Pitcairn Island Highpoint

16-Oct-04

By: Burton Falk


IN HIGH PLACES

Author: Burton "The Third Time's a Charm" Falk

The evening before the Clipper Odyssey was to anchor off Pitcairn Island, my wife Jo bet me $50 I wouldn't be able to bag the island's high point the following day. Well-to end the suspense early-I did, and (reminder to Sweet Thing) I haven't seen the color of green as yet.

Indeed, Jo, my spouse (and best friend) for almost 48 years, only rarely makes bets, and when she does they involve small sums and sure things. However, because we had been anchored off the island twice previously and hadn't been able to land, she became emboldened to make, for her, a very large wager (and don't forget the interest is compounding daily).

Jo and I first visited Pitcairn Island during a January 2000 voyage of the Crystal Symphony, heading from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, on an itinerary that listed Pitcairn Island as a "port" stop. On our arrival there, however, the Pitcairners came out to the ship, not vice versa, i.e., the Symphony's tenders did not ferry passengers in to the island. A handful of savvy passengers were aware of this fact and hired the Pitcairners to take them, via the island longboats, into the small Bounty Bay landing. I, however, didn't learn of this unpublicized alternative until later that same evening as the Symphony sailed on toward Tahiti.

Three years later, Jo and I sailed on Holland American's Amsterdam, en route from Valparaiso, Chile to Auckland, New Zealand, an itinerary that once again made a call at Pitcairn Island. On that occasion, however, I made proper preparations, emailing both the Island's administrator, who gave me permission to land, and the Holland-American office, which informed me that the decision as to whether I could hire the islanders to ferry me ashore for an ascent of Pitcairn's highpoint would be up to the Captain of the ship and dependent on the weather.

Well-to end the suspense early once again- both sky and sea were threatening when the Amsterdam arrived off Pitcairn, and the Captain denied me permission to go ashore. His refusal, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Indeed, the islanders who braved the high seas to come out and sell their wares (stamps, shirts, baskets, carvings) had only about an hour on the ship before, because of one of the Amsterdam's crew came down with appendicitis, they had to disembark so that big ship could hightail it to Papeete, Tahiti, where proper medical attention could be provided. Worse yet, because of the increase in the size of the swells, the Pitcairners were unable to land on their island for another 18 hours. Imagine, an afternoon and all night rocking up and down in an open boat! If I had left the ship I would have been stuck on Pitcairn for weeks, perhaps months, awaiting the next passing ship. Jo would have been justified in contemplating homicide.

On the morning of October 16, 2004, however, on my third (and positively last) pass at Pitcairn, the skies were clear and the seas were calm as the small island hove into view. And at 9 a.m., after anchoring about a half mile off shore, the 100 passengers of the Clipper Odyssey began to pile onto the islanders' commodious longboats-loading perhaps 40, sitting cross-legged on the flat open decks, into each. Ten minutes later, stepping off the boat onto the small concrete jetty at Bounty Bay, I experienced the same feeling as Columbus must have felt when he landed on the shores of the New World, as Amundsen did when he arrived at the South Pole, as Stanley did when he found Livingston. At last!, at last!, thank God, at last!

Most everyone is familiar with at least one aspect of Pitcairn Island's history. If you haven't read The Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (1932), then you've surely seen one of the movies recounting the same tale, i.e., the 1935 version, starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh; the 1962 version, starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh, and/or the latest and most accurate remake, The Bounty, 1985, starring Mel Gibson as Christian and as Anthony Hopkins as Bligh.

In brief, the story began in December 1787, when the HMS Bounty, under the command of Capt. William Bligh, sailed from England bound for the South Pacific on a mission to collect breadfruit seedlings and then to transport the live cargo to the West Indies, where they would be used to provide food for the slaves working on the sugar plantations. Arriving in Tahiti in October 1788, the ship's crew spent the next five months both collecting the plants ~n~i becoming attached to the "pleasures of the islands" (read women). In April 1789, loaded at last and heading through Tongan waters for the West Indies, a group of the Bounty's crew, led by 24 yearold Master's Mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied. Captain Bligh and 18 other non-mutineers were set adrift in an open boat, and in one of the most thrilling sea stories of all time, they, during the following 41 days, managed to sail 3,618 nautical miles west, through cannibal-infested islands, to reach Dutch Timor. Bligh then continued on the England, where, soon afterward, a search for the mutineers was launched.

In the meantime, Christian and his cohorts returned to Tahiti, where, after 16 of the men elected to settle on that island, the nine remaining mutineers, plus 18 Tahitians, 12 of whom were women, sailed off to seek a new home where they would be safe from capture. The spot they finally chose was the lovely but lonely Pitcairn Island, 304 miles from its nearest inhabited neighbor, Mangareva.

The part of the Pitcairn story you may not be familiar with, however, is that the first years on the island were described by one writer as "an orgy of jealousy, treachery and murder." The mutineers, it seems, treated the Polynesian men badly, and, especially after the accidental death of one of the women, there were not enough "consorts" to go around. By 1794, all the Polynesian men had been killed, and only four mutineers were left. Six years later, in 1800, just one lone mutineer, John Adams, nine women and 19 children remained.

That nucleus, however, was enough to spawn the present Pitcairn Island population (which currently stands at 47; nearly half of whom possess the surname Christian, the rest being Warrens, Browns and Youngs), plus another 1,500 or so direct descendents now scattered throughout the South Pacific, many residing on Norfolk Island, where in 1856 the entire Pitcairn population was temporarily resettled.

Following our landing, the "long-hike" group, for which I had signed up, set off, first passing through Adamstown, the only village on the island, continuing on to the cemetery, the elementary school and then up a somewhat exposed climb to Christian's Cave, a site where Fletcher Christian had allegedly planned to take refuge in case the English, who didn't take mutiny lightly, ever came looking for him.

From the cave's vantage point I had a good view of the entire island, except, unfortunately, for the highest cloud-covered ridge, my long-sought goal. Similar to most of the "high" islands in the South Pacific, Pitcairn is of volcanic origin. And although it's small (only 1.7 sq. miles in area), almost half of the island is suitable for agriculture and human habitation. Glancing at my map, I was struck by the personally descriptive names for many of the island's geographic features, e.g., Ned Young Ground, John Catch-a-Cow, Nancy's Stone, Little George Coconuts, and the ever popular Where Dan Fell.

Climatically, the island enjoys a sub-tropical climate, with mean monthly temperatures varying from about 65 degrees F in August to about 75 in February. Pitcairn's original forest, as observed in 1767 by its European discoverer, Captain Philip Carteret of the HMS Swallow, who named the island in honor the first to sight it, the son of Major Pitcairn of the Marines, has almost completely disappeared, and the island's hillsides are now covered with secondary brush such as hibiscus, rose apple and guava, along with ferns, lantana, coconut palms and non-indigenous grasses.

It is also interesting to note that, although Pitcairn was uninhabited at the time the Bounty mutineers arrived in 1790, the remains of a vanished civilization were clearly visible. Indeed, the neoPitcaimers discovered four platforms with roughly hewn stone statues, similar, apparently, to those on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Unfortunately, the English, being good Christians, destroyed the platforms and threw the images into the sea. Evidence that remains, however, including burial sites, stone axes and petroglyphs, indicates that Pitcairn was occupied for a considerable period prior to the advent of the mutineers-the most recent speculation being that the island's very first inhabitants back-migrated there from Rapa Nui.

My "long hike" group started off again, retracing our steps back to the school, and then continuing on to the site of John Adams' grave, the only known burial site of an original mutineer. From there, we trekked west a mile or so up an unpaved road to Big Ridge, where, making a sharp left turn on Palawa Ridge, we arced around southeast to the island's unnamed 1,140' high point.

The actual summit, I'm sorry to report, turned out to be a bit disappointing, especially considering all the trouble and expense I had gone to in getting there. Indeed, the ridge top was shrouded in an everforming cloud, limiting the view, and a simple picnic table was the only evidence indicating that I had conquered my long-coveted goal.

We lingered on the top for a few minutes, and then began our descent east along a road leading past the weather station and the taro ground. Arriving at one of the island's "major" intersections, we then continued north, up a hill to Observation Point, where we were afforded another superb but precarious view of Bounty Bay and Adamstown. At that point we had, in effect, almost completely circled the island. Time was fleeting, however. In the village below a luncheon for the passengers of the Clipper Odyssey, hosted by island Mayor Steve Christian, was about to be served, and so, reluctantly, we began our descent.

The meal, the piece de resistance of which was grilled freshly-caught Yellow-fin Tuna, was excellent, and it was fun to mix with the shy but otherwise friendly islanders. About 3:30 p.m., after a bit of souvenir shopping, Jo and I hiked back down to the Bounty Bay jetty, loaded on one of the Clipper Odyssey's Zodiacs and headed back for our ship, which that same evening departed for Puka Rua, an atoll in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia.


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