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Published May 22nd 2019
Australia's best kept secret
This has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
A holiday to Norfolk Island offers all the excitement of overseas travel without technically leaving Oz. The island became an Australian external territory from 1 July 2016, but you still depart from an international terminal, buy Duty-Free (not just grog but some excellent shoe shops) and experience a different culture to boot.
A passport isn't mandatory but is the preferred means of airport identification. You are flying to a mere speck on the Pacific Ocean 1000 km off Australia's east coast, on the same latitude as Byron Bay and sharing its idyllic climate. There are 2.5-hour direct flights from Sydney and 2-hour from Brisbane.
After the endless, flat mirror surface of the Pacific Ocean, the tip of an emerald isle fringed with jagged cliffs and pounding waves comes into view. In drought, the terrain is the colour of a potato crisp but transforms to a leprechaun green within two days of rain.
First sight of Norfolk Island - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
But as much as one might come for the breathtaking scenery, bushwalking and the idyllic swimming and snorkelling, all tourists become swept up in the tide of Norfolk's incredible history and so the historic tours are the crux of this piece.
There is a need to do these in some kind of order because Norfolk's history is so involved one can drown in the flood of information. So firstly, I've placed an overview of the history and then alerted you to a few of the tours I did and suggested the order to do them in.
A simple outing on Norfolk Island take your lunch up to the top of Mount Pitt and watch the planes land once a day.
Skip the history if you already know it and go straight to the tours.
The First Settlement – (Cultivate the land 1788 to 1813)
In 1774, Captain Cook was on his second world exploration when he spied Norfolk Island. He thought the pencil straight pines would make good ship masts and the abundant flax processed to make sails and rope.
Flax and Norfolk Pines. Still there today. - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
On the strength of Cook's report, a small party was sent to the island in 1788 under Lieutenant Philip Gidley King. There were 22 settlers (including 15 convicts) but this grew to 1,115 people with influxes of free settlers, convicts and their guards. They cleared the land and built pine log buildings but Norfolk pines were unsuitable for ship masts and they soon realised that no one knew how to work the flax.
While there were times when produce from Norfolk's volcanic soil managed to feed the starving penal settlement back in Sydney, Norfolk Island was eventually deemed uneconomical and evacuated. All buildings were burnt to the ground, so the French wouldn't stumble on a habitable settlement.
The Second Settlement (Hell in Paradise 1825-1856)
Norfolk Island lay uninhabited for the next 11 years until the British decided to reopen the island for the worst convicts from NSW and Van Diemen's Land as a 'place of extreme punishment short of death.' Our modern sensibilities cringe at the treatment of the prisoners. With 1200 convicts, the guards and their families the population rose to higher than the present population of Norfolk Island today. On Bishop Wilson's last visit, he recommended the colony be closed due to extreme cruelty. But if there was an architectural legacy from these horrid times, it was the fine colonial stone buildings (now known as Quality Row) that today draw in the tourists.
Third Settlement (Mutiny on the Bounty & the Aftermath)
Life on Norfolk Island doesn't make sense without the famous Mutiny and the Bounty backstory. Perhaps the captain, Lieutenant Bligh was not the tyrant presented in Hollywood films but he certainly dressed down his second in charge, 22 year old Fletcher Christian calling him a coward in an era when a man's honour was everything.
Some of the crew also had shore leave on the island of Otaheite in Tahiti, cultivating breadfruit seedlings to take on board the Bounty. Accustomed to English women in their prim neck to knees, the men found more enjoyable sexual mores with the local women and by the end of their five-month sojourn, many had 'a special companion'.
In 1789, when Bligh finally managed to round up his crew, tensions arose on board. Christian and the other mutineers cast Bligh and 18 of his supporters on an open launch and sailed the Bounty back to their sweethearts.
Unable to stay on the island for fear of the long reach of British law (mutiny was punishable by death), they settled on Pitcairn Island one of the remotest islands on earth. They took with them their women but also kidnapped others as companions and burnt the Bounty.
On Pitcairn Island, bloody arguments ensued the few Polynesian males they had also brought with them over the women and the land. A cycle of bloody revenge murders took place with as many as five men murdered in one day until only one man was left standing, Alexander Smith, who later changed his name to John Adams. The remaining communities were the wives and children of the mutineers.
Out of the bloodbath came a baptism of fire. Adams initially turned to drink but later to religion. But the two square mile island became too small to support the burgeoning community. And on appeal to Queen Victoria, she gave them the now uninhabited Norfolk Island. And if this seems strange, as they were the families of the mutineers, it was because they had become such a pious and god-fearing community.
So it was the progeny of the mutineers (plus those of John Buffett and John Evans passing seamen who had ended up on Pitcairn) who were shipped to Norfolk Island some 4250 miles away. They inherited the fine stone buildings from the second settlement and the land. Not all stayed but those who did, flourished.
The best way to gain an understanding of Norfolk's rich history and how it impacts on contemporary life is with an introductory half-day tour. These are often free and organised by your accommodation. My bed and breakfast host kindly booked my Discover our World tour with Baunti Escapes and I would really like to recommend this tour company.
Lyn, our tour guide, was a 7th generation islander and like every tour guide I experienced during my stay, she was lively, fun and brimful of stories.
Lyn was such a lovely guide and offered us a unique understanding of Norfolk Island society and how it operates. Source Baunti Escapes Facebook
I sensed this was not a rigid tour but a roundup of the main areas tourists might like to go back to such as various lookouts, Emily Bay, the surf beaches, St Barnabas Chapel and the Kingston and Arthur Vale historic precinct.
Leaving town meant crossing cattle grids that kept free ranging cattle from moseying up the main street. 'The whole island is a paddock and the cows the lawn mowers and fertilizers' Lyn explained.
Lyn stopped to chat to locals she saw along the way and through watching her example we learnt the Norfolk wave. While the thumb remains hooked under the steering wheel, the other four fingers are lifted momentarily to greet oncoming drivers.
Yes, do it as you are part of one big extended family when you visit Norfolk Island.
Back on the mainland, such spontaneity and friendliness would rarely occur, as there would be a set script and timetable. But we Lyn taught us that this is a different world, where all the generations gel and help each other and this is what brings tourists back time and again.
In fact, with the cheap house prices, many Australian are now retiring to Norfolk Island. 'It is what Australia was like back in the 50s and 60s' one newbie told me. 'It is so trusting residents don't lock their cars or even their houses.'
This tour also showed how the islanders make do. Shortages can occur of anything imported (certain supermarket foods for example) because of the exorbitant cost of shipping.
Shipping costs around $1000 dollars a cubic metre and while there are six weekly deliveries, the ship is sometimes turned back to Auckland due to rough coastal conditions.
As you can see I have arrived just before the six week delivery. But not once did I go without.
So we learnt how to shop and that included visiting some of the honesty boxes outside properties, where you buy wholesome seasonal and organic produce. And if the locals run out of something, they barter. Welcome to shopping Norfolk Island style.
The seasonal garden to plate food on Norfolk Island is exceptionally good. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
To find out more about Baunti Tours click here. Or call in at their office; it is near the roundabout and there is only one on the island!
Even if the supermarket is bare you won't starve on Norfolk Island thanks to the resourcewful locals - Source Norfolk Island Travel Centre
Most tourists start their island explorations at the Kingston and Arthurs Vale Historic Area (called KAVHA by the locals). This stunning precinct has the remains of the massive jail from the second settlement, historic houses and colonial Georgian stone government buildings, all overlooking the swelling ocean and crashing waves. The scene is punctuated by the towering Norfolk Pines and contented cows roam between the tourist cars seemingly knowing they have right of way.
Shell of the massive prison from the second settlement - photo @nadinecresswell-myatt
KAVHA is only a few kilometres down from the main township of Burnt Pine, but as there is no public transport and a steep walk back most tourists hire a car. Petrol is twice the price of the mainland, but you don't rack up many miles on a 5km by 8 long km island). A week's worth cost me $30.
Try to do the cemetery tour first, as it helps you gain a better understanding of pretty much all the history on the island.
Norfolk Island's Cemetery Tour
This well-preserved cemetery spans over 200 years and is still in use today.
Our cemetery guide gave us a fascinating tour. She had a background in art history. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
You could wander around on your own but our guide knew the stories behind every burial and how many met their untimely deaths. She pointed out those buried under nicknames – Tim, for example, was really an Edna but lived with a male name because her father always wanted a boy.
She could also decipher the imagery on the headstones, much of which had been carved by convicts for their mates. The clenched fist of defiance on the skull and crossbones is one forever seared on my memory.
Notice how one of the bones is a defiant clenched fist. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
The setting is stunning – a green bed with a footrest of rolling waves. For the convicts, Norfolk Island may well have been a terrible place to live but it was a beautiful place to be buried.
For the convicts a terrible place to be punished but a beautiful setting to buried in. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
We learned of the bloody bridge murder and why so many claim the bridge built by convicts weeps blood, the story or perhaps the legend of Barney Duffy who escaped and hid in a hollow tree for seven years. And of murderers mound, a mass and unmarked grave, where in 1846 authorities hung and then dumped 12 bodies in an old sawpit after an uprising.
But perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the tour was learning about burial practices on the island. Our guide said, 'We know someone has died when the Pitcairn Anthem is played on the local radio station and tears well up as it means someone we all know has passed. Everyone waits in anticipation for the name to be announced. Afterwards there is a call for women to bring flowers to "the usual place" and the local men rather than undertakers dig the grave. They are usually paid with a couple of cartons of beer. It only costs around $40 to be buried on Norfolk Island. And when the hearse passes down the main street everyone closes up their businesses and stands outside to pay their respects'.
Tours are on Tuesdays and Fridays at 11:30am (tour finishes at 1pm)
Cost: $20.00 per person, or $15.00 per person when purchased with a Museum Pass
Tickets can also be purchased on-island at:
The R.E.O. Bookshop – in Kingston beside the pier
All Museum venues – Pier Store, Commissariat Store, Sirius Museum and No. 10 Quality Row
The Visitors Information Centre – in Burnt Pine
Baunti Escapes and Pinetree Tours
The Kingston Museums Pass and Tours
You can buy a museum pass that covers you for the four KAVHA museums. This includes a couple of tag-along-tours and I would recommend doing these first as they bring the history alive and you can always use your pass to go back later and do the museums in more depth.
Sirius Museum. You may know the name Sirius as the flagship of the First Fleet and she was later used to ferry convicts and supplies between Norfolk Island and the Sydney colony but was wrecked on a reef entering Norfolk Island.
Convicts were sent out to save the supplies but got stuck into the grog instead and set fire to the ship. I doubt whether their moments of hedonism were worth the terrible lashings they probably received.
Our entertaining guide, another multi-generational descendent of the Pitcairn Islanders filled us in on the story. With her seafaring background, she referred to Captain Hunter, who was involved in at least two other shipwrecks as the 'Captain of Accidents Waiting to Happen.'
History buffs will enjoy the collection of some of the 6000 artefacts salvaged from the wreck between 1983 and 2002, including ballast, carronades (short range cannons) and an anchor.
Commissariat Store – The impressive three level Commissariat Store was built in 1835 to store supplies.
It now holds some barbarous exhibits, such as part of the crank mill used for punishing convicts. The men still in their leg irons would walk around in a circle grinding small rocks and grain. It was backbreaking labour.
Section of the workings of the crank mill- Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
There are also a couple of cat of nine tails and distressing stories of how these was used on at least a quarter of the men. If they passed out they were revived and taken back for more.
As the Pitcairn Islanders were such a devout people, they turned the upper floor into a church in 1856. Tourists are welcome to visit on Sundays for evensong. I am not religious but attending a Church of England service on the island was one of the most interesting cultural activities I did.
The sing-along features treasured Pitcairn hymns — a number sung to whaling seafaring tunes. On the first Sunday of the month, the service is held at St Barnabas Chapel, built in 1871 for Bishop Patterson who was murdered by natives on the Solomon Islands. It features a stunning Rose window by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (shipped safely packed in molasses), a wooden ceiling built without nails that resembles a boat, and stunning craftsmanship throughout. For more information on the church services, click here.
The Pier Store – in a guided tour of this museum where you learn much about the history of Pitcairn Islanders and how they are descended from the Bounty mutineers. It sorts out the facts from Hollywood fiction even though Mel Gibson made a fine Fletcher Christian. Again, if you do this as part of a tag-along tour, you will gain so much more from the experience. Our guide was a direct descendant of the baby born on the journey between Pitcairn and Norfolk Island. The upstairs of this building was used as a coffin room by the Pitcairn Islanders so another eerie part of Norfolk's history.
No 10 Quality Road gives you a chance to see inside one of the original homes of the infamous second settlement. Built in 1844, it has been restored to the period of its first inhabitant Thomas Seller, Foreman of the Works, who lived there with his manservant having left his wife and child safely in Sydney. The period furniture, full-equipped original kitchen, external well and toilet make for fascinating viewing.
You are safe and warm in the bus but it makes you realise what it would have been like for the Pitcairn Islanders to arrive in the rain, wet and bedraggled after a 5-week journey across 3,700 miles, during which everyone on board was seasick for few had ever been to sea before.
The night tour stops outside the historic buildings, that are spotlit and through the taped commentary, you learn who lived where with their huge families.
The sort of coastline that meets travellers arriving on shore - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
In the tag-a-long tour, you will have been inside No 10 Quality Road and seen how it looked during the second settlement. But in the third settlement of 1856, this house along with all the fine homes along what was then called Military Road, were handed over to the Pitcairn islanders as their first homes.
No 10, for example, was given to the grandson of Fletcher Christian, Isaac and his wife Miriam Young who lived there with their fifteen children. The other homes were similarly populated by the huge Pitcairn families and forebears of descendants who live on the island today.
The taped information is taken from initial accounts written by the Pitcairn Islanders and talks of the amazement they felt moving from their coconut leaf-thatched huts on Pitcairn to these incredible stone houses.
Many had never seen an indoor fireplace before; lavatories were a mystery not to mention the strange four-legged creatures called horses. The reminders of the punishments inflicted on the convicts filled them with terror and they hurled a gibbet standing in front of the prison into the sea.
It is interesting that the roofless old jail although now filled with green lawns is never used for recreational purposes and rocks from the walls have never been repurposed as it associated with the convicts' pain and suffering and said to bring bad karma.
In 1908, the Norfolk Islanders living in Quality Row were evicted from their homes of 52 years by Governor Harry Rawson when they refused to sign documents saying that their homes were the property of the Crown. The Crown did not own the land as it had been given to the Islanders by Queen Victoria. In a display of defiance, the evicted set fire to some of the houses and as we toured in the darkness and the eerie stillness, I had images of the flames licking the walls.
Brooke, our driver, said there was an areal need for a tour that presented the Pitcairn Islander's untold story and after you have been on Norfolk for a few days you will see the truth in this. But don't do this tour early in your holiday before you have a good grasp of Norfolk Island's incredible history gained through the cemetery and museum tours.
Museum Multi Pass:
Adults: $35.00 | School-age children: Free. Available:
The R.E.O. Bookshop – in Kingston beside the pier
All Museum venues – Pier Store, Commissariat Store, Sirius Museum and No. 10 Quality Row
The Visitors Information Centre – in the Bicentennial Complex
Baunti Escapes and Pinetree Tours
The Trial of the Fifteen (Ferny Creek Theatre)
If you are concerned that a local theatre production might be overly amateur, don't be. I read all the Tripadvisor reviews, where tourists raved about this play and after seeing it, I must add my name to that chorus.
A Mouse Trap of a play, it has been running for 19 years and delighted over 50 000 tourists.
Again, the play will mean more to you after your visits to KAVHA, as you have the skeleton history and now you get to see the characters in flesh and blood.
Rebecca Hayes in Trial of the 15 Norfolk Island - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
The concept is simple. The stage is a courtroom and the judge played by Graham White and the clerk (David Buffet) stay on stage throughout. Both are perfectly cast.
The clerk then calls to the stand 15 historic figures and these are cleverly played by only two actors, Brooke Watson and Rebecca Hayes. They change characters before your eyes with simple props adding and subtracting items such as bonnets, waistcoats, false beards and monocles.
The interactive pantomime style production with goodies and baddies has the audience booing and hissing and therefore helping the judge to pass sentence. The enlightened commander Maconochie who introduced a merit system to encourage the convicts to behave meets with approval. The sadistic Commandant John Price, who meted torture and torment elicits many boos. While a Polynesian rat and ditzy captain's wife meets with hilarity. Let all be judged by history.
Talk about convict literature running in families. The play was written by Peter Clarke a descendant of Marcus Clarke, who famously wrote the definitive novel on convict life – For the Term of his Natural Life (1874).
The Trial of the Fifteen is performed at the Ferny Lane Theatre in Burnt Pine. Further details can be found by contacting World Traders on: ( 6723) 22115 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can book here
You chat to many locals on Norfolk Island and within minutes, all will say "have you seen our Cyclorama yet?" The Cyclorama is by artists Sue Draper and Tracey Yager (a descendant from Bounty mutineer Matthew Quintal) and is at the entrance to the beautiful Queen Victoria Garden (oh how the islanders loved the queen who bestowed them with their island paradise) and next to the famous Hilli Care & Restaurant. So it's an important three stop tourist spot.
They do legendary Devonshire teas at Hilli Cafe and Restaurant next to the Cyclorama
Cycloramas are an immersive experience as when you enter, you have 360° views and in this case sound effects and music. The Norfolk Cyclorama follows the story of the Bounty and its crew, from 1780s Portsmouth to Tahiti, and from there to Pitcairn culminating with the journey of the mutineers' descendants to Norfolk Island.
The last scene shows a four-year-old girl Emily Christian (Fletcher's great-great-granddaughter) holding her mother's hand and walking out of the frame. In real life, she would go on to marry George Bailey, a blacksmith, and their original home is in the Pitcairn Settlers Village next door.
The Cyclorama costs $15 to visit. For more information, click here.
Queen Victoria Garden Norfolk Island -Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
I thought that the Pitcairn Village might be a bit of a Sovereign Hill style reconstruction, but it is nothing of the sort. Again, it is an authentic old Pitcairner islander home surrounded by extensive grounds and outbuilding such as a dairy and a forge.
Generations of the Bailey family lived on the property. Finally, it passed down to granddaughter Marie Bailey and she started the island's first tour company taking tourists around the rutted roads in an original 1928 Ford.
And guess what you do a tour of the property in today? Yes, that same original 1928 Ford. Norfolk in some ways might be described as Australia's Cuba. The locals make do with what has been handed down, fixing and repairing objects due to the difficulty and expense of shipping.
It was a bumpy ride around the property in the old girl. Would she make it up the hill with us all on board, yes, she did. And all on board cheered.
The old homestead Pitcairn Village - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
Driving through the extensive gardens was a history lesson on how islanders have fed their families through the generations with seasonal produce such as yams, manioc (cassava), arrowroot, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas (there are 20 varieties). Our guide, Rick, explained how there are local recipes for every stage in a bananas growth whether it be grating them when they are green to cooking with them when they turn black. 'Most children have grown up on the island on a bountiful supply of home-grown fruit and vegetables and most protein has come from fresh eggs and fish,' he said.
Many local artefacts have been donated to the property and they make for fascinating viewing. One of the whaling boats is on display. What a horrid and dangerous job as the boat was much smaller than any whale they were stalking. Rick told us fascinating accounts of how the American whalers wives came to influence local cuisine with their pie baking. Norfolk Island is one of the few countries in the world outside the United States that celebrates Thanksgiving.
Our knowledgeable guide Rick promised us a good cup of coffee and he delivered - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
This Pitcairn Village really tied the history of the island together for me. Marie Bailey, who only passed away in 2016 aged 89, not only started tourism, but it was her vision that led to the creation of the Cyclorama and her horticultural experience lead to planting the Queen Victoria Gardens in honour of the monarch, who had given her family and their descendants so much.
Bust of Queen Victoria - Pride of place on Norfolk Island - @nadinecresswellmyatt