The first impression one gets of Norfolk Island, as the flight dips to land, is of all the pine trees. They stand like sentinels along the ridges and valleys like giant green protectors. These majestic trees were what inspired James Cook to recommend settlement on the island and even though they were unsuitable as ship masts, they are now iconically present on all east coast Australian beachfronts. Members of the Araucaria family, along with bunya, hoop and kauri pine, Araucaria heterophylla are endemic to Norfolk Island, grow to 80-100m, taking 60-80 years to mature. They can live to 1000 years.
Our group of 28 Botanica World Discovery travellers had met our tour guide Talei, at the Sydney International Airport where we had endured the tortuous customs and immigration procedures required of those going ‘overseas’ because Norfolk Island is an Overseas Territory. Since 2016, this has caused some frustration to the islanders as they cannot easily export or import agriculture or plants. We visited two agricultural properties growing an array of bananas, papaya, avocados, legumes, vegetables and a range of citrus and stone fruit. At Merv Buffet’s farm, we witnessed his regeneration of the virgin forests, full of native dock, bloodwood and ironwood.
We were envious of his rows of almost ripe papaya as we had only been offered tinned fruit at our resort. It wasn’t until we visited the next farm, Pa Forty’s where the 84 year old owner Patricia Buffet informed us she dropped off her papayas at the local service station. Patricia has been managing her farm mostly alone for 21 years since her husband passed, growing a huge range of fruit. Resplendent in a traditional Norfolk Island hat woven from pandanus, she treated us to a sumptuous afternoon with pikelets and guava (pohpiah) jelly.
Another Pitcairn descendent, John Christian took us through the old settlement of Kingston, starting with Quality Row, one of the oldest streets of Georgian buildings in the world. Below is the museum at No.10. I was particularly interested in the research centre at No. 9 Quality Row, because my First Fleet ancestor Ann Forbes was sent with her first husband (she had three!) to Kingston in 1791. A feisty lass, she had three more children to another convict she married on Norfolk Island. Sadly only one of the four children she bore to these two husbands survived. I knew quite a bit about Ann, who lived to the age of 82, bearing 9 more children to her third partner, who was also sent to Norfolk. What I discovered at Quality Row was that she was a dressmaker, serving out her sentence on the Island and also where she settled.
John took us to the cemetery, which was consecrated in 1815, when the second penal settlement arrived. We wandered among the gravestones, with John giving us colourful commentary about some of the more infamous characters buried there, including Thomas Wright, a wealthy emancipist, who, at the ripe old age of 99, was sent to Norfolk Island when it was discovered he accumulated his wealth through forgery, his original crime. Over 8,000 pounds of forged notes bearing the logo ‘Austilin Bank’ from a Parramatta Banking company or sometimes a Defiance company were found in his possession. Apparently the ‘Austilin’ mark resembled the Bank of Australia insignia, although perhaps Thomas intended it to mean ‘A-stealing’. He died aged 105, however one of his notes turned up at a 2009 auction house, selling for $30,000. Nearby was the grave of the more contemporary Australian author, Colleen McCulloc, whose extraordinary home of collectables we visited the following day.
We wandered down to Emily Bay and the grassy mounds along the foreshore. It was here that archeologists found the remains of a Polynesian settlement several centuries before the English one. The mounds were also evidence of the earlier burial ground of the original penal settlement in 1790’s. I wondered if Ann Forbes first two children might be lying there.
John Christian had been a National Park ranger prior to his retirement and he took us to the Hundred Acres Reserve. This, together with the National Park on the north side of the island, aims to preserve some of the endemic species of Norfolk, like the pines and the white oak, Lagunaria patersonia. The pines are a favoured nesting site for the white capped booby and the wedge tailed shearwater. As we trekked down into the spectacular tree fern and cordylline forest, we were assaulted by the nesting boobies, who came shooting out of nests high up in the pine trees.
Margaret Christian, another retired ranger took us on a tour of the National Park and to the nursery, where many of the endangered species such as the Phillip Island hibiscus and arbutilon are being reintroduced. It was while walking in the National Park, amongst other endemic species such as the broad leafed Meryta that we heard first and then saw the endangered green parrot. So much of the island was cleared for farming and then has been exposed to feral goats, pigs, cats and chickens. The feral chickens remain roaming around eating palm seeds, the main food of the green parrot. Cows were always farmed on the island and islanders can now allow up to 10 cows to graze along the roadside. This keeps the grass down but woe betide anyone who hits a cow with a vehicle. They have right of way! Margaret finished her tour with us, inviting us to her home, where we saw masked boobies nesting. Margaret and her family have achieved this by removing all the feral cats which allows the boobies to breed.
Along from the Bloody Bridge is Music Valley, and the owner Jane Evans Rutledge informed us how she and 12 other community elders are working on a Norfolk Island Dictionary in an attempt to preserve the unique island language. She introduced us to such Kastams en Tradishans as Wetls (food – for instance banana is plan, pronounced plun), Silmanship (seamanship) and Plaeten en Wilven (plaiting and weaving).
Her Boat Shed was full of island memorabilia, a sort of cornucopia of old tools, oars and whaling harpoons. Donning one of the signature Norfolk Island hats, plaited from banana leaves, Jane gave us her version of Norfolk Island history, before taking us for a tour of her extensive garden. Her property was originally owned by First Fleet convict Ann Harper and the ruins of the original Harper home were recently discovered under tropical regrowth. We learnt that a whale vertebra is a perfect milking stool and that when the whales swim south, the sooty terns otherwise known as whale birds begin to lay their eggs, a known delicacy on the island.
On the northern side of the island is the iconic St Barnabas Church, built by the islanders brought to Norfolk Island by the Melanesian Mission to learn trades. The interior is crafted from Norfolk pine, the roof in the shape of an upturned ship prow. Each pew is inlaid with mother of pearl shell and the beautiful stained glass windows, designed by Edward Burne Jones was crafted by William Morris.
On one of our last days on the island we took a bushwalk through the National Park, finishing by walking along the northern headland where it is believed Cook landed in 1774. A monument stands there to mark his ‘discovery’ but of course the ancient island has been standing on the edge of Zealandia for millions of years. Its English and Pitcairn settlement has partly destroyed its native wildlife, however the work of the National Park rangers and perhaps tours like ours, will encourage more protection of its iconic heritage.
On our final evening we were treated to a wine and cheese experience at Ball Bay. Tour guides, another John Christian and his sister Ngaire, entertained us with some Norfolk Island dance and a ukulele accompaniment. Ngaire still competes in an all women’s outrigger canoe team and John accompanies the Norfolk Island dancers at Oceania competitions, a reminder that Norfolk Island retains its place as a Pacific Ocean and Melanesian paradise.