Friday, 22 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Norfolk Island (Part 1)

For the remainder of January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands. 

This week, we're off to the Australian territory of Norfolk Island, which I visited in 2007 as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism...

"We got everything Tahiti got, we only no got the coconut."

I’m part of a group being serenaded by these immortal words, as the local Rotary Club fires up the barbecue and peels back the clingwrap from plates lining trestle tables at a popular picnic spot.

These Rotarians are an active bunch, bustling between the food and the dining tables set out on the grass, while keeping our glasses topped up.

At first glance, it could be a public gathering in any country town in Australia.

But it’s not.

Beyond the picnic lawns, dotted with pine trees, is a sheer drop down to the ocean, which is a gorgeous deep blue.

Off to the west, the sun is setting spectacularly beyond the line where the Pacific meets the sky, creating a spectacular light show with the scattered clouds and throwing the pines into striking silhouette.


The singer is also interesting. Wearing a bright tropical shirt, and interjecting friendly banter between the lyrics, he keeps up a flow of songs celebrating the history and culture of his home.

His name is Trent Christian, and that surname may have just tipped you off to the fact that I’m on Norfolk Island, where the descendants of Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and his followers settled in the 1850s.

The dinner location is Puppy's Point, a gorgeous picnic spot wedded to a sheer cliff. It’s a magnificent showcase of the Pacific Ocean, and the ideal place to catch the sunset. These catered outings are held regularly by local tour companies, or you can just stock up a hire car and do it yourself.

Our “fish fry” is a popular activity on Norfolk, and the local fish on the barbie are accompanied by dishes that veer from the everyday to the unusual.

As Christian’s 18th century English sailors married Tahitians, elements of Tahitian cuisine still survive to this day.

In the local pidgin English tongue, for example, yorlye means “all of you”.

On the trestles tables tonight, we find items like pilihi, a moist cake made from plun (banana). And just along the table is a lemon pie just like my mother used to make in the 1970s.

It’s curious and fascinating, this contrast of the exotic and the unexpectedly old-fashioned, but I’m starting to understand that that’s what Norfolk Island’s like: difficult to pin down.

One minute you think it's charmingly old-fashioned, even daggy, the next you're gobsmacked by some amazing sight, or intrigued by unexpected evidence of a different culture.

Take the township of Burnt Pine. No one would accuse this place of being too fast (except, perhaps, the islanders themselves).

Walk along its main street and you’re transported back to an Australian country town of the 1970s, via its old-fashioned shopfronts with their quirky names (“Pete’s Place”, “The House of Scruples”), its minimal traffic, and its RSL clubs advertising cheap meals.

Conversely, there are a number of modern cafes on the strip, including the Norfolk Island Coffee House, a pleasant timber venue which is as cutting-edge as it gets here, supplying all mod cons including home-grown espresso coffee and wireless Internet access.

There’s also the cattle grid surrounding Burnt Pine, which stops cows from wandering into the built-up area.


Cows are an unofficial symbol of the island as they range free around the landscape, grazing as they have done since the early days of the colony.

A piece of trivia that every visitor inevitably learns is that the current fine for killing a cow by collision with your car is at least $300. These wandering bovines are not holy, but they're also not cheap.

The dominant type of accommodation on the island is low-rise cottages or apartments; even the five-star lodgings tend to follow this model, though with enhanced facilities and the island’s best views.

I stay at a place with the kind of rating I’ve been accustomed to over the years, the 3.5 star Channers Corner, a set of self-catering apartments within a lush subtropical garden.

Like everything on Norfolk, it has a historical footnote attached.

It was once owned by a Commander Arthur Channer, whose wife was a former World war I nurse and suffragette who helped found the island’s nursing service.

My accommodation is yet another flashback to a previous decade, as the plentiful pine panelling hints at a bygone style. But it’s simple, neat and well-stocked with cooking utensils for a prolonged stay.

There’s a separate shared lounge with books and games, and a laundry and barbecue as well.

And at night it’s very very quiet. I can’t stress just how quiet it is, for a hardened inner-city resident like me. It takes a bit of getting used to... but it’s good.

But just when you’re getting used to Norfolk’s serene ambience, you’re shaken out of any creeping complacency by the spectacular scenery...

[Next: Mountains, trees, spectacular convict ruins, and an afternoon at the beach...]