A Visit to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in March 2003

On 25 January 2003 I sailed from Valparaiso, Chile to Papeete, Tahiti on the 513-passenger German-registered cruise ship MS Deutschland.  During the 16-day cruise the Deutschland called at Chile's Robinson Crusoe Island, Easter Island and Pitcairn Island as well as Fakarava and Moorea in French Polynesia.  On 4 February I landed at Pitcairn in smooth seas and got to explore that island for half a day. 

I had first attempted to land at Pitcairn during a previous cruise on the Deutschland in August 2000.  However, that attempt was frustrated by a 3-meter sea swell.  No passengers were allowed to disembark from the Deutschland that time.  Then in November 2002 during a second Pitcairn attempt aboard the Seven Seas Navigator I did manage to land.  But because passengers were recalled to the ship after only 20 minutes, I never had a chance to explore anything but Pitcairn's dock area.  

I have been fascinated by faraway Pitcairn Island for nearly 40 years.  In the early 1960's as a young teenager I read Nordhoff and Hall's Bounty Trilogy novels (Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn's Island) and began collecting Pitcairn Island postage stamps. 

One of the most remote of the world's inhabited islands, Pitcairn lies in the South Pacific Ocean roughly midway between Tahiti and Easter Island.  Pitcairn Island is 4,155 nautical miles (nm) southwest of Los Angeles, 3,504 nm northwest of Santiago, Chile and 3,314 nm northeast of Wellington, New Zealand.  Pitcairn is 11,281 nm from Cairo.

Pitcairn was discovered in 1767 by a midshipman named Pitcairn aboard HMS Swallow, but the island was not settled until 1790 when Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers arrived aboard the Bounty.  In a tale immortalized on film by Clark Gable and Charles Laughton (1934), Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard (1962) and Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins (1984), Fletcher Christian seized the Bounty from Captain William Bligh and eventually steered it to Pitcairn Island.

The Bounty had sailed from England in 1787 on a mission to gather breadfruit trees in Polynesia and transport them to the British West Indies where, it was thought, breadfruit would provide a new, cheap source of food for slaves on the sugar plantations.  After ten months and 27,000 nm of sailing, the Bounty finally arrived in Tahiti.  During the five months which the ship remained in Tahiti while young breadfruit trees were cultivated, many of the crew became captivated by the local women.

The famous mutiny on the Bounty took place some 3 1/2 weeks into the sail from Tahiti westward toward the West Indies.  Bligh and 18 loyal crew were set adrift in a longboat.  Against all odds nearly all of these men eventually reached Dutch-held Timor (Indonesia) after a 3,600-nm open boat voyage.  Meanwhile, Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers returned to Tahiti for their women.  After leaving behind at Tahiti 16 men who wished to remain, nine mutineers and their women plus nine other Polynesian men and women roamed the Pacific for several months in search of an island on which they could hide.  Eventually Fletcher Christian sailed the Bounty to Pitcairn which, fortunately, had been charted incorrectly by 200 miles.  There the Bounty was burned to hide all evidence of the mutineers' arrival.

Most of the 50 current inhabitants of Pitcairn are descendants of the original Bounty mutineers and the Polynesians who accompanied them.  Some of the others are descendants of shipwrecked sailors who decided to remain on the island and marry.

The Pitcairn Islands, which consist of Pitcairn plus the uninhabited Henderson, Oeno and Ducie, are today administered as a British colony via an administrative headquarters in New Zealand.  Pitcairn's island council handles such local affairs as island maintenance, postal and medical services and communications.  Pitcairn's chief source of income derives from the sale of postage stamps to collectors.  

About one mile wide and two miles long, Pitcairn is of volcanic origin.  The highest point on the island is some 1,100 feet.  The land is hilly but fertile; and the islanders grow sweet potatoes, yams, pineapples, cabbages, beans, tomatoes, citrus and bananas.  There are no farm animals, although poultry and wild goats exist on the island. 

Pitcairn is completely surrounded by steep, rocky cliffs.  There is only one small harbor, at Bounty Bay.  Access to this harbor is via longboat operated by the islanders.  A longboat carries about two dozen passengers on an open deck.  Even in calm seas getting into and out of a Pitcairn longboat while it is alongside a cruise ship can be challenging.  The longboat bobs up and down with the waves, so the timing of one's step is everything.  On my previous landing at Pitcairn I had to climb down a rope ladder and then jump "blind" into a longboat when instructed to do so by the crew.  Luckily this time the Deutschland employed an external stairway.  But even the slight sea swell still made the step into the longboat an exciting one.

Upon landing on the island, I first had my photograph taken in front of the "Welcome to Pitcairn Island" sign above the boathouse.  The next order of business was climbing the so-called Hill of Difficulty to reach the small settlement of Adamstown, named for the last surviving mutineer.  One of the Bounty anchors is displayed in the small town square.  Facing the square are the post office, the courthouse, the museum, the library and a Seventh Day Adventist church.  In the church is one of the original Bounty bibles. 

I was fortunate to be offered a tour of the entire island in an open all-terrain vehicle.  The first stop was on a hilltop called Ship Landing Point overlooking Bounty Bay from where I could view Adamstown.  Above the settlement is a large cave where Fletcher Christian maintained a watch out over the sea.   

Then we drove to St. Paul's Point.  Directly below, islanders can enjoy an ocean swim in a pool which is afforded protection by large boulders.  On the way we passed a very steep trail leading to "Down Rope."  There on the cliff face are inscribed Polynesian petroglyphs.  From these markings and a few stone tools found on the island it is known that Polynesians visited Pitcairn long before the arrival of the Bounty mutineers. 

My tour continued to Tautama where I saw wild goats grazing.  Then we drove to Taro Ground where the radio station is situated.  Ham radio enthusiasts from around the world are ever eager to make contact with remote Pitcairn.  We went on to the highest point on the island, and from there we drove down Garnet's Ridge back to Adamstown.  On the way I took in views of beautiful uninhabited "Tedside."  This term is apparently a corruption of the phrase "the other side."

Back in Adamstown, I visited the schoolhouse.  A school teacher from New Zealand is posted to the island on a two-year contract.  I also saw the unoccupied and delapidated house of Thursday October Christian, Fletcher Christian's first son, who died in 1866.  Nearby is the cemetery which contains gravestones dating back to the nineteenth century.   

On the way back to the longboat I stopped at The Edge which overlooks Bounty Bay.  There rests the anchor of the Acadia, one of the many ships which has foundered in the Pitcairn Islands over the years.  The Acadia ran aground at Ducie Island in 1881.  The anchor was raised and carried to Pitcairn in 1990.

While I had been exploring Pitcairn during the morning, about 35 islanders had come aboard the Deutschland to sell their wooden handicrafts, woven baskets, T-shirts and postage stamps.  So after a quick lunch I shopped for wooden turtles, my favorite Pitcairn handicraft.  I also purchased a large model of a Pitcairn longboat.

During afternoon tea three of the islanders were interviewed in the ship's auditorium.  Then it was time for the Pitcairners to bid us goodbye.  As they sailed away in their longboat, the islanders looked up at the ship's passengers crowded along the railings and sang us a farewell song. 
For further information about the Mutiny on the Bounty saga and about Pitcairn Island, visit www.lareau.org, which contains many useful links.  The U. S. Pitcairn Island Study Group (PISG) publishes an interesting quarterly log while the U. K. PISG chapter publishes a very informative semi-annual log.  Refer to www.pisg.org for contact information.  Those fascinated by the Pitcairn story will also be interested in Norfolk Island, situated between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia.  Because Pitcairn's inhabitants were evacuated to Norfolk (but some later returned to Pitcairn), the islands' histories are intertwined.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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