The Pacific’s Eccentric Island

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Few people visit Pitcairn Island, a craggy black rock in the middle of the South Pacific, because getting there is considerably more than half the journey. Situated almost exactly between Peru and New Zealand, the British Overseas Territory is only accessible by boat. The closest airport is 330 miles away on Mangareva, in Tahiti’s Gambier Islands, which are – in turn – only reachable by weekly flights from Papeete, Tahiti. The ferry ride takes several days unless there is a swell running or rough weather. If the waves kick up, the ferry has to dawdle offshore because the jagged volcanic rock and tall cliffs surrounding the island make landing impossible. Precisely because it is such a pain in the ass to reach, the island has spent the better part of two centuries becoming increasingly eccentric.

Pitcairn looked perfect to the mutinous crew of the HMS ‘Bounty‘ when they spied it on the horizon in 1790. Satisfied they’d reached the exact middle of nowhere, they burned Her Majesty’s ship and, along with the handful of Tahitians they were transporting, set about the business of colonization beyond the reach of empire. The island itself was hospitable enough, but the sailors’ dispositions were not. The population shrank quickly. An uprising by the Tahitians, a British retaliation, murder, disease, and falling off cliffs while drunk were the main causes of death. Within a few years, all but two of the men had gone to the tall ship in the sky. The survivors found God, and the island remained peaceful and unknown for 24 years until a sailboat happened by and Pitcairn became the first British territory in the South Pacific.

Today, the 50-some Pitcairn natives (48 of whom are direct descendants of the original crew) speak a strange mix of British-accented English and antiquated sailor slang. “Wut-a-way,” means hello, how are you, and nice to meet you. The word is delightfully all purpose, but not always necessary. There aren’t many public areas, just a small museum and a post office where travelers can send postcards that typically take about four months to meander their way to recipients.

It took about 30 minutes of exploring to realize that this island really is a pirate’s paradise. Singletrack jungle trails lead to hidden caverns, large Banyan trees beg to be climbed, and Christian’s Cave offers 270-degree crow’s nest views of the cobalt blue Pacific. We went snorkeling in Bounty Bay, site of the island’s first bonfire, and touched the remains of the famous vessel. Sea turtles circled One Palm Island, named for self-explanatory reasons. That lone tree seemed a fitting metaphor for the whole place: Resilience, not logic, defines life on this island at the edge of the world.

More information: The best way to get to Pitcairn is probably to book passage aboard the SV Xplore, a charter sailboat based on Mangareva that makes frequent trips to the island. Ask after Captain Stephen Wilkins when you climb off your Air Tahiti Nui flight.

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