You Can't Get There From Here

Trip to the Pitcairn Islands (Part 4a of 5)

by Lynn Salmon

Back to Part 1 or Part 2 or Part 3 or Part 4b

June 12, 1997 (Supply ship)

Dobrey and I visited the post office first thing in the morning. Then over breakfast she told me some stories about her childhood and showed me some photos. One story was about how she had long hair as a child and hated it. Her mother wouldn't let her cut her hair so one day she bent over the hearth and let it catch fire. She showed me pictures of her 4 children, Ruth, Steve, Fletcher, and another girl. (Steve is Randy's father and there is a strong resemblance.) The children were gathered in NZ for the funeral of her grandson, Mark, who was only 21 and died playing rugby.

I went for a walk. The weather was alternately pleasant and sunny or overcast and windy with very brief downpours of rain. Two planes flew over and circled the island. It was a big deal. Planes rarely overfly Pitcairn and no one could identify them, nor did they respond to radio contact. Later it was learned that "two chaps from the states had visited Steve Christian on Norfolk Island in their homebuilt planes, and told him that they would pay Pitcairn a visit" (Pitcairn Miscellany, volume 40, number 6, June, 1997).

I ducked into Jay and Carol's place to avoid a bit of rain and talked to Myron a bit. He is an astrologer from Israel and has been visiting Pitcairn for about a month with plans to stay for another month. Poor guy, he paid big bucks to a company called Ocean Voyages who made his travel arrangements for his Pitcairn trip. Seems he was not told until a week before his departure in May that KialoaII would not be taking him even though OV knew that Frank had canceled arrangements with them in early March. Myron had been sent pictures of Kialoa and it came as quite a shock when he saw the little Te Manu waiting in Mangareva. Otherwise, Myron is having a great time. His only worry is the return voyage to Mangareva as he suffers terribly from seasickness.

I meandered on up the road and neared Dave's house just as a torrential downpour came. I went inside and found the two older kids watching Yogi Bear cartoons. Interestingly, the commercial breaks had been edited away.

Mike arrived and the rain stopped so we walked down to Tom and Betty's place. I met the two oldest Pitcairner's, Millie, 89 and Warren, 83. They are a tremendously sweet old couple. Millie's father, Phillip Cook Coffin, was shipwrecked on Ducie Island a long time ago. After being rescued, he stayed on Pitcairn and married a Pitcairn woman. Warren cracks a few jokes about wearing one of Millie's dresses. He is having some bladder problems, and the dress is a convenience. He also had a fall a month ago and may have a cracked rib, but he remains in good spirits. Millie was cutting up bananas to put in the food dehydrator and I was given both dried banana chips and yummy fresh bananas. Millie kept saying "have another banana" so I ate quite a few.

Ozzie Rick (nicknamed to avoid confusion with Del's husband, Rick) is staying at Tom and Betty's. His grandfather, Charles Chauvel, filmed the movie In the Wake of the Bounty in the 30's and visited Pitcairn at that time, also staying with the Christian family (Tom or Betty's parents, I believe). Rick's mother also visited the island, so it seems to be a family tradition by now. The movie, In the Wake of the Bounty has only recently been released on video. (We were able to buy a copy once we returned home.) The movie has some silly dramatic enactments of the Bounty mutiny followed by some interesting documentary bits including underwater photography that was quite advanced for its time. It also stars a previously unknown Tasmanian actor, Errol Flynn, in his first feature film as Fletcher Christian.

Betty Christian came home in a rush to get lunch started before the power went out at noon. Pitcairner's have a generator that provides power from 9am-noon and again from 4pm till 10pm. Many houses also have a 12-volt battery backup system that provides for lighting, radios and other low-power devices in the off hours.

Betty and Tom have travelled more than most Pitcairners. Tom has gone on speaking tours that coincided with the release of the last two Bounty movies. He also once appeared on the now defunct TV show What's My Line in 1962 where two of the celebrity contestants failed to identify him as a descendant of Fletcher Christian.

The supply ship, American Star, is getting in range and we hear periodic radio updates. It sounds like they'll be here between 2:30 and 3pm. Dobrey is busily weaving baskets and everyone else seems to be preparing something to trade or sell or ship away when the supply ship arrives.

I started walking down toward the landing dock area. The Chan's drove by and offered me a lift. The whole population of the island seemed to turn out for the supply ship event. Two longboats went out to meet the ship and were gone for hours. This is the same ship that came through on its way to Panama and was unable to offload the rat poison. It is now returning to NZ and ordinarily wouldn't stop in this direction but they have to get the rat poison and some diesel fuel unloaded.

It turns out that the rat poison is packed somehow in the center of the cargo hold so the pallets cannot be lifted out using the ship's crane. Instead, the men have to unpack each pallet and carry the poison one sack at a time around the ship, up some ladders and to the longboats. Each sack is 25kg and they have something like 6 tons (240 sacks). It's very hard work and takes a long time.

[Taking mail to load onto the supply ship]

Each time a longboat returns to dock everyone on shore helps unload and carry the poison up to a shed and the longboat returns to the supply ship for more. It takes 5-6 hours altogether. All the able bodied men, and Clarice (who is as able-bodied as the men) work extremely hard taking the longboats back and forth. In addition to getting the rat poison, islanders went on the cargo ship to trade, mostly for alcohol (alcohol currently can't be ordered through regular supply channels). They got cases of gin and rum as well as soft drinks and a bit of chocolate. I know Randy had some fish to trade. Others have baskets and carvings plus cold hard cash.

Maria is completely bored by the supply ship activities. She is reading something called "Passionate Revenge" which she claims is not as "smootchy" as it sounds, but the lurid cover art makes me wonder. Maria is a voracious reader and reads far beyond her grade level, devouring any paperbacks left by Kialoa's adult visitors. The school teacher's wife, Debbie commented on how bright the Robben children were, and she is worried that their parents seem unconcerned about their education. Maria is very intelligent and is a very mature 9-year old. On Pitcairn, she is very popular, with the few girls on the island vying for her attention. Not many children ever visit. One other yacht this year had a couple of kids (but they didn't speak English).

I went home with Del as it got dark and chilly. She is cooking and planning to feed a bunch of people whenever they finish working. The Brown children (Adelia, David, Ariel) are brought over and they immediately plunk themselves down in front of a video (The Rescuers) and stare transfixed at the tv. Dobrey joins us and the 3 of us eat dinner around 8:30. Mike shows up around 9 and eats, too. Typical amusing Dobrey line in response to Mike asking, "where did this beer come from?" ... Dobrey: "The fridge, shut up and drink it."

Finally the workers show up at 10pm. The power is left on for an additional hour to let people cook and have some lights. It's a party atmosphere at Del's. Randy is very jovial. Dave Brown is somewhat of an ass. Dennis is fun. Most are drinking gin or rum and Del served pork for dinner. So much for the 7th day adventist rules of no pork and no alcohol on the island. Everyone is in a good mood. I don't know what to make of Dave. He complains about everything, he seems to make it a joke but it doesn't come across very funny to me. No one else seems to share his crude sense of humor. Dave's wife Lea is nice and their 3 children are very polite, by contrast.

I learned that the Pitcairners have to pay their own electric bills. The rates just went up and everyone was talking about Tom and Betty's record setting NZ$200 bill. The consensus is that their food dehydrating business may not be paying for itself. Dobrey's power bill is more typical at NZ$60-$70.

June 13, 1997 (Tour of the Island)

Friday the 13th, I woke up before Dobrey. She's coughing quite a bit from bronchitis and has some bruising on her legs and has had black outs (not since we've been here, but recently). The only medical facility here is a small clinic run by Yvonne Chan, who is a registered nurse. One benefit, is that Yvonne does have the time to keep tabs on individuals' health. However, medical emergencies that would be serious, but not likely to be life-threatening at home, e.g., appendicitis, are very serious business on Pitcairn because there is no surgery. Such cases are handled by placing an emergency call on the radio, and praying that a nearby freighter or military vessel is sufficiently well equipped.

A bell went off at 8am signaling people to come down to the landing to help with the stuff that came off the supply ship last night. They have a bulldozer and at least one other heavy vehicle (a tractor) and I see vehicles going back and forth up the hill with drums of diesel fuel or carts full of sacks of rat poison.

[Street signs on Pitcairn]

About 1pm I set out walking and was met about 5 min later by Del's taxi service. She showed me around the island by ATV. We went to: Ship's lookout, Taro Ground, Highest Point, Tedside, Flatland and John Adams grave. Practically every square foot on the island has a colorful name.

The nicest place we visited was Tedside which is a beach and tidal pool area on the Northwest side of the island. It has a blowhole and interesting rock formations. Ship's lookout was an important spot in the days before radio. Trading with passing ships has been crucial to the island's survival since it was rediscovered in 1808. An early warning of nearby vessels gave the islanders an opportunity to collect items for trade. The islanders have always been able to offer delicious fresh fruit, fish, and water and handicrafts in exchange for such basic supplies as building materials, fuel and flour (ground arrowroot is the island's locally grown substitute).

Taro Ground is where the ham radio station and various meteorological and other sensing instruments are located. A very clever instrument measures hours of sunshine with a crystal ball that focuses the sun onto a sheet of paper. A burned track indicates sunshine, while the absence of charring indicates cloudy conditions. There's also a seismometer and instruments to measure wind speed and direction. The Chan's were there talking to their son via ham radio + phone hook up.

Randy's house is up at the top of Adamstown next to Flatland, a general sports field and tennis court area. Pandanus palms are everywhere, which cover the ground with their thorny fronds.

After the tour we stopped in at Del and Rick's for a cup of tea and then back to Dobrey's where she is cooking up a storm. Mavis and Jacob and Royal are coming for dinner. Del and Rick drive me up to Randy's where the younger population is gathering tonight. Randy's place is neat and tidy and set up to party. Randy has an extensive battery powered 12V system that powers the lights and radio for times when the power generator is not on. Randy also has his stereo hooked up to the 12V system so the party can go late into the night.

The place was crowded. The rat pile were there. As were Dave, Lea and family, Rick and Del, Meralda, Dennis, Clarice. Clarice and Randy were the biggest drinkers, though they had plenty of company. Randy put on a massive barbecue feed with heaps of ribs and steaks and sausages and chicken. The ribs were really tasty. Some of the guys in the rat pile can really pack the food away. Graham became entranced by a gameboy and sat in a corner doing that most of the evening.

After dinner the table got moved aside and the music was cranked way up for dancing. The Macarena has spread even to Pitcairn Island, and was played multiple times. Otherwise, it was mostly older rock & roll. Meralda was quite the party animal. I left a little after 10pm when Rick and Del decided to take Helena to bed. The power had just gone out, but the 12V system kept the party going to 3am, I heard.

June 14, 1997 (Sabbath)

There were a number of hung over Pitcairner's today. This included Dave Brown who is one of Pitcairn's main radio hams. He wasn't up in time for Kialoa's call in at 7:30am so I don't know their status. Dobrey ended up going up to Randy's and cleaning up all the dirty dishes from last night's party.

A ship was spotted out to sea and I listened to the radio communication between Pitcairn and them. It is a Norwegian tanker, the Havkatt, coming from Venezuela. Pitcairn called out hello and invited them to stop for a visit. The radio operator asked who was at Pitcairn and what they did. He had seen the Mel Gibson movie. The Pitcairners radioed "we have fish and fruit and t-shirts to trade, do you have any beer?" After consultation with the captain the ship decided to stop. It's a beautiful calm day in Bounty Bay.

It's the 7th day adventist sabbath on Saturday. I went to the church service. Not many islanders participate. Tom and Betty, Mavis and Jacob, Royal, the schoolteacher and family, Pawl's two girls, Pania and Candice, plus Michael Warren, a wiry guy who keeps mostly to himself.

John Chan's sermon was a bit lost on me. He speaks well, and weaves an interesting story about the oldest people who lived before the flood. He mixes in humor, and even a small Chinese lesson. But I never got the point of it, or how it all tied together, or what the lesson was.

After church Tom and Betty invited me to their place for lunch. It was a different style from the other meals I've been to. It was a particularly striking contrast to last nights feed at Randy's with the Rat Pile. There was still food in abundance, but it was much more orderly and polite with Tom serving. Debbie brought some home made yogurt for dessert which I liked very much. The Pitcairners don't care much for yogurt, much preferring ice cream. I also sampled a local specialty, sweet potato pilhi, which while not bad, is an acquired taste.

Ozzie Rick was there, of course, since he is staying at their house. Back home near Brisbane, he has a laundromat and works in a cinema. After lunch many of us went up to Gannet ridge for a walk. There are good views of Adamstown and out over Bounty Bay. Today was calm enough that we could see to the bottom of Bounty Bay. The walk wasn't very hard but Gannet ridge is only about 2 feet wide, with perilous drops on both sides (one side goes down about 1000 feet to the ocean, and the other side would be a nasty fall into brush and rocks).

[Tom Christian]

Later I went down to the landing where the crew of the Norwegian tanker was getting ready to depart. I rode out on the longboat and visited the ship, Havkatt, Oslo. It turns out that the navigator, Mindaugus from Lithuania, had long dreamed of visiting Pitcairn and had steered the ship close to the island hoping to at least take some photos and maybe talk on the radio. The invitation to come ashore and the captain's permission were a dream come true. The ship anchored just outside of Bounty Bay for 6-7 hours and a number of the crew, a mixed group of Norwegians, Poles, Lithuanians, etc., came ashore. Each was whisked away on a guided ATV-based tour of the island. All were treated to the traditional Pitcairn hospitality - an excellent match for the hospitality that the crew extended on board.

The ship was carrying $1,000,000 worth of propane as cargo. Mindaugus spoke very good English, which he had learned aboard ship. He was wearing a Grateful Dead Lithuanian basketball team t-shirt. Tom and Betty didn't know what to make of it. We got a tour of the ship, including the basketball court(!) and the bridge.

Fortunately, the sea was very calm. Even so, the longboat was moving up and down quite a bit next to the ship. A ladder was suspended down the side of the ship and it would oscillate between a few feet out of reach above my head, to almost even with the longboat for a split-second. I had to grab hold of the ladder as the longboat heaved up, get a grip and hang on before the longboat went down again.

Back on land again, I had dinner with Dobrey and Dennis. Dennis comes over every Saturday for dinner. He lives alone and said he mainly stays on the island because of his dog (~7 years old). The alcohol issue is currently a sticky subject. It is officially illegal but "tolerated". Some islanders want to legalize it, others want to really make it illegal for real. Most of the younger people drink, so if alcohol were really banned more of them would probably leave the island in Dennis' view.

We had banana pilhi with dinner. The pilhi is a common Pitcairn dish that is made a bit differently by each individual. It's basically a pureed fruit of some type with sugar and milk added, baked to the consistency of a firm custard. We also had some breadfruit chips as well as the usual other 10-12 dishes. Dobrey commented, "these chips are hard as a bastard", then joked that she sounded like Dave.

June 15, 1997 (Pitcairn)

Dave stopped in. The Kialoa is still at Henderson, but they are leaving tonight and should be back tomorrow.

[View of Adamstown]

I started walking up the hill and ended up going all the way to Highest Point. I walked up a side path and found myself at Randy's place and Flatland. I continued on and passed the start of the trail along Gannet Ridge. The Rat Pile were coming down from there after laying rat poison in that area. Tom Christian passed me motoring down the road and gave me a bunch of bananas which I ate later at Highest Point with an orange I had picked along the way. Pitcairn has an interesting rule about picking fruit. Most of the fruit trees are on privately cultivated plots. Passersby are allowed to pick fruit to eat while walking, but may not collect it to take home.

Pitcairn Island is not really very big, though it is high in the middle. It took me about 1 hour 15 min to walk to Highest Point at a leisurely pace, where I sat for a while on a picnic bench. I stopped at the duncan between Highest Point and Taro Ground and was amused by the toilet paper, a 1992 Auckland yellow pages. I continued down a different road from the one I went up and was surprised to find myself back at the very distinctive stand of Banyan trees on the main road between the community center and the school. Dobrey had told us that "you can't get lost on Pitcairn. Just walk downhill, and you always get back to Adamstown", and I guess she's right (she did point out that there are a couple of minor tracks that head down to the other side of the island). I headed home to Dobrey's and met Rick and Mike along the way and they came in for lunch, too.

At 3pm the Pitcairners had a volleyball tournament. There were 3 teams of 7 and after round-robin play each team had one win and one loss. It was getting dark so they decided to call it a night and do playoffs tomorrow.

Follow John's Henderson Island saga


Read the final chapter

Lynn Garry Salmon <>{