What's the History of Norfolk Island?

Norfolk Island was initially the western most settlement of the Polynesian peoples, who then left it uninhabited before it was ‘discovered’ by James Cook on the Resolution. He named the land after his patron, the Duchess of Norfolk. Unfortunately, she died before he was able to tell her. He also reported that the island was perfect for settlement as the local trees - the so called Norfolk Pines -were ideal for ship masts and the local flax would provide useful material for sails. He was wrong on both counts. The wood proved too brittle for anything larger than roofs and furniture and  no-one knew how to weave the flax. One commander kidnapped two Maori men from New Zealand, so they could show them, but they didn’t know how. ‘It’s women’s work', they explained.

The United Kingdom used the island as a support settlement for Sydney Cove before lack of natural resources and a decent harbour forced its closure. Ten years later they tried again, the government keen to establish another convict colony. In 1856 the island was handed over to the Pitcairn Islanders, who had outgrown their original home, which was lacking in water and sustenance. ( From Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island) Some of them weren’t sure that Norfolk was any better, although the soil here is said to be good, and they returned home.

Is Norfolk Island Part of Australia?

Norfolk Island became the first external territory of the newly federated Australia, in 1914. Together with the neighbouring Phillip Island and Nepean Island, the three islands collectively form the Territory of Norfolk Island. In 1979 it was granted self government, but there have been ongoing issues with raising revenue to maintain the infrastructure of the island. Until recently there was no money at all in the civic purse. There weren’t any public contributions. Now the Australians have fully taken over the island administration and taxes have been levied since 2016.

This hasn’t gone down well with the original colonists, who say their views were ignored. They are staging protests and sit-ins, flying the Union flag, alongside the green lonesome pine flag of the island. The Australian anthem has been booed and shoes have been thrown, so the latest administrator is wisely cutting down on the ceremony and celebrations of Australia Day introduced by his predecessor. There's a Hand off Our Democracy campaign in progress.

Before I’ve even arrived from Sydney I’m made aware that this island is fiercely proud of its independence. I’m exhorted to applaud the success of the Norfolk Island sports team, who are on my plane. They’ve been competing in the South Pacific games.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, the island population of just under 2000 is two thirds ‘blow-ins ’- immigrants, mainly from Australia and New Zealand and one third the descendants of the resettled Pitcairn islanders.
  • The main language spoken is English, but the Pitcairners also still speak ‘Norf’k’ – a mixture of old English, Creole and Tahitian.

Getting into Norfolk Island

Oddly you have to fly Air New Zealand, to get to Norfolk Island. You can fly from New Zealand or Sydney. I've flown in from Sydney.

Only for the Nearly Dead or the Newly Wed?

What to do on Norfolk Island? I’m accosted by an excitable local who tells me I’m too young to be here. ‘Didn’t you see all the people on the plane?’ I’m sure he uses that line on everyone. He’s not wrong about the average age of the tourist here.  I’ve already heard that Norfolk Island is only for the ‘Nearly Dead or the Newly Wed’. My new friend goes on to tell me that he used to live in the cottage where I’m staying. He says it’s haunted. I’m certainly finding it a little chilly, despite the winter sunshine, but I think it’s just the lack of central heating.

The island is definitely stuck firmly in the twentieth (or earlier) century. But that's part of its charm. The scenery is to die for, the beaches stunning and there are plenty of water activities. When it's warm enough.

Getting Out of Norfolk Island

My next stop is Niue, which is a New Zealand territory, but I have to go via Sydney and Auckland.

Orientation on Norfolk Island

I've flown into Norfolk Island from Sydney on my Islands Around Australia Adventure .My landlady is a blow-in, a Kiwi who holidayed here and kept coming back.  She whisks me off to her B'n'B cottage and a hire car ready and waiting. They’ve told me to mark any scratches on the diagram on my paperwork and hand it in later. I figure I’ll wait till I’ve finished my driving before I do it…

Next, a tour, with my host, for orientation purposes. It takes about ten minutes to view the cluster of wooden buildings that is the only town, Burnt Pine, and the south western historic district around Kingston, which is a tiny but designated the capital of Norfolk Island. This is the administrative centre of the island.

And  I’ve already come from the airport in the southeast. The island is only five kilometres by eight kilometres in size. Then I’m off on my own exploring. It’s an exceptionally rewarding small island. The grass really is emerald  green; the pristine sandy bays are dotted with craggy islets and the waves are crashing in a deep ultramarine sea. Elegant and beautifully symmetrical Norfolk pines frame the backdrops, marching across the velvety hills. The solitary tree at the end of Emily Bay (known as Lone Pine of course) was mentioned in Cook’s dispatches. I'm going to be singing that Laurel and Hardy song the whole time I'm here.

The Bounty Comes to Norfolk Island

The feral chooks ensure that I wake up early. My very hospitable and efficient host has suggested I join the Tag Along Tour of the World Heritage historic area. I've driven down there in my hire car. Nowhere on Norfolk Island seems hugely far away.

My guide  greets us in Norf’k Speak: 'Wataweih yorlyi’ (Hello and how are you?) and announces, with a grin, that  she is a Pitcairn descendant (as are nearly half the inhabitants of the island). The settlement is the second-oldest in Australia, founded a little over a month after Sydney. The renovated Georgian buildings house, amongst other displays, a multitude of relics that the Pitcairners brought with  them when they journeyed across the Pacific – this includes a cannon from the Bounty. Their legacy is reflected all around the island, with names like Fletcher Christian Road. The shops even proudly display Bounty bars. They're most picturesque seen from the hill top above. It's a bit of a scramble, through a glade of Norfolk Pine trees. The Norfolk Pines, casting lacy patterns against the sapphire sky are ubiquitous. (See Norfolk Island in a Nutshell.)

Norfolk Island Maze

It’s gorgeous sun interspersed with heavy winter rain showers today, so I’m zipping around trying to take in all the views without getting drenched. There are several hills to climb for wonderful views across bays and one of the most southerly reefs in the world,  where HMS Sirius  was wrecked, bringing much needed provisions. Instead, they lost the supplies and doubled the population. The country lanes form a maze, rather than taking you round the edge of the island and navigation is interesting. The roads are more hole than surface. No-one has attempted any major repair since the Americans built them during the war; they just patch up the worst bumps

Mottle-faced cattle wander the potholes. It’s mandatory to give way to the animals. I’m also having to weave to avoid the feral chickens (brought in on the first convict wave). But it’s very quiet,, hardly any traffic and no parking meters. You can generally just pull up by the side of the road.

Landlady has instructed me to raise a hand  at anyone I pass. This is known as the Norfolk Wave, she says. Not everyone returns my greeting, although no response is better than some of the gestures I’ve seen offered to others. The Pitcairners delight in insulting each other. I think it's all done with a sense of camaraderie.

Crystal Pool

There’s a sign on the point at Crystal Pool, informing me that the road is impassable when it’s wet. I scramble up the steep tussocky  hillside to look down on basalt formations , creating boiling pools in the ocean. This path too has warning signs and is booby trapped, with holes once created by nesting petrels. The indentations must be old - the starving population ate all 170,000 or so of the petrels after the Sirius wreck. Tasty eating - I’ve read - the locals called them mutton birds. I can see dark clouds rolling in  from the west, so I hurry (carefully) down to make my escape, before the rain reaches the road.

Further Bounty

Another day, some glorious sunshine and a bus tour - it is free - to make sure I haven’t missed anything. This guide also proudly traces her ancestry back to Pitcairn; she is a seventh generation descendant. As one would expect, their versions of the mutiny story depend on their lineage. Lynne assures us that her ancestor, Quintal, (the name features on many of the businesses), was not a pyromaniac and alcoholic. Though that's what legend says. The older families know everyone else of course and most are known by nicknames. There’s a page in the local phone directory: 'Faasfain Salan Bai Dems Nikniem'. Favourites are: Dar Bizziebee, Geek, Gumboots, Honkey-Dorey, Lettuce Leaf and Pooh.

It's mostly bays, like Anson Bay, with great views and the ornate St Barnabas' Chapel. Its built of sandstone with stained glass. This was the mother church of the Church of England’s missionary work in Melanesia, between 1867 and 1920. During that time thousands of students from the Pacific Islands came to the Mission College to live and study. In 1920 the Mission headquarters were moved to the Solomon Islands.

As we are driving alongside the airport Lynne tells us that the island is subject to unpredictable cross winds. Some of the locals give the pilots marks out of ten for the quality of their landings.

Delicious creamy prawns in a café; the food here is unexpectedly tasty. The islanders  raise livestock and grow their own produce, but much has to be imported, via the ship that docks every six weeks - if they are lucky - and it’s calm enough for it to land. Landlady says she’s seen fights in the supermarkets.

North Norfolk Island

Even more stunning views in the north of the island. Gorgeous coves and bays beckon from precipitous lookouts, though at an air temperature of 18 degrees I’m not tempted into the water. I’m also hesitant about attempting the steep ascent of Mount Pitt in my car, (one metre less than Mount Bates, but you have to walk up that one). However, the car park at the bottom is occupied by snoozing cattle so that settles that. The reward is a wonderful 360 degree view of the whole island and the islets. Next Captain Cook Memorial and Captain Cook Lookout. On my return, I take in the botanic gardens, (actually a disappointingly  gloomy rainforest trail).

Landlady takes me down the Bowlo (Bowls Club), which is packed out and does surprisingly good food - prune stuffed chicken from a Vanuatuan chef.

The Cemetery

I’ve  decided to drive down every road on the island. There’s Cascades, which is  estate agent speak for a trickle of water over a cliff. Prince Philip Drive and Queen Elizabeth Avenue tie British heritage in with that of the Pitcairners. Then there’s a Country Road thrown in for good measure. What else to call it? The cemetery, up a dead end of course, is a fascinating wander. There’s the grave of Collen McCollough, the author, who lived here (so did Helen Reddy – one of her awards is on display in the tour office). Also, of course, all the Pitcairners and a row of epitaphs commemorating sailors’ executions - there seem to have been more than the average number of  mutinies around here.

All Roads Lead to Burnt Pine

There are numerous other cul-de-sacs, though one way or another most of the narrow, steep byways, eventually lead to Burnt Pine, the cluster of wooden buildings in the centre. It might act as the Rome of Norfolk Island, but it’s named after a pine stump that was used as the local noticeboard. This is a genteel neighbourhood, with cafes and shops rooted firmly in the last century - there’s an eclectic variety of wares on sale. One place is even called The Norfolk Emporium. And of course, it’s attendant service at the petrol station.

The islanders boast about the absence  of snakes and other predators. Instead, I’m noticing an abundance of large spiders (some have a vicious bite but aren’t life threatening is the semi-encouraging tag). Their webs form glistening canopies along the streets. There’s a lot of property for sale. Many islanders have no cash to pay the new taxes and so they’re leaving. Houses are generally sold complete with all contents - for obvious reasons.

Finally, a four man play (the posters show six people, so they’re economising here too) which runs me through the island history, just in case I’ve missed anything. The acting isn’t exactly Oscar standard, but it’s armchair seating - and a good place for a doze after all that fresh air.

Two Drips

I’m darting around trying to avoid the rain, which is back with a vengeance . I’m destined for a watery comeuppance whatever. The bottle of water I bought has leaked all over my bag. The brand is Two Drips. That’s about all I’ve got left. It seems as if I’m not going to be able to eat lunch either. Most establishments (and businesses) close in the early afternoon. At least that gives me an excuse to try the fish and chook shop this evening. The local fish is called trumpeter.

Tomorrow I fly to Niue via Sydney and Auckland.

Read more about Norfolk Island here

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