Looming in the distance

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.

Marina

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.

On Deck of Marina

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.

Rainbow

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.

Longboat

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.

Yachties

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.

Computer room, big fence

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.

Monopoly

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!

Feeding Frigates

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The arrival!

The Claymore journey was pretty smooth, or at least to me. Good to know I haven’t lost my sea legs! I still wanted it all to be over as fast as possible as I was itching to arrive, but it was good to have the couple of days to get myself organised a little, at least in theory.

There were no big seas and it was just plain chugging along at a steady 11/12 knots. We saw some nice sunsets and the skies were beautiful at night, which was an added perk of the nothingness of the sea. I liked being back at sea for that short period… I was never much of a fan of living on a boat, but I really don’t mind boat travel when it’s not your everyday. In fact I enjoy feeling miniscule and insignificant from time to time – partly because living in London can mean you spend so much time chasing after irrelevant things, or expending disproportionate amounts of your energy on pointlessness. It’s easy to loose perspective. Somehow being at sea puts all of that back into alignment – you realise we are just specks more infinitesimal than the faintest star in the sky, and somehow that’s comforting. You could do anything you like and it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day…

Throughout the journey I didn’t see too much of my fellow passengers – Heather was holed below deck working, and Darralyn and Michelle were in their cabins playing cards, social worker Jim seemingly vanished and I spent most of my time with Andy from the RSPB. He could usually be found out on deck with his Swarovski binoculars in one hand and a notebook in the other recording sea birds. Like a more advanced and worthy “I Spy” book!

Chart IMG_4487_1

The rest of my time was spent up in the bridge with the crew, chatting away about life events, where we had travelled on our boat, Fleetwood Mac, and their impressions of Pitcairn and its future. I could hardly believe the amount of new fangled technology that was housed up in the bridge – especially for an old boat (German I think originally, Hamish – the man in charge – said that there had been a whole load of Third Reich stuff on board when it had first been bought). These days you can pretty much press “Go” and wait till you get there it seems. Quite different to the high maintenance sail boat existence! Hanging out up in the bridge was great – looking at the charts, watching the log be filled out, it all took me back. All those sea rituals.

Jane cooked up some great food on the journey and we even had a delicious lamb roast en route, which is much more than I was expecting at sea! Mind you, I suppose the cost of the Claymore II is about akin to going on a 5* cruise! Heather told me en route that the price of the vessel would never go down, despite attempts because the government were using off-island passengers like myself to supplement and offset their running costs. Islanders themselves pay a reduced fee, but it’s still extremely steep and most can’t afford to leave.

Apparently tourism has really tried to appeal about the costs because it’s one of the (many) factors that make Pitcairn so difficult and expensive to reach. Though the service is reliable, there’s not much the islanders can do about cost as it’s under a permanent government charter. As a result tourism is very limited, and mostly comes through the cruise ships, or from special trips like the Norwegians we’d met at the airport.

The Landing

The island needs outsiders in order to survive, but with such high transport costs, only very few ever manage to land on the island’s distant shores. I had heard about the islanders’ suspicion that the government was trying to ‘shut them down’, and it seems that may originate at least in part with the unwillingness to budge on transit costs. Because so few people then book to travel, it makes the interest in Pitcairn appear minimal which means that the Claymore remains the only sustainable passenger route.

Though since I’ve arrived here, many suspect that if the costs were lower the traffic to Mangareva could double, which may in turn create a sustainable future for the island. If outsiders visit, some may settle, creating a much-needed workforce. One of the other issues seems to be the amount of cargo the Claymore can physically carry – some islanders have to wait months or even years for space on the vessel. This makes it difficult for businesses that deal with the outside to survive so most islanders have multiple jobs to support themselves and rely heavily on the souvenir trade with the cruise ships. In a sense their isolation forces a subsistence lifestyle.

I digress.

We approached Pitcairn at night, and there was an air of excitement on the boat. Both Michelle and Darralyn had been away from home for the last three months and were both itching to get ashore to their families and lives. I know how it is – no matter how much you enjoy being away, there’s nothing like your own bed. There were radio calls to the shore, and I sat up in the bridge recording what I could – “first contact” if you will. Sue was the first island voice I heard coming in over channel 16, and it sounded like they’d been having a good night! Sue is married to “pirate” Pawl, who is one of the first islanders you’d have came across in pictures if you Google Pitcairn island.

I tried to see the island as we steamed towards it, and I caught a glimpse of a dark looming hulk amidst the inky blue when I stuck my head out of the polyurethane panels surrounding our eating area. It was a shame to arrive at night so I missed seeing the island loom larger and larger, but c’est la vie.

Hamish made arrangements for the longboats to arrive at 8:30 the next morning, so we anchored up outside Bounty Bay as the weather was conducive and not too rough. We had a few celebratory drinks in the bridge – and I sampled some New Zealand Tui beer (a new one for me!) – I also got to meet Bob the engineer properly for the first time. He’s been to Pitcairn more than 50 times, and is a big collector of artefacts and motorcycles. He’s also the only crew member to go ashore these days.

I woke early to head to the bridge to record the radio communications for the BBC programme, and got myself packed and washed. I had a brief breakfast of Jane’s delicious freshly baked muffins and amazing Pitcairn passion fruit, and filled out the Pitcairn landing forms.

landing card

I’d inevitably left some of the important things (like film!) in one of the other suitcases in the cargo deck, so had to go and retrieve and as I was doing so, all of a sudden the longboat showed up. I still hadn’t finished in my cabin so I had to dash downstairs and sort that out, and run back upstairs again. There wasn’t much of a chance for recording the process as it all happened so fast. Brenda Christian (the island police officer) boarded the boat first and sorted out passport stuff and seemed to orchestrate our transfer.

luggage on claymore

longboat

Pitcairn from claymore

The longboat transfer is something that I can see would be really awkward for those unsteady on their feet. The crew are deft and efficient, and grab you to get you on the boat. But the rise and fall of the longboats is very pronounced and all of a sudden its deck can drop below the ship’s gunnel and you could have a meter to fall. It’s all about timing. Even in the calm (ish) seas we arrived in, the longboat was surging up and down, and bucking and grinding against the Claymore’s hull. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, but I can see how some of the ageing Norwegians might not have been quite so thrilled at the prospect! Once you’re on the longboat, no time is wasted getting you ashore, and before you know it the ropes are cast off and everyone is waving you off. The longboats have little to hold on to, and the gunnel is only around 6” above the deck, so I can imagine it would be quite easy to fall off if you didn’t have your wits about you and a decent dose of common sense.

The best part is coming into the landing, where the longboat slows just outside and the cox watches the swells, timing the surge so that the boat doesn’t overshoot and plough straight in. When the waves are right, the boats moves in and before you know it you’re being tied off and offloaded and you’re standing on the concrete landing. Your luggage is hefted off onto the dock in a matter of seconds it seems, and your hosts are there to welcome you. It was all such a rush. I met a whole raft of people in the first two minutes of being ashore but probably only caught 25% of the names flying around. Melva Evans came up to me and put a necklace made from shells and seeds around my neck, and then my hosts Steve and Olive Christian made an appearance.

All of a sudden my luggage was loaded onto their quad bikes and little 4 wheel drive and we followed the procession of quads and the cloud of red dust up the steep hill from the landing as I was whisked up to Big Fence, their sprawling home at the beginning of Adamstown.…

Many of you have asked me along the way why the title “Big Fence” – well, now you know. When I was searching the crevices of my brain for a working title for this project, I remembered the name of Steve and Olive’s home. Big Fence seemed apt for several Pitcairn specific reasons, but also because I liked the parallel between the house name and the Pacific Ocean. Surely the ocean is the biggest fence, or hurdle, when attempting to reach Pitcairn.

big Fence sellotape

big Fence

I won’t be permanently based at Steve and Olive’s (as the plan has always been to move around), but because it is in the centre of ‘town’ and I’ve heard that they are excellent hosts, it seemed a perfect place to start. I hear they’ll give me a taste of the true Pitcairn lifestyle, and Big Fence is where I will call home for the next period.

But, I’m here! I’m finally here… and thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way!

Sambo