we rode each movement, and as a result it’s like trying to tie an intricate knot with a severe case of Parkinson’s disease. The men managed to tie us off and we quickly moved up the gang plank into the ship, where we exchanged our Pitcairn island ID cards for ships passes and headed up to level 9. The idea of 9 levels on a boat makes me a feel a little ill, and I don’t like the fact that cruise ships have so little draught in relation to what is above the water. It feels obscene and unnatural.
I watched the deft efficiency with which the islanders unloaded the boats, loaded the lifts, set up stalls, and (mostly) turned on the charm for the tourists. I tried to help Reynold, an ageing islander down the stairs to the lower deck with his wares (which predictably, he refused, not wanting to owe me a favour or loose pride), and watched the Germans haggle with prices. At one point I ended up manning a stall and working out currency conversation rates. The islanders will, in theory, accept most any currency, but getting your head around the standard conversion rate table in a hurry without a calculator and with a queue forming takes a bit of mental agility.
Many of the Germans seemed more interested in the cramped Jacuzzi, or miniscule pool than the legendary island which they found themselves in front of. A number did engage, buying t-shirts and small items (what’s to be expected from a German vessel, as apparently the resounding opinion is that “they’re tight”) – the postcards flew off the tables and were quickly written and returned for a Pitcairn postmark.
I had a few of the passengers come up to me with great incredulity asking me where I had obtained my camera from, and whether we had those sorts of things on the island. A few asked me about my lineage, and I even ended up with several small bags of chocolates and vials of perfume before I could protest that I was merely an intruder. I also watched the throng form around Pirate Pawl, who, in my opinion, really should ‘do a Covent Garden’ and start charging for photographs. Wherever he moves, the people follow, a trick he has sometimes used to lure people away while stalls are set up. He looks every part the mutineer fantasy, and the tourists lap it up with voluble enthusiasm. The Disney character comparison doesn’t seem far from the truth, the Germans were hopping about him as 5 year olds would chase a Mickey Mouse mascot.
Our exit was as rapid as our arrival, even though I was chasing up the rear trying to catch my last few moments of the outside world and record what I could of the fanfare surrounding this mystical island.
When we reached shore I tackled the Hill of Difficulty on foot for the first time, and let’s just say I can see where the name came from. It’s very steep. I paused halfway to photograph the Amadea heading off into the Pacific abyss and out of view. That afternoon the Claymore II would also depart, taking my one exit with it, and the last of the tourists. The rest of us left were here for the long haul.
I put on my swimming gear and loaded up with cameras, and wandered back down to the landing to photograph the empty longboat which was still tied to the dock. I knew that this was rare – a cruise ship and the Claymore in the same day, and an unattended long boat was not such a common sight (they usually winch them up the slip when they come in). The boats wouldn’t be used for another while so I took in the empty harbour, spending the first few moments on Pitcairn truly alone. I took a quick dip and scrambled over the rocks to get a better view of the Claymore coming back into view as it moved from the lee of the island back to Bounty Bay.
A small crowd had started to filter down the slope, with quad bikes loaded with packages, and the boat shed’s benches were suddenly taken over by Brenda stamping passports for those who were leaving. I got dressed and left my Polaroids drying in the care of the one remaining child on the island, aka my new swimming buddy, and donned a lifejacket. The longboat was loaded and I got on, taking a pew next to the police officer. We headed out over the surging seas, and trussed up alongside the Claymore, where the cargo and exiting passengers were loaded off. I tried my best to take a few pictures on my Hasselblad, but the boat’s movements were unpredictable and my fingers uncertain. I have no idea how they will come out.
I watched Cari Young’s island departure from the long boat and could see her hazy, wistful, look and she boarded the ship carrying with her a kind of peaceful stoicism, knowing that she may never return. Her tears had passed and she looked into the distance composing herself. Though she had married into one of the island’s key families with Bounty lineage, she had been drawn to the island originally out of her own curiosity and Bounty interest many years ago. I could feel the surge of nostalgia emanating, and I could feel that this was the end of an era. One more islander to leave. One more never to return.
After the crazy busy (and sweltering) day of boat departures and arrivals and all the activity, a couple of islanders jumped in the water at the landing. I jumped in too, not needing much of an excuse. We were quickly joined by another, and then another, till the water was a sea of bodies – about half the population of the entire island. It was a sight. I wish I had been out of the water taking a picture, but then sometimes it’s the photos not taken that are the more powerful. That day marked the moment when the island transferred back to the possession of the locals – the outsiders were mostly out (apart from a couple of government post holders, Andy, and myself), and daily life could return to normal, and a new chapter could begin.
I don’t really want to talk too much about specific people on this blog, though I feel sometimes it may be called for, and in this particular aside, I’d like to mention the powerhouse that is Olive Christian. Olive is unstoppable. She’s a charming woman in her early 60s, a fan of country music, The Eagles, and a good dance, who adores her family and grandkids – she’s also an indispensible cog in the way this island functions. She’s like the Energizer bunny.
Firstly, she manages the store – though this may seem like a small job for such a small island and tiny population, it really isn’t. She coordinates everyone’s overseas orders, deals with suppliers, works with the cruise ships with buying and selling, and prepares everyone’s bills (the shop is run on credit), stocktakes, and restocks shelves. She gets paid what would generally be considered a pittance in the outside world for all of this labour. I’ve seen the amount of effort that goes into this, and I can only describe it as a labour of love. Olive loves the island, and knows many of the older people rely on the shop, not just for its supplies but also for its social draw. Her sense of duty and dedication to everything she does is admirable. Oh and in case you were wondering about the gun pictures above – we were shooting down breadfruit for dinner tonight.
Between the shop days, and often after the shop closes, Olive can be seen dashing around the island fulfilling one of her other part time jobs, like clearing the roadsides from the encroaching vegetation with her strimmer, mower, or sprayer in full overalls and gum boots for NZ$10 an hour (the islands catch all rate for every job). She cooks every night, and is known as being one of the islands most skilled and keen fisherwomen (and fishermen for that matter).
She tends to the family’s gardens, goats and chickens which are spread throughout the island, and still has boundless energy for her guests. She’s charming, and funny with genuine eyes and a disarming enthusiasm for everything she does, and does the work of 10 men and 10 women all together. I haven’t seen her complain once. I’ve only been here a week, but I can see why some have referred to as the unofficial island matriarch.
Steve is equally unstoppable, and despite a busted up knee that probably should have been replaced years ago, is down at Tedside on the alternative harbour project working long hours as Project Manager / Engineer. There are only a handful of guys working on the project – the entire contingent of able-bodied men it seems, and Steve is a key element. Though you might think being Project Manager means sitting back and organising from afar, Steve is hands on, and came home the day before yesterday with an eye so purple it looked as though he’d been testing eye shadow. He didn’t want to talk about it particularly and brushed it off (an accident that occurred when laying piles against the wishes of the surges tide)– but the reality is these accidents happen when working in harsh conditions and with so few hands. But he does so willingly, as do the other men, all for a measly $10 an hour and no risk compensation.
Just another small reminder that Pitcairn is no easy place to live, and that each day islanders lie at the mercy of mother nature.
Living with Steve and Olive has so far been great, because they really do live from the land for the most part, and know everything you need to know about growing things, or the way the island works. I haven’t even scratched the surface with Pitcairn yet, and there are still people whom I haven’t met, or have passed by all too briefly. There are things I want to see, and do, and I have a raft of content I want to produce, but at the same time I don’t want any resident to feel that they’re being violated or taken advantage of. Time here is a precious commodity, there are too few people for all of the jobs that need doing, and I’m conscious of encroaching too heavily. I also really want to capture more of an essence of what this island is all about, instead of just recording mindlessly.
Yesterday (the 19th March), the announcement about the government’s intention to proceed with the proposed marine reserve protecting “the bounty” of the Pitcairn Islands’ waters was announced by Shaun Christian (the island’s mayor and Steve and Olive’s younger son) over channel 16 on the VHF. A notice was put up outside the shop and a few locals stopped to glance at it. There’s a way to go apparently, just in terms of the practicalities of policing and budgeting, but its an historic moment for Pitcairn in many ways, and one of the most significant things to happen to the island.
Some locals have apparently been flip flopping on it, and are generally suspicious of NGO activity, as they don’t like the external intervention and being told how to run their island. Which I can understand. Animal importation including pets is restricted, and there have been culls of other invasive species, so many things relating to the environment and intervention seem to be viewed with some suspicion. It’s a small place, and one where every law and decision is felt acutely reverberating through the very fabric of the island.
I’ll leave you know with another island character…. Steve and Olive’s cat, Mitty…