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Pitcairn Island

Rob Hawley


One of the side benefits of being an eclipse chaser is that you visit places off the usual tourist path. Friends have described having drinks in a Mongolian bar and flying over Antarctica. In my experiences I had visited Eastern Europe and Africa (twice). My April 2005 trip began in a typical tourist spot, Tahiti, on one of the local tourist boats. But instead of heading north to the islands that you would usually visit on one of the packaged tours we headed southeast.

What is southeast of Tahiti? Well for one thing a lot of water. The sites the French used for their open air testing of the bomb are located in this direction (and were just visible on the horizon). Some isolated atolls could be seen in the distance. But our destination was Pitcairn Island.

Pitcairn Island is the epitome of the phrases "middle of nowhere" and "off the grid". It is a tiny former volcano located almost 3 days sailing from Tahiti. We were there because the eclipse track crossed the ocean northwest of the island, but decided to travel another day up the eclipse track to what was supposed to be clear skies. See my article in the May Ephemeris.

Our boat was fortunate to have on board Mark Eddowes, a research archaeologist and anthropologist from New Zealand. Among his many lectures was a description of what really happened on the Bounty. Needless to say if your experience is limited to the Mel Gibson movie, then I suggest you get one of the more recent books. The reality was more nuanced and also more interesting.

Pitcairn was visible on the horizon on the morning of April 6 (two days before the eclipse). From a distance there is absolutely nothing inviting about the island. There are no sandy beaches that one normally associates with the South Pacific. These are all lost to the pounding surf. It is really nothing more than a steeply sloping volcano about 2 x 3 km in size. Coming around the island we could see a small dock and a few houses mingled with the trees. Some areas were definitely planted, but most was heavily forested with a few trails visible here and there.

Most of the residents of Pitcairn (about 30 or 40 of them including children) sailed out in a long boat to meet us and to set up an impromptu bizarre to sell tourist wear, pictures, and carvings. Talking to them was one of the highlights of the day.

The captain decided he was going to try to land some of the more adventurous passengers on the island. About 150 of us (i.e. more than entire population) attempted the boat crossing to the island. The landing was too treacherous for the normal shuttle boat. All landings would have to be done with the same long boat used by the islanders. To get on the boat required descending backward on a ladder hanging off the side of the ship to board a boat being pitched by 5 foot seas (i.e. moving 5 feet vertically) and moving up to 3 feet away from the boat. (See movie.)

For landlubbers (the passengers) this is not a transfer that can be done safely. The solution required one to abandon any sense of propriety. You backed down the ladder a few steps under the direction of those in the long boat. Everyone was told that they might have to climb a few steps with seconds notice. Once the crew in the long boat thought it was safe they grabbed you around your waist and you let go of the ladder. The crewman picked you up and deposited you on the floor of the long boat. It was definitely not dignified.

So with about 50 of your fellow passengers (and on our trip the ship's exec officer) we set forth in the long boat. 5-foot seas meant that at times the front of the boat was 5 feet higher than the back. It was in interesting ride. Approaching the harbor the crew waited for a wave and then surfed in a full power. Just before hitting the launch ramp the boat did a 180-degree turn and bumped against the dock. Welcome to Pitcairn.

On landing my impression of the island softened a bit. It was a lush tropical island with green everywhere. We walked up a steep dirt road (UK is in the process of paving the road) up to the center of the town. The center consisted of a church, post office, meeting room, and a small museum. The Bounty anchor was on display. The only local we ran into was a policeman from the UK since most of the island folks were on the boat.

We only had a few minutes so there was not a lot of time to explore beyond the town centre. The museum definitely portrayed a place that was steeped in history - both positive and negative. Standing there in the center you could get the impression of isolation even today. After the Discovery that was visiting the next day and the next cruise ship was in December. One could imagine the isolation of the early 19th century when the world was not even sure of the longitude of this isolated spec of rock.


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