I apologise now for my infrequency in blogging. I’ve been having a little bit of a hard time of it recently and trying to remain upbeat and positive has been using up most of my energy! This post should have gone up a few weeks ago but limited internet has meant restrictions on the blog. There are another two posts in the publishing queue, but patience is a virtue, so they say.
The Marina came and went on the 12th. It was an American vessel carrying around 1200 passengers. As usual on the Marina, they didn’t come ashore, and virtually the whole island once more decamped to the cruise ship for the day. The radio communication started early, some time around 5:30am, and Big Fence was buzzing with the sounds of radio static, rapid footsteps, and the chatter of organisation.
Quad bikes could be heard zooming through Adamstown’s main road and up through the valleys with purpose, as fresh produce was gathered for the ship after a last minute request. Curios were packed, boxes were labelled and loaded onto trailers and into the back of a small pickup truck and ferried to the landing. Our backpacks were packed, and shoelaces tied. The Pitcairners donned their freshest attire and fixed broad smiles on their faces. The Marina carries a profitable passenger base, and the islanders know how to turn on the charm and ham up the mutineer connections when necessary.
Around 7am Brenda was heard ringing the bell five times to indicate the cruise ship’s arrival and to give warning to the locals to start heading down to the landing. Apparently this doesn’t happen too often anymore, so I was pleased she agreed to do it again for me so I could record it! It seems to be one of the many old traditions that are gradually fading away as technology such as handheld radios have taken over.
After the activity at home had waned and the loaded bikes dispersed, I clambered onto the back of Kevin’s quad and hurtled down towards the boat shed in a convoy of vehicles. We all watched as a floating tower block seemed to grow on the horizon, sprouting from the sea, trundling forwards in menacing silence.
It’s a strange feeling, watching a lump of metal appear that carries around 30 times the number of people than on the whole of Pitcairn. All of a sudden, here they are, stopping off and revelling in the experience of brushing shoulders with the famed mutineers descendants.
By around 8am, all of us were loaded into a single longboat headed out to the towering hulk lurking just outside of Bounty Bay. The Marina was quite different from the Amadea for me, because by now I have lived on Pitcairn for over a month, so I too became at attraction and the focus of questioning. “How do they have power?”, “What happens in a medical emergency?”, “What are the people like?”, “Do they have fridges?”, “How do they communicate with the outside world?”. The usual stuff, for the most part.
The most common question however, is… “how do you get there?” People are interested in Pitcairn, and want to land. Many I spoke to had read about it, and a few had chosen that particular cruise precisely because Pitcairn was on the itinerary. Few knew that cruise ships rarely land, and that the only guaranteed way to read the island is with the Claymore II. When I explained the logistical challenges of landing people on Pitcairn, they saw why it is problematic. A ship of 1200 people on an island of 40 is clearly overwhelming – even in terms of transport for the less able bodied up from the landing via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. Ferrying that number of passengers in the ships tenders is also hard, with a small and limited landing area.
The long boats require crew, which visibly depletes the stock of able bodied islanders on shore. The island is treacherous in parts, there is nowhere to buy snacks or food, and that number of people would require a greater number of public toilets and other facilities. It’s almost too great a risk, for little gain. Though the islanders love having visitors land, the bigger ships are a little problematic and it’s very easy to see why.
So, my advice – if you want to visit Pitcairn and definitely land, then the best way is to travel on the Claymore. My second choice would be to find a private yacht – possibly on Gambier, and third, travel on a smaller cruise ship or research/expedition vessel. Do your research – check their past history of landing passengers. Some ships almost have a policy not to land, so make enquiries. Don’t assume that because it’s listing on the itinerary that you can get off.
Ok, moving on back to the cruise ship… at one point in the morning we spied a yacht approaching from the lounge area where the Pitcairn ‘marketplace’ was set up on the Marina and Brenda (who deals with the yachts, entry clearances, and landing fees as part of her island police role) had to radio the boat and say that no one was home and that they could only be dealt with after the Marina had left. It brought up some bizarre visions of what you could write on a sign at the landing… “Gone fishing” perhaps, or simply “closed”. I’ve never been anywhere where its possible for an entire country to temporarily evacuate for the day and exit via a single boat.
Cruise ship days bring home, perhaps more than at any other time, the extent to which Pitcairn is maze of contradictions. It is off the beaten track, but famous the world over. The locals live a basic life, and many have had limited access to education, but each has had opportunities few outside would ever experience. Adamstown is effectively a rural village, but its people walk with a swagger and have a rock star mentality confounded from their mutineer heritage. They even have the photographer shrug off down pat: the donning of sunglasses often followed by a quick hand shielding face from lens gesture. It’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand locals don their Pitcairn t-shirts almost daily, visually advertising their collective belonging, and on the other hand they shrug off the attention that identity brings.
The Pitcairner’s day to day lives working in the gardens, or on government projects are completely at odds with the mysticism that surrounds the people. Though much of their image is a Hollywood construct, many of the locals tap into it, and it has become their currency and identity. It has led me to wonder on more than one occasion whether Pitcairn will be able to move on from its history fast enough to sustain new growth and immigration. It seems a protectionist society, suspicious of outsiders and of “meddling”, but the island sits on the apex of thriving or failing – without new younger blood, the island has no future. But with new blood comes a dilution of the old, a departure from history, an evaporation of identity. What would it mean to come from Pitcairn if the mutineer ancestry became the minority? Would the allure still exist, would the interest from the cruise ships still sustain the island? There are many more questions than answers.
Before I arrived here I had a very different picture of the island, some parts have proven entirely false, and I have faced daily challenges trying to overcome both my own expectations and the views of others. Past wounds have not yet healed over, and it’s incredibly easy to accidentally pick a scab without knowing it. Not only is this island’s infrastructure fragile, and it’s future uncertain, but the people are fragile too. The trails ripped this place apart – even those who were not named on any documents had their lives turned over with a fine toothcomb. Everyone here is connected so every action has a ripple effect and some actions in the past have amplified beyond control.
Anyone visiting with a camera, and particularly those who are here for a long time are likely to feel the brunt of the past weighing heavy on their shoulders at some point. These last couple of weeks have been my turn – I know it’s not personal, though it often feels it. I am just another in a long line of outsiders. Others have told them how to live their lives, or have passed judgement. They are understandably suspicious. It was partly my reason for wanting to come here – because I felt that I could do a better job of getting to the essence of Pitcairn, that I was perhaps a little softer, a lot more open, and more respectful, that I could identify with much of the life here.
But in a place so embedded with history, Pitcairners are like elephants: they never forget. I’m slowly learning what not to touch, that some stones are best left covered in moss, undisturbed.
It has not been an easy road, and I’ve learnt a lot in the process. Though this may well be the most difficult thing that I have ever done, it’s an experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry!