Pitcairn Island

By-Dave Moran

Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island

Is that a flicker of white?

It’s hard to tell, just a gentle sea breeze, barely enough to fill any flapping canvas. The horizon and the sea seem as one – no line separating the two. There it is again – or was it – a flash of white? My eyes are weary and weak and my soul is aching for the smell of an English pub and the sight of green meadows. Will they find me – then hang me – God was it worth it … the mutiny?

That flicker of white again – no it’s in my mind’s eye – the vast sea is empty of the enemy – time to go home.

As I gazed at the wind swept sea from what is now known as Christian’s Cave I felt close to the mutineer and the above thoughts rumbled through my mind. You cannot be in such a place and not feel his presence.

My mind continued to wander with the thoughts of a troubled man whose daily ritual was to climb hundreds of metres to this gaping hole in a sheer vertical cliff to search for a flicker of white on the blue vista whose waters hid and protected him and his men from the hangman’s noose

Pitcairn Island, or as the locals call it Pitkern Ilan, is a mere speck of volcanic basalt rock whose head breaks the surface of the Pacific Ocean to a height of 340 metres half way between New Zealand and South America – not an easy place to get to!

I have always had a fascination for visiting places off the beaten track and are a mission to get to! If there is a possibility of diving some shipwrecks and if the wrecks are of historical value and better still, if their sinking created a story of human endeavour that continues through to present day, my bags are half packed!

The wreck of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty was a dive of which I had only dreamt.

You just cannot jump on a plane and land on Pitcairn – unless you are into extreme adventures and crash landings are on your must do list!

The safe, less extreme option is arriving by sea.

Pacific Expeditions Ltd specialises in running expeditions to remote locations aboard their16m (55ft) steel catamaran MV Bounty Bay. Owner/skippers Graham Wragg and Huub van Buchem have a wealth of knowledge between them about some of the remotest islands in the South Pacific. They regularly run expeditions to Pitcairn and her surrounding uninhabited islands of Oeno which is the Pitcairners once a year picnic Island, Henderson which has World Heritage status and less frequently to Ducie which, like many coral atolls, is the resting place for several shipwrecks.

I guess most readers have knowledge of the history of the infamous mutiny that occurred aboard the Bounty while anchored off Tahiti. Amazingly over 2000 books and articles and five major films have told the story which is very briefly:

The Bounty had spent five and a half months propagating breadfruit to ship to England and during that time Tahiti seduced the sailors; the thoughts of returning to the shackles of life at sea and the bitter chills of an English winter were thoughts many could not bear and the threat of a hangman’s rope breaking their necks melted with each tropical sunset. On 28 April 1789 as Captain Bligh prepared his ship’s return to the motherland, Fletcher Christian, the acting second officer and his band of 25 mutineers, took control of the ship.

After casting Bligh and 18 men adrift in an open boat Christian set sail in search of a safe haven. After a few aborted attempts on various islands to set up a base he returned to Tahiti where 16 of his crew decided to stay and on 22 September with nine fellow mutineers, six Polynesian men, 12 women and a baby girl they set sail again heading south east, eventually stumbling on Pitcairn Island in January 1790. Knowing that they would be hunted and fearing the burn of a rope around their necks they burnt the Bounty after stripping her of materials which they needed to help them survive on their rock.

This blazing act firmly condemned them to spending the rest of their days on Pitcairn.

As the years thundered by treachery, drunkenness, lust and murder destroyed the community.

When two British ships, HMS Briton and HMS Tagus arrived on 17 September 1814 only John Adams remained from the original mutineers. John had reestablished a community based on Christian principles and life was peaceful. So impressed by what they witnessed the two captains agreed it would be ‘an act of cruelty and inhumanity’ to arrest him – 25 years of isolation had ended. Today the mutineers’ adventurous blood flows through their descendents who are sprinkled around the world. Norfolk Island, New Zealand, Australia and of course Pitcairn have the largest numbers.

A smudge on the horizon slowly started to harden into a solid black shape as the MV Bounty Bay slowly cruised in a confused sea towards our destination Pitcairn.

You can not help at such times but feel the mutineers’ breath flow across your face and through your hair – it was January 1790 and we were in a time machine aboard the Bounty – the horizon’s black smudge still looks the same! You can only speculate as to the mood of those aboard the Bounty that day – had they found their safe haven?You feel a lump in your throat and your eyes fill knowing how their search for freedom would eventually end in tragedy for most of them.

Pitcairn has virtually no anchorages that are considered safe by seaman. There is no safe harbour to slip into so we drop anchor in the lee of the island and await the arrival of the famous longboats (average 14m long) that have been specially built in England and New Zealand to handle the rollercoaster ride ashore.

The leaping bow of O’Leary, a 14 m aluminium colossus, thrusts its head above the raising swells as it smashes its way toward us. It appeared full of islanders with one powerfully built man in the stern with a firm grip on the tiller.

He’s done it all before, soon his clinging passengers felt the freshness of wet salt trickle down their cheeks as the 105 HP motor took control of the crashing surf into Bounty Bay. Then with a quick, skilful flick of the skipper’s wrist we are bought safely alongside a solid concrete jetty which provides some protection from the chasing white horses. We knew the Bounty’s remains lie in just a few metres beyond the Jetty’s wall – my heart sank a little – with the present sea conditions a dive would be suicidal and highly entertaining for the locals!

When visitors arrive on the Island it is a business day for the Pitcairners and we are soon divided into small groups and whisked away on quad bikes to set up house with the various families that were billeting those of us who wished to stay ashore for the next few nights.

What friendly people! You get the feeling that in their own way they respect that you have travelled 480 km from Pitcairn’s nearest inhabited island of Mangareva to visit their island – we were sea people too. The island’s main meeting area is in The Square in the heart of Adamstown.

The Square is a very small area fenced by the Seventh-Day Adventist church, post office/money exchange and the public hall/court house whose walls display many gifts from visiting ships/navies and private people. The hall was being used as a school room while a new building was being constructed. We were greeted by crystal clear sparkling eyes as we dropped in on New Zealand teacher Suzan Davey who was loving her experience of teaching a unique group of eager children.

In the Square is displayed the Bounty’s anchor, recovered in 1957 and the ship’s swivel canon, recovered in 1999.

Just above the Square is the excellent museum managed by Elaina Wereneichik. On display are many interesting island artifacts including stone tools left by the long forgotten first inhabitants who have also left their mark with Polynesian petroglyphs at a place named Down Rope. The Bounty relics and historical artifacts including the famous Bounty bible that John Adams used to teach the Christian faith, he also used it to teach reading and writing.

This island has heaps of attitude. When you first encounter the island up close you soon realise you do not mess with it – beautiful but foreboding!

The names sprinkled around the coastal cliffs are a legacy to its turbulent yet colourful past. Some obviously recording misadventures by some of the locals!: Break ‘im Hip, Robert Fall, Where Dick Fall, Dan Fall, Nelie Fall, Headache, Down the God, Stinking Apple, Dog Head, Funny Bubu, Rats Hole, Oh Dear, to name just a few … yes this is a place with attitude, a place you know your feet are stepping where a mutineer once stood and gazed out from his prison at the seemingly endless ocean surrounding him.

What I loved about the island and its people as I walked the hills and small lush valleys was the resolve of the 50 or so people who call Pitcairn home. They are resourceful people carving out virtually a subsistence living on a fertile rock far away from the confusion of modern day life, yet most have all been there and decided to return to their roots. With modern communications they can if they wish, view the troubles of the outside world – it’s only a mouse click away. Visiting tourist boats allow the islanders to trade their island carving and souvenirs to the passing parade of passengers. It is a welcome source of income.

The children are amazing. My lifetime buddy Clarke Espie and I were billeted with the Warren-Peu family. Charlene a seventh generation descendent from Young and Christian and her electrician husband Vaine share their comfortable home with their four fantastic children. As we walked the island trails the two older boys took great delight in showing us the island’s features. It reminded me of how children in big cities have been robbed of their childhood. Bare footed, Ralph and Jayden scampered up trees to snatch an orange for you to eat or a nut to try and best of all show their skill of being Tarzan, swinging high on vines hanging from the leafy overhead canopy. Their cheeky smiles and squeals of delight as the cameras clicked will remain always. They were truly free, maybe Christian won after all.

Our stay on the Island was to be cut short by two nights due to a large weather front heading our way, it was time to up anchor and head for the safety of Mangareva’s huge lagoon.

As I packed my bag, Charlene wrote in my book about Pitcairn. She used their traditional language which sounds an amazing mixture of English, Irish, Scottish, and Southern New Zealand – can you believe that!

Hi Dave, Bin es goodin fer have you stay ya with us. Hope you like ef.

Charlene, Ralph, Jayden, Kimiora and Torika.

Thanks guys I hope to return.

To dive the Bounty’s scattered remains is still tugging at my subconscious but more importantly now that I have touched part of Pitcairn’s soul there is an even stronger pull to return – just to wander her trails with time to spare – to stop and soak up the past and the present – to really experience one of the world’s remotest villages.

Fact file:

Pitcairn Island: Is situated at Latitude 25-04 south. Longitude 130 06 west – mid way between New Zealand and South America. The Island is of irregular shape: 3.2km (2 miles) long by 1.6km (1 mile) wide. Covers an area of approximately 1,1200 acres (450 hectares) The island was first discovered by Europeans when Captain Philip Carteret aboard HMS Swallow approached the island on 3 July 1767, some 23 years before the Bounty mutineers’ dropped their anchor there.

Pitcairn’s full history visit:http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/history.shtml. His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty: Originally built as a merchant ship but was then assigned to England’s Royal Navy where it was used for expedition voyages. Her three masts were shortened and the ballast reduced on Bligh’s orders because of his concerns of rounding Cape Horn. The Bounty’s measurements are: length 26m (85 ft), width 7.60m (25ft), draught 3.50m (11.5ft), displacement 215 tonnes. Bounty was a little ship armed with four cannons and eight culverins cannons, she was much more a merchant ship than a real frigate. Visit:


Further reading: Nature’s Playground/Dive Annual 2007: Oeno Island a remote paradise.

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