For years I’ve speculated and thought about what it would be like to visit Pitcairn Island. I had a somewhat romantic vision of the island through my own conceptions and also what I have read about it throughout their history and from others I’ve known who have visited before me. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality. Pitcairn blew my mind in ways no other place ever has and I was only there for three days.
I could sit here and list what there is to see and do on Pitcairn but that wouldn’t be right. That’s the thing about Pitcairn. Seeing the stuff to see and do is easy, you can do it in a day or two if you had to. What’s difficult is seeing the relationships between people and families on an island with only 50 people; where the history goes back 200+ years.
It’s hard to imagine that only four or so families live on this historic piece of Earth that measures roughly one mile by two. It’s tough to see the relationships, the generations, the factions, feelings of self, family, community, love, hate and all other human emotions. I only had a taste but it left me wanting more.
Pitcairn was different for many ways from the many other places I have visited. First, I stayed with a family, an awesome family. The Christians; Tom and Betty, who are parents of four girls.
One of those girls, Jacqui lives on Pitcairn Island and was actually the one who arranged for my trip to the Island. Their other three daughters live in other countries and it’s been years since they were all together.
As an outsider, it seems like living on a tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific seems like a fantastic thing. But when you’ve seen inside a family and how that isolation can leave you feeling empty in many ways, your thoughts change.
Pitcairn is tough to get to. It is expensive to get to. It takes a minimum of three to four days to get there and that’s if you time everything perfectly. Even for locals it is very expensive to travel to and from the island. There is no airport. There is no high-speed boat, seaplane, helicopter or any other means of transport back to the bigger world.
Even once you get back to Mangareva (the closest airport to Pitcairn) then you need an expensive flight back to Tahiti to get another expensive flight to wherever you actually want to go in the world. That’s tough. It can tear a family and a bond with an island, somewhere you may have grown up, apart.
Someone somewhat recently wrote a relatively unflattering book about Pitcairn called ‘Paradise Lost’. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it more as a lost paradise.
Pitcairn has all the elements of paradise. It has gorgeous scenery, a lush interior and all that a subtropical island should have. What it is missing are people: its own people. I feel as though many people who were born there or used to live there have lost their paradise. It’s s shame because as I see it, Pitcairn is just that…paradise.
Pitcairn island is a great place for hiking. It has stunning vistas wherever you look. It has one paved road, an old town square with a small church, post office, and local meeting hall. It is pretty much what you’d want a quaint little English town to be. The difference is that it is located so far from England, New Zealand, Australia or any other country it is associated with is some capacity.
With my friend Lydia from the SV Xplore boat, I did a 40-minute steep uphill then steep downhill hike from the Christians house all the way to St. Paul’s. It is a natural pool at the bottom of a mountain where it meets the sea. It was stunning. The beauty of the colors and sheer power of the water captivated me. The natural rock formations were impressive and it is the type of place you can stare at for hours. The sound of waves crashing and the washing out of foam; watching the fish through the clear water below can be hypnotic.
On the way to St. Paul’s pool is down rope. Down rope is the islands only real beach. The catch is that you have to climb down a near vertical slippery rock and tree formed path down to the beach. It’ll take 20 minutes or so to get down but one wrong step and you can easily fall to your death. No joke.
Needless to say I made it with the help of Brenda who is the resident down rope expert. She took me down and up without incident. When you get down to the beach and are surrounded by massive cliffs on 3 sides of you, you feel small. It kind of hits you that you are on Pitcairn Island. The crashing water echoes around the cliffs and makes you realize why you came all this way.
The ancient petroglyphs on the cliff walls will fascinate you. They are impossible to date. Conventional wisdom says they came from the ancient Polynesians who had come over from Polynesia or from Easter Island but nobody is sure. It doesn’t matter, they’re fun to think about and imagine who, what, when.
On the other side of the island is Gannets Ridge. It is a great walk with steep cliffs on each side to see panoramic views of the island and of Adamstown, the capital and only settlement on Pitcairn.
Passing back trough Adamstown, you can see the grave of John Adams, the last surviving member of the Bounty mutineers. You can also see the aforementioned public square where they have island council meetings. This is where the islands tedious politics, provisions and laws can be hotly debated for hours. Plus the HMS Bounty cannon and anchor lie within town limits on different sites along with a police station and the health center. A doctor is hired on a 12-month contract and is always available for emergencies.
Outside of town and just past the Christians house is Christians Cave. It is a great walk up some steep rocks where you may have to rustle with some goats as you go. Once in the cave, which will be full of goat droppings, you will have some awesome views of Adamstown from the other side plus we were able to see our boat mooring in Bounty Bay. Ask your guide (mine was Jacqui) if you can take the tunnel track back down, it’s worth it!
Bounty Bay is of course where you arrive on Pitcairn. The actual HMS Bounty ship is sunken in Bounty Bay and you can dive down to see the wreck at times. Bounty Bay has a somewhat legendary status among travelers.
The notably rough seas, difficult landing, famous long boats and mystery about the Bounty itself make it a fascinating place. Add in the steep ‘Hill of Difficulty’ that leads from Bounty Bay to Adamstown; which was recently paved, and you’ve got quite a setting for a dramatic entry.
The sites for such a small island are innumerable but the best way to see the island is via ATV; which every local has. It is the only real way to get around the island as aside from the one road, none of the others are paved.
On a side note, there is actually one car on Pitcairn Island, a little Suzuki jeep. Apparently, one of the residents’ daughters had moved to Norfolk Island (Australia); which is where at one time, Pitcairners abandoned Pitcairn for in the 19th century. They obviously returned thereafter. But the daughter had a car on Norfolk and couldn’t bear to sell it. So she shipped it to her family on Pitcairn. The cost of shipping from Norfolk to Pitcairn is astronomical and for the cost, she probably could’ve bought two or three Suzuki’s!
I had a few interesting experiences on the back of ATV’s on Pitcairn. On a Friday night, I was invited to a house party at Andrew’s house at the top of the island. It is the highest house on Pitcairn and likely the most modern, at least of the handful of houses I was in.
I was very excited and was to be picked up, along with the first mate from the boat Alexis (a Corsican guy pronounced Alex-ee), by Pawl. Pawl is a bit of a Pitcairn icon. Pirate Pawl as he is affectionately known is a big man. He has some 11 earrings in each ear and wears a big pirate like necklace and often a bandana. He can be an interesting fellow to meet-not to mention a fine dancer.
After driving like a maniac and nearly throwing Alexis and I off the ATV several times we arrived at Andrews for the party. Once there, I had to do a right of passage kind of thing with Pirate Pawl called the whale’s tooth.
This means that I had to pound a shot of tequila out of a large whale’s tooth along with Pawl. I was not thrilled as I hate Jose Cuervo tequila but it didn’t seem like the sort of thing I could say no to as Pirate Pawl seems to like to get his way. Plus, as I said, he is a big man; so I did it. It was a lot of fun although I still hate Jose Cuervo tequila.
The party lasted for hours running on generator power after the lights go out on the island at 10pm. Andrew had an awesome house, was a gracious host and a really nice guy. Sue, who is a Kiwi that moved to the island a few years ago, is Pawl’s partner and also the local Rocky Horror Picture Show aficionado. She tried to get me to learn the Time Warp. It was ugly; let me tell you, but fun nonetheless.
I felt very privileged to be able to attend such a local party on Pitcairn. As Jacqui said, “who says there’s no nightlife on Pitcairn”. I for one was shocked but incredibly pleasantly surprised.
If you’ve noticed throughout this story, I have used people’s names that live on the island. That’s because everything is done by names on Pitcairn. There are no addresses. There are only 50 people on the whole place and many families have been on Pitcairn forever. Thus the maps of the island list people’s houses by name, and directions go something like take a left at Steve and Olive’s house to get there. It is pretty cool and very unique from my perspective.
All of this aside, what struck me the most and made it the most difficult to leave was that you feel a small part of the island. By the time you arrive, everyone knows your story. Gossip travels on Pitcairn like wildfire. Plus, everyone is so welcoming. It makes you feel like you are at home and always comfortable.
It is a very rare and exciting place to be. A place of history, warm people, characters and a place that will make you ponder the mere existence of it. There is no place like Pitcairn Island and I do not say that lightly. There is no other place in the world, so isolated, with 50 English speaking British citizens who manage to live, for better or for worse, on this paradise in the middle of the Pacific.
My words cannot do the place justice; it needs to be experienced in the flesh. But let me conclude by saying this. As I sped away from Bounty Bay to head back to the SV Xplore on my way out back to Mangareva, I was overcome with emotion. The whole island came down to the dock to say goodbye and waved as Randy and Andrew steered us through the rough seas (although I got soaked).
It was enough to make me shed a tear as I left Pitcairn. That’s never happened to me before from anywhere I’ve visited. My time on Pitcairn, albeit short at only 3 days, will linger forever in my mind and in my heart. There are many mysteries surrounding Pitcairn Island and its history, but it is the wonderful people who made the trip and make the island what it is.