The towering pine trees of Norfolk Island must have been a welcome sight for the sailors on Captain Cook’s ship ‘Resolution’, as they ventured ever further on their extraordinary voyage.
Sited in the Pacific between Australia and New Zealand, the small island was a useful landfall anyway, quite apart from supplying the long, straight timbers used for replacing masts that had been battered by the elements during Cook’s unprecedented journey.
Later, once New South Wales had been established by the British, Norfolk Island came to be used as a grim penal colony – to house the worst of the worst on an island from which there was no possibility of escape.
The forbidding ruins of the convict buildings still stand, set against the green meadows and bright blue skies of a Pacific island that is strangely European in feel and culture.
This is no exotic, tropical desert island of popular myth – there’s no lush rainforest or sweep of golden sands. Instead, sheer cliffs fall to a dangerous sea, while the cries of hapless and brutalised convicts echo down the years through the crumbling walls and arches of the old settlement.
If Norfolk Island just had a colonial convict legacy, that would be remarkable enough – and reason to make the bumpy 800-mile flight from Australia to the main town of Burnt Pine, an evocative name for an island settlement if there ever was one.
But once the last convicts were transferred to Tasmania in the 1850s, a second group of settlers arrived from the Pitcairn Islands, near Tahiti.
These had their own extraordinary story to tell – as descendants of the mutineers from the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and their Tahitian brides, who had outgrown Pitcairn. Their surnames – the solid English names of simple seamen, transported halfway around the world – are still common on Norfolk Island today, existing within a culture that owes as much to England and the South Seas as it does to Australia, which now governs affairs on the island.
I’d say you have to be fairly fascinated by islands to contemplate visiting Norfolk Island, remote as it is, but the rewards are immense.
Rent a bike and you can pedal through rolling hills with scintillating ocean views, and investigate a history that still sends a chill down the spine. Along the wild coastline are isolated jetties where fishermen land the local catch, and sudden dense patches of forest, while Burnt Pine is more small rural town than large capital – the locals used to tourists and visitors, but carrying on business in an entirely unhurried way.
It’s a different kind of island life – on a very different kind of island.
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