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Published: August 23rd 2011
Appearing as an emerald speck on the vast sapphire waters between Australia and New Zealand, Norfolk Island is largely unknown to the outside world. Originally visited by Polynesians as early as 1150, the Island’s most famous inhabitants are the Pitcairners (descendants of the Bounty
mutineers from their 1789 escapade) who relocated here in 1856. Nowadays Norfolk Island is said to be a travel destination for “newly-weds and nearly-deads” and judging by the demographics of the fellow passengers on the plane, this could well be true. The exception was a number of conference attendees, but I met no other solo travellers during my five days on the island.
The plane soared over the white capped waves and we swept over pines and palms before skidding along the runway and halting in front of an unpretentious terminal. Stepping onto a sunny tarmac, my senses were agreeably astonished as I inhaled the cleanest air to ever fill my lungs. I breathed deeply again and the pure, cool air enlivened me with its glorious freshness.
I boarded a minibus that trundled along uneven roads towards my accommodation, a place that provided a wonderful view over Kingston (Norfolk’s original settlement site) and Sydney Bay.
The Island’s incessant winds carried the shuddering sound of a pounding surf to the warm comfort of my bed - a delightful way to fall asleep of an evening.
Knowing that the first two days promised the only fine weather of my stay, I embarked on an extended visit of every major outdoor site – not a difficult task given that the Island is only eight kilometres long and five kilometres wide. Getting lost is exceedingly difficult, for all roads lead to the Island’s centre, where Burnt Pine, the Island’s uninspiring commercial heart, is located.
The recommended way of seeing the island is to join a half day orientation tour, but my usual averseness to tours saw me explore Norfolk on my own. The Island’s most obvious sight is the Norfolk Pine – a tree of such immense grandeur that it adorns Norfolk’s flag. Ridges, dales and roadways are lined with these tall conifers, and their silhouettes against clear, cloudy or sunset skies is a stirring sight.
Closer to the ground is another common feature of Norfolk – for hundreds of freely roaming cows have right of way anywhere on the island, and a herd of these
beasts wandering along the road is the closest thing to a traffic jam for at least 1000 kilometres in any direction. Once after sightseeing, I discovered that a group of lowing cattle had stationed themselves around my vehicle, which precluded my departure until after they have moved.
The ambling bovines are not the only quaint aspect of this island. It is considered good manners to share the “Norfolk Wave” – where drivers exchange waves when approaching each other on the road. Most times it is a subtle raising of fingers from the steering wheel, but sometimes it is the full hand lifted in acknowledgement. The only people who did not partake were some tourists so focused on finding their way that they forgot this nicety.
Such quaintness was everywhere; the 1800 inhabitants only warrant telephone numbers of five digits in length, which is one more digit than vehicle number plates. There are no traffic lights, only one roundabout, and duty-free alcohol can be purchased on any day of week – except a Sunday. I attended an evening church service and community singing session at the beautiful Melanesian and English influenced St Barnabas' Chapel, where the wooden ceiling of
the stone chapel resembles the keel of a ship. The splendid organ led the elderly congregation through a number of hymns, including some Pitcairn creations. At the conclusion, those assembled sung a joyous recessional hymn as they filed out of the church into a cool Norfolk evening – very quaint.
Norfolk Island also celebrates Thanksgiving Day (on the last Wednesday in November) due to its introduction by whalers from the United States. This is a declared public holiday where locals gather at churches to display and auction off their produce (proceeds going to the church) before they retire to their respective homes for a Thanksgiving feast.
No visit to the island is complete without enjoying the natural beauty of the Norfolk Island National Park, where colourful crimson rosellas dart amongst lush green foliage. Within its realm is the Captain Cook Memorial, where the eponymous captain first landed on these shores in 1774 and staked claim on behalf of the British Empire. Laying on an exposed finger of land, this continually blustery bluff has remarkable views of the jagged coastline. Most stunning of them all is nearby Anson Bay, a tiny beach nestled at the foot of plunging, encircling
escarpment – it must be one of the most dramatic and beautiful beaches in the world.
After two days the weather changed as predicted, and that miserable combination of driving wind and pelting rain arrived, thus curtailing my sightseeing to a large degree. I spent most of this time in the historic centre of Kingston, a remarkably well preserved colonial area, but with a ghastly past. Three settlements resided here – the first and third by free settlers, but the second by recidivist convicts that was the most brutal of any Australian colony. The Pier Store housed relics from the Sirius
whose dashing against rocks in 1790 (and the subsequent loss of its supplies) led the Island’s population to near starvation. On the upper floors were relics from the Bounty
, including a well-preserved cannon that has borne witness to an incredible history. Further from the bay is a street called Quality Row whose excellent collection of colonial buildings is only matched by archaic tombstones in the nearby graveyard.
Travelling to Norfolk Island is like stepping back into age where communities were tighter, safer and more friendly – where else does an immigration official hug their close friends as
they pass through passport control? The good folk of Norfolk ensure that this is one of the safest places in the world. By way of example, upon booking a museum pass at the Tourist Information Office, the helpful Kath informed me that my credit card and driver’s license had been reported as found. I was initially incredulous, but upon checking my wallet these items were indeed missing. I was perhaps too distracted by the friendly licks of the two dogs at a car hire office to notice their absence. A few phone calls later, the cards were again in my hand. “Everything is safe on the island” proudly stated the returner, and I was so certain that my card had not been misused that I judged it unnecessary to scrutinise my online bank account.
Enjoying such a “splendid isolation” (to quote Sir John Nimmo’s 1975 Royal Commission on the Island’s constitutional status) does present significant problems. Due to the expense, fresh milk is only delivered to the island once a week (obviously all of those cows are not of the milking variety) and any foodstuff on the island is dizzyingly expensive; items were double the price on the Australian
mainland, and Australia is already home to some of the most expensive supermarkets on earth.
I saw few young adults on the Island, perhaps many had been lured away by education and the promise of a life filled with more variety and opportunities. This will have obvious consequences in the future as the island grapples with a aging population, but matters are further complicated as these elderly residents seem more loyal to the Island’s history and traditions then do their younger counterparts.
As irresistible as the pounding surf and gusty breezes are, so too is the tide and wind of change. Norfolk cannot achieve self-sufficiency and is receiving increasing financial assistance from Australia; but as with most financial aid, it comes with provisos. Locals are understandably apprehensive on the consequences of these conditions. Hopefully, decision makers do not attempt to transform the island into a replica of an Australian rural town; there is already too much homogeneity in the world as cultural diversity is eroded on the tide of western societal expansion. One sincerely hopes that Norfolk’s residents can proudly clutch their unique heritage to their hearts for many generations to come.
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