Another visit to Norfolk Island

With my partner working on Norfolk Island, the South Pacific paradise has become my de facto holiday home and I’ve made four visits in the past 18 months despite the pandemic. This time last year the island was one of the first Australian jurisdictions to close its borders, an action that seemed shocking at the time, but one which was quickly copied and made mainstream by the bigger states. The action worked and the island has been COVID-free bar one case which was quickly isolated. The only effect today is that the usual air carrier Air New Zealand cannot deploy its planes from Sydney and Brisbane due to travel restrictions and Qantas are filling the breach at least until financial year end.

The route is providing important revenue for Qantas at a time when international routes are closed and the planes are full of tourists taking one of the few opportunities to get “overseas” at the moment. The bustling streets and buses on the island are good for local business but it is causing stress on food supplies. With no supply ship coming to the island in the last few months supermarket shelves in Burnt Pine township are bare, there was rationing of essentials, and cafes are only serving small cups of coffee amid dwindling milk supplies.

Island administrator Eric Hutchinson said Norfolk had a shortage of flour, cooking oil, sugar and rice. Locally produced food such as fish, beef and vegetables are ensuring there is no starvation despite the inconvenience and a ship was due in the weekend as I write these words. Longer term Hutchinson told media there was a plan to build a temporary landing stage so trucks could drive off ships. “That will change the landscape,” he said.

There was a barge landing point at beautiful Ball Bay (above) on the east side of the island. That jetty was a temporary structure used by contractor Boral to unload equipment to redo the airport runway last year and was also used to ship in other supplies from the mainland while it existed. But part of the contract with Boral was for them to remove the jetty on completion of the work. In any case it was occasionally unsafe with at least one barge escaping from its moorings and crashing ashore in the dangerous surf.

Big surf is a fact of life on Norfolk Island and rough weather is the norm (which could delay the unloading of the current ship). When we tried to hitch a boatride over to Phillip Island (above, rear) on a previous trip it took us nearly two weeks in the height of summer to get seas calm enough to do the treacherous 7km trip, Even the nearer Nepean Island just 2km offshore is out of bounds due to the surf beyond Kingston harbour.

Luckily Emily Bay remains a calm haven whatever the weather. Situated west of Kingston harbour, the bay is protected from the swell by a coral reef and offers safe year-round swimming, though you need to be careful of the currents. As the only safe beach on the island, it is a popular spot but is big enough never to to seem crowded and is always an oasis of calm whatever the conditions on the ocean.

Every morning and afternoon I went out to snorkel in the reef which was usually crystal clear apart from at very high tide in a big swell. I loved the vibrant fishlife with my favourite being the bright blue wrasse, one of the larger fish on the reef. All the time I was there there was a running joke that I had not seen any of the island’s many eels. A friend of my partner rubbed it in as she saw eels on numerous occasions. Finally my partner came to the rescue and pointed out this stout moray eel above poking out from a isolated spot of coral. And she took the photo too.

The rockpools were full of life at low tide including this lovely large crab. It seems the ecosystem in the Norfolk Island coral is in good health. Academic John Turnbull has just returned from a research trip to the island and found healthy corals on many survey sites. While large fish like shark were rare, he recorded blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish. “Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk,” Turnbull said.

Elsewhere there are more reminders of Norfolk’s stunning landscape. East of Duncombe Bay are a group of small islets which include Cathedral Rock. The basalt that makes up Cathedral Rock cooled into columns. A gaping hole through the bottom of Cathedral Rock allows waves pass straight through the resulting archway. Duncombe Bay is where Captain James Cook landed in 1774, the first European to set foot on Norfolk Island which he named “in honor of the noble family of Howards”. Cook found the island uninhabited but with plenty of fresh water, spruce pines, fish and “babbage palms”. Cook’s discovery made Norfolk a useful adjunct to the infant colony of New South Wales in 1788.

Philip Gidley King and his small band landed at Kingston in March 1788 (as did the Pitcairn Islanders 68 years later). The difficulties of getting in and out of Kingston were soon exposed with the sinking of the Sirius off Slaughter Bay in 1790. The first penal colony lasted until 1814 and was completely destroyed when it was vacated so it would be of no use to enemy nations. The second settlement began in the 1820s as the jails of Sydney overflowed and the colonists saw the need for a new harsher punishment centre.

Possibly the oldest surviving building from the second settlement is the Crankmill. It was built in 1827 as a store. Later uses included grain storage, milling, a hospital and a barracks. Later still Pitcairners used it as a boat shed. The British installed powered cranks in 1837. Prisoners operated them to turn a pair of mill stones that ground corn and wheat. Intended as a punishment, it was constantly sabotaged but was mostly replaced by a windmill in 1840. Yet it continued as a punishment until the end of the second settlement in 1855, the only one of its kind in Australia. Fire gutted the building in the late 1800s and the Norfolk Island Whaling Company housed boats there in the 1900s, finally falling into ruin mid 20th century.

Another early building is government house. It has been the official resident of island governors since 1829. Amid the succession of early brutal governors was one exception Alexander Maconochie. Maconochie studied the penal system in Tasmania and wrote a book in 1839 called Thoughts on Convict Management and Other Subjected Connected with the Australian Penal Colonies. Each prisoner would earn marks of commendation through works and conduct and would be freed once they reached a set total. He avoided the use of leg irons, neck chains, “spreadeagling”, and the gag while the lash would be used as a last resort. A new Whig administration was anxious to see how his polices would work on brutalised Norfolk and he became commandant in 1840. Governor George Gipps would not allow his system to be used on repeat offenders, but Maconochie defied him, which led to the system’s downfall when word got back to Sydney. Although Maconochie achieved good results, the Colonial Office decided he was too lenient and the island returned to its state of terror in 1843.

The Pitcairn Islanders were quick to claim the island in 1856 after it was abandoned a second time. They were descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty The passage of time and the arrival of religion had given them the veneer of respectability with the mutiny offenders long dead. By 1856 the islanders were under the sway of George Hunn Nobbs. Nobbs was not related to the mutineers. He arrived on Pitcairn in 1828 and used his education to become its effective leader. Nobbs was instrumental in convincing islanders to move to Norfolk in 1856. The newcomers more or less ignored the previous British settlement, though they are all buried together in the beautiful graveyard at Cemetery Bay.

The sense of grievance Pitcairners still have is abundantly clear across the island. In Burnt Pine there is a prominent display of painted green hands called Hands Up for Democracy to show the “concern and distress” Pitcairners have felt since they lost self-government in 2015. The People for Democracy Movement along with the the Council of Elders and the Chamber of Commerce have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanting the restoration of good governance and democracy. The say the removal of the island’s autonomy in 2015 was ill-considered and poorly planned. Council of Elders President David Buffett said the island no longer has a say in the provision of key government services, such as education, policing and health. “They have been farmed out, for example, to New South Wales and there is now some discussion being held with the Queensland government to farm some out in the Queensland area,” Buffett said. “But there is no participation by Norfolk Island people in that process, and that is obviously a lack of democracy and in the lack of democracy it means a lessening of our cultural impact in terms of those factors.”

As I left for home and looked out over the world heritage site of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, I reflected on another eventful trip. For such a small island, it has an outsized history and has profoundly affected all who travel here. Visiting the island in the 1930s AB “Banjo” Paterson noted island settlers “saw for the first time tropic abundance, so much so that some of them were inclined to stop there and not go on.” He recognised its qualities of paradise. “Why should they kill themselves working? Here was fifty inches of rain a year and every kind of fruit and vegetable,” Paterson wrote. But as author Robert Macklin found 80 years later it is a dark paradise. Food stress is a real problem, when tourists arrive but the supply ship doesn’t. Meanwhile unresolved tensions between Pitcairners and non-Pitcairners still dominate Norfolk Island’s political landscape. Nothing in its future is certain, though I know one thing for sure. I’ll be back again.

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