A Christmas on Pitcairn Island (2012)

From Christmas Day 2012 on Pitcairn Island:

Pitcairn is legendary in history for being the refuge sought by mutineers from the HMS Bounty. It is equally known in the present day as the home of men who drink whisky from a hollow sperm whale tooth worn on a cord that is hung around the neck.

Pitcairn on the horizon (photo credit: Ingrid Visser)

The island is dramatic on approach with huge towering peaks jutting out at odd angles and massive, steep cliffs dropping to the breaking surf and rocks below.  The hillsides are green and lush and tall coconut palms break out of the canopy and fringe the shoreline.  There is one very small access point in a place called Bounty Bay. 

Entry to Pitcairn Island by Zodiac (photo credit: Ingrid Visser)

We had to surf in on the back of big waves with our Zodiacs to enter the Bay. Passing the end of the pier, the driver had to then hug the concrete seawall to the left inside the very tiny bay to keep from being washed up onto the shallow rocks to the right. 

Entry to Pitcairn Island by Zodiac (photo credit: Ingrid Visser)

In 1790, a little less than half the crew of the ship set adrift the Captain and those loyal to him in a small tender and sailed the Bounty to Tahiti and then on to Pitcairn. They searched for Pitcairn because it was known to be virtually inaccessible to ships of any size and they thought they could be safe and hidden from the rest of the world there. The punishment for mutiny could be a life in prison, or even death, so staying concealed from the rest of the world was critical for the rebellious crew members. The plan essentially worked and nine mutineers, six Polynesian men, twelve Polynesian women and one baby settled on the island.

“Welcome to Pitcairn Island” in Bounty Bay with local longboats

At time of writing, their descendants – officially 49 people – are residents of the island. Two people are not originally from Pitcairn – the police officer and the priest. There are a handful of others working on the island at the moment, mostly from New Zealand, the country with the closest ties to Pitcairn. One islander told me she had just wrapped Christmas presents for 55 people, so that was her population count for the year. With everyone off the ship – guests and crew – we more than tripled the population of the island. 

Pitcairn family on the favorite local mode of transport

Did I mention the ship visited Pitcairn Island on Christmas Day?

The whole island agreed to work on Christmas Day to take us on tours, sell crafts, and drive 4-wheel ATVs as “taxis” around the island for us. Instead of enjoying their holiday on December 25th, the islanders opted to celebrate Christmas on December 26th, so we felt very honored to be accommodated in such a way.

St. Paul’s Pool, Pitcairn Island

I spent the morning walking to a spot called St. Paul’s Pool to check out a hike we wanted to take guests on in the afternoon.  The walk was steep and hot.  The red dirt road and punishing humidity took their toll and I found myself feeling light headed towards the top. 

We took a break for water and food near the highest point of the island, and the views were stunning looking out over the violet Pacific Ocean and the tumbling green peaks of the island.  The pool is down at sea level and a natural vertical rock wall separates this calm swimming hole from the violent waves of the ocean. 

The view from high vantage on Pitcairn Island

I dove into the cool blue water just about as fast as I could after that grinding hike.  Every now and then a wave would break up and over the rock wall and flood the pool with a mini-tsunami.  Small reef fish, shrimp and crabs clung to the sides of the pool and rocked around with the breaking waves.

Back in the Adamstown square I had a chance to talk with some of the islanders who had set up their tables of crafts and t-shirts for us.  Everyone I met was very friendly and excited to have us on their island. 

A Christmas Market – Pitcairn Island Style

It has been a long time since another ship like ours made landing there – perhaps as much as a year ago.  One woman I talked to said six ships are scheduled to visit in 2013, so they are looking forward to a little more business and contact with the outside world. 

Handmade Pitcairn crafts for sale

We gave the islanders a big box of our used paperback novels from the ship so they could have new reading material.  It must be a challenge to keep yourself entertained out there without access to the latest movie or even a bookstore. 

Some local kids showed me around a little bit before I had to head back to the ship.  They pointed out the graveyard and back down at sea level, one of the longboats that the islanders use to come in and out of Bounty Bay.  I think the whole population could probably fit in that one giant longboat. 

Pitcairn Islander taking time out to show me around Adamstown, Pitcairn Island (photo credit: Ingrid Visser)
Pitcairn’s interior is lush and green or alternatively bare with scorched red earth.
Grave of John Adams, the last surviving mutineer of the Bounty. He settled on Pitcairn Island one year after the mutiny in January 1790.

Here be mutineers.

The kids also had an old bathtub embedded in the concrete seawall around Bounty Bay that they could swim in.  Every time a really big wave flooded up and over the seawall, the tub would be flooded and anyone in it was rolled around in the big round basin laughing and floating like a rubber ducky in the tub.

Pandas trees spanning the Pitcairn forest and creating shady groves.

From my perspective today at the end of this decade, looking back on Christmas Day on Pitcairn Island near the decade’s beginning, I find myself a bit melancholy for those times. My days were often spent on a small ship in a vast sea searching for specks of islands to appear on the horizon. The friendships formed amongst expedition guides is one of family grown through necessity and chance encounter. We relied on each other in work and play.

The bond of sailors is deep and rekindled in my memory each time I reflect on a voyage. I wonder how those mutineers — fellow seafarers — felt striking out on their own to settle a new land and begin life anew of their own making.

Christmas Day clouds shrouding Pitcairn as the ship departs.

I wish for you all the happiest of holidays and renewed commitment to shaping the best life you can for yourself and those around you in the new decade.

Here’s to the Twenty20s my friends!

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