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The natural detox, as well as the local history, draws visitors back to Norfolk Island
Nirvana on an island.
That’s how a colleague described Norfolk Island after holidaying there.
I thought then that it was an over-statement. But I change mind after Air New Zealand drops me on that tiny nugget of land generously powdered with tall pine trees and surrounded by turquoise blue ocean splashing on sheer cliff faces. While the breath of fresh, unadulterated air immediately soothes my urbanised mind and body, the picture-perfect natural setting and laidback lifestyle inspires me to imagine myself isolated in a different world.
Eroded remnants of basaltic volcano, active over three million years ago, created this gem in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Measuring just eight by five kilometres, Norfolk Island is a venue where pristine environment combines with history and culture to please visitors with a long list of things to see and do.
Less than three hours flying from Sydney and Brisbane, this idyllic nest annually welcomes around 30000 visitors, many on their second, third or even fifth trip.
“It’s a great place to relax,” say Don and Betty from Brisbane, enjoying their fourth time in this sub-tropical refuge. “The combo of spectacular scenery, vibrating history, antiquated regime and hordes of things to do keep drawing us back.”
I soon discover the essence in their statement. There is nothing in this haven to create any sort of stress and strain, so relaxation imbues almost naturally. There are no traffic lights, no fast food chains like McDonalds or KFC, no Hoyts or Event Cinemas either. Five police officers guard the domain but are said to be always looking for things to do. This means locking houses and cars is not necessary. Though the island is small, a relatively lengthy roadway criss-crosses the landscape, so most accommodation deals provide guests with cars and a caution note saying cows and chooks have the right of way on the asphalt. Where on earth is it possible to experience this – unless it’s the fabled Paradise.
Undoubtedly pure nature evokes a feeling of awe right from the beginning. The surrounding vista is so therapeutic for mind and eyes that it’s nothing unusual for many city-jarred souls to do nothing but keep gazing at it from various locations to capture different silhouettes of the pine-clusters and the ocean in background.
At times, lazing in the sun on one of Norfolk Island’s tranquil beaches is an option, followed by a swim or snorkel in the edging lagoon. If plunging into the water is not preferred, glass bottom boats are available to showcase the underwater scenery. Bushwalking is another casual time spender, like playing golf at a picturesque stretch of seafront green or aimlessly wandering through the tiny stretch of Burnt Pine Township, the island’s little commercial hub where there are banks, shops, grocery stores and most of the well-known restaurants, bars and cafes.
Sitting down somewhere quiet with a friendly local to learn more about the island’s fascinating history is a great choice for history buffs, who are well rewarded in Norfolk Island. Its history is unlike anywhere else on the planet; seafaring Polynesians, daring British sailors, brutal penal commandants, cynical criminals and pious Pitcairn Islanders have all left behind layers of amaze to intrigue future generations.
British explorer Captain James Cook during his second voyage in the South Pacific spotted this tall pine tree filled uninhabited atoll in 1774 and named it after the Duchess of Norfolk.
Four years later, a British settlement was established here along the seaside location, now called Kingston, as a penal camp with nine male and six female convicts deported from Australia, six weeks after arrival of the First Fleet in today’s Sydney. The settlement was deliberately abandoned in 1814 but reopened again in 1825, this time the brutal regime of the commandants making it a living hell for the 2000-plus inmates.
The convict history becomes painfully obvious when wandering through the ruins of prisons, gaols, guard towers and military barracks and some of the restored buildings at the Kingston historic quarter, now a World Heritage site. With imagination wide open, sounds of lashings, cries of convicts or laughter of sadist military officers can still be perceived. Though nothing much remains from the first era, the restored houses from the following edition represent one of the best samples of Georgian architecture. Now they are used as administration offices, stores or museums. The collections inside the four museums depict evocative stories of the past while the oldest graves in the nearby cemetery stand as silent witness of unimaginable horror and misery. The “Sound & Light” show at Kingston or “The Trial of the Fifteen”, a courtroom drama played at the island’s one and only so-called auditorium instil life into the history which spills shame on the British Empire.
In 1855, the Empire ceased convict operations on Norfolk Island with almost all residents transported to Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land.
The island was once again uninhabited, but not for long. A year later, 194 people arrived from Pitcairn Island, located around 6800 kilometres away. They were mostly the descendants of the famous Bounty mutineers, the daring English sailors and their Tahitian wives, all of whom after the mutiny found refuge in unoccupied Pitcairn Island to escape British justice. However when that land became overcrowded, Queen Victoria granted them Norfolk Island, already fitted with basic infrastructure from earlier settlements. Mel Gibson’s hit movie The Bounty immortalises their story.
The new settlers brought with them their culture, traditions and dialect, all evolving from a unique mix of maritime English and Polynesian habits and practices. Their descendants now constitute about 40% of the islands population of 1500. Calling themselves Norfolk Islanders, they breathe the culture and traditions inherited from their ancestors who were conscious not to lose whatever they brought from Pitcairn Island. They play cricket and golf, weave baskets, swing hips the way Polynesians do and speak a unique dialect which is a rough blend of old English and Tahitian. It’s taught in the island’s only school to ensure it is lives on.
Friendly community fellows are always keen to tell their stories and a good way of confining some of them is by joining a popular evening excursion, which includes a progressive visit to three local homes for entree, main course and desert. Apart from sampling nice food all prepared with local Norfolk Island produce, these dinner outings provide a great opportunity to mingle with locals and learn some of their traditions, recipes and vocabularies; getting to know fellow travellers comes in as a bonus.
Norfolk Island functions as an external territory of Australia with her own flag, language, general rules and even postage stamps. However this is supposed to change in July 2016 when it will become a Regional Council of Australia. Some residents who are descendants of the people from Pitcairn don’t favour this reform, fearing total loss of their identity and culture. Whatever happens politically, they assure the tranquil island will still remain a peaceful sanctuary for visitors.
Travel notebook: Norfolk Island
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com.au) operates direct flights to Norfolk Island from Sydney on Mondays and Fridays and from Brisbane on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
While there are several accommodation options, the Governor’s Lodge Resort Hotel (www.governorslodgeresort.com) offers fully serviced accommodation with first-class facilities.
Several eateries are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner; some popular ones are Hilli Restaurant, Olive Café, Golden Orb Cafe, Bedrock Cafe and Blue Bull Café and Little Singapore which offers quality Asian cuisine.
Travelling to Norfolk Island is considered international, so carrying valid passport is essential. Legal currency is Aussie dollars.
More information www.norfolkisland.com.au