Norfolk Island may possibly be the friendliest island in the world, despite being built on the ruins of one of history’s most brutal prison colonies.
I had read a bit about Norfolk Island before I set off on my four-day visit. I knew that in the 1800s it was one of the most infamous and feared prisons in the British Empire, a place where the ‘worst of the worst’ convicts were sent. I had read the horror stories of the abuse and torment of those convicts at the hands of sadistic overseers, and the liberal use of the gallows, chains, the whip and the lash.
I also knew that to this day it is inhabited by descendants of the original mutineers from Captain Bligh’s ill-fated journey on the Bounty. And, of course, I was familiar with the iconic Norfolk pine, seen on so many beaches around Australia.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer natural beauty of the island, or the warmth, friendliness and, yes, quirkiness, of the islanders. And I wasn’t expecting to find a place where the ghosts of the past still exist among the living of today.
Norfolk Island rests in splendid isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1610km from Sydney and 1063km from Auckland. Although it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney, you begin to appreciate Norfolk’s isolation as you scan the ocean below for the pinprick that is the island.
Before you set off for Norfolk, you need to pack your passport. Yes, Norfolk is what is known as an external territory of Australia, but the Air New Zealand flights that service the island are international and you will need your passport to clear customs once you get there.
As soon as you have had your passport stamped by what surely must be the friendliest customs officials in the world, you enter the world of Norfolk. And what a world it is.
The obvious way to see Norfolk is by hiring a car and setting off to explore with the easy-to-follow visitor map of the island in your hand. There’s no traffic, no traffic lights and just one roundabout where you might occasionally queue behind two cars for a moment. Just remember that ducks and cows have right of way on the road.
There’s a lot to see. Norfolk is a volcanic outcrop and three-quarters of it are covered by National Parks and reserves. Walking tracks criss-cross the northern part, taking you through towering pine forests and along the tops of plunging cliffs with the surging waves of the Pacific pounding below.
If you take a guided tour, your escort is likely to be one of the original mutineers’ descendants. John Christian – a seventh-generation descendant of chief mutineer Fletcher Christian – and Larry Quintal – a descendant of the Bounty’s able-bodied seaman Matthew Quintal – recounted the extraordinary history of Norfolk and explained what it’s like to live on a small and remote paradise island with less than 2000 fellow residents.
If you ask them, they are happy to talk a bit of “Norf’k” – a mixture of Tahitian and 18th century seafaring English. It’s the language that originated from the original Bounty mutineers who hid on the even more remote Pitcairn Island with Tahitian wives and is still used by many locals today.
This is a place where the phone book lists its residents by their nicknames, such as ‘Hook’, ‘Lettuce’, ‘Knuckles’ and ‘Goof’. It’s where, to celebrate your 100th birthday, an avenue of Norfolk Pines is planted in your honour. It’s also a place where ‘God Save the Queen’ is still the national anthem. The islanders are ardent royalists, dating back to 1856 when, having outgrown tiny Pitcairn Island and facing starvation, Queen Victoria allowed their Bounty ancestors to relocate to Norfolk Island.
In 1774, when Captain Cook became the first white man to land on the island, he observed a single Norfolk Island pine on a bleak corner of Emily Bay. That same tree – now known as ‘Lone Pine’ – is 650 years old and still stands. I find it moving to look at and touch a pine tree that was once also gazed upon by Captain Cook. Back then, James Cook described Norfolk Island as “Paradise”. Almost 240 years later, I reckon that description still stands.