Friday, 26 June 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 4: Pining in the Pacific

In March 2007 I flew to Norfolk Island, an autonomous Australian territory in the Pacific Ocean. It was a mere 24 hours' stay, as part of a contingent which included retired football coach Ron Barassi, entertainer John Michael Howson and a bunch of travel writers. It was simultaneously fast, furious, fascinating and curiously low-key. Here are some notes I made in my diary at the time...

- I’m in a pleasant timber cafe on the main shopping drag, with espresso coffee and wireless Internet access. The service is suitably relaxed, though the coffee is no threat to Melbourne’s best. But what it lacks in urban sophistication, Nl makes up for in laidback small-town charm. Our driver, Les, likes to make fun of the island’s remoteness (“The Internet? What’s that?”), but of course that’s the whole appeal of the place.

- Quirky, daggy & just plain fascinating place names: we pass Burglars Lane on the way to dinner.

- The island is full of Norfolk Pines (funny, that), its originally volcanic landscape softened to rolling green hills by time. For anyone brought up in an Australian country town, it’s curiously reminiscent of rural Oz in the 1960s, especially those trees, which used to pop up in small town parks with predictable regularity.

- “We got everything Tahiti got, we only no got the coconut,” sings Trent Christian during our Rotary Club hosted ‘fish fry’ at Puppy’s Point. Also “Captain Cook came to our isle... (something) made... (something) smile”. OK, didn’t catch all that.

- Puppy’s Point: a gorgeous picnic spot with an odd name, wedded to a sheer cliff, a magnificent showcase of the Pacific Ocean, interrupted only by the conical silhouette of a lone Norfolk pine.

- The food is a strange blend of the exotic and the old-fashioned (Rotary Club lemon pie is just like mother made back in the ’70s).

- Fish fries are apparently very big on NI, more of the whole unconscious retro thing. The accommodation too seems dated; one major hotel has a dining room identical to the one in Fawlty Towers. Though there’s something kinda reassuring about it all.

- Taxi service: There’s only one taxi on NI, the sole form of public transport available. The cab’s fare structure is interesting, at least if you can believe what you’re told. I was informed by one islander that journeys are $5 inside the cattle grid which keeps the cows out of the commercial centre of Burnt Pine, where they might play havoc with the duty-free shopping, and $10 to anywhere outside it.

- Cows are a recurring symbol of Norfolk Island as they’re grazed in common, as they have been since the early days of the colony, so they range free outside the cattle grid. A piece of trivia that every visitor somehow learns is that the fine for killing a cow by collision with your car is about $500. These wandering bovines are not holy, but they’re also not cheap.

- The picnic spots on NI are simple, with limited facilities, but they’re absolutely gorgeous. I could easily spend days at Emily Beach or Puppy’s Point, provided I’d brought some food and drink with me.

- After only a day here, I’m swimming in the clear blue waters of Emily Bay, feeling myself tangibly unwind as I ignore the work awaiting me at home, the world news and anything else which might be stressful.

- In some ways, it’s hard to know quite what to make of Norfolk. On one hand, it lacks the full-blown exotica of other Pacific destinations like Vanuatu or Fiji; on the other hand, you can’t fault its climate or its absolute tranquillity.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Norfolk Air and Norfolk Island Tourism. As this article is based on personal experience from 2007, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current cow fine situation before travelling to Norfolk Island.