The resilient Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is in crisis, but plans are afoot to rekindle this resilient island community with the help of its rich natural wonders and by attracting those who simply love the outdoors
By Dallas Hewett September 29, 2014 Reading Time: 9 Minutes

PERCHED 1600KM EAST of Brisbane and surrounded by the mass of the Pacific Ocean, Norfolk Island sits mostly minding its own business. However, for this self-governed and relatively autonomous community, business hasn’t been real flash of late. Nevertheless, as the real estate agent might say of a house in need of renovation, it’s got loads of potential.

Last year the plight of Norfolk Islanders was laid bare for all to examine. National newspapers touted the island’s predicament. This culminated in a very public airing during separate interviews on ABC radio between author Robert Macklin, and the Island’s Chief Minister Lisle Snell.

Macklin wrote Dark Paradise, a look into the very dark history of Norfolk Island. A history the author describes as “still hanging heavy over the heads of every Norfolk Islander”. He also observed that a week on Norfolk Island felt like a month, “there is simply nothing to do”, he says.

I won’t dispute his take on history, but I do have a few words to say about what to do on Norfolk.

Activities

Mr Macklin clearly isn’t into surfing, walking, riding, kayaking, skin diving, fishing, feasting on locally grown produce and observing the hordes of migratory seabirds. Yes, Mr Macklin has a good handle on the dire past, but did he enjoy a fish fry at sunset on Anson Point after a quick spin on the hand-built mountain bike trails of Selwyn Reserve? I think not.  

Granted, Norfolk Island has trouble breaking the shackles of history – all the more difficult, as most of it sits in ruins dotted about the island for all to see.

However, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy and Mr Macklin agrees with the notion of opportunity. “This island is a treasure house of history, of natural beauty, it is riveting, a gold mine. Such opportunity,” he concludes.

So why is it failing?

Norfolk’s political self-governance

To answer this would require one to delve deeply into historical, social and political realms. I’ll leave that to you in a spare moment. Lets just say these are independent and proud people, and the thought of merging into the Australian Government has long been resisted.

Fair enough, many would argue. However, the fickle beast of tourism is virtually the island’s sole industry. Having weathered the ebbs and flows of the tourism marketplace, finally the perfect storm of a drop in visitor numbers and some less than efficient decision making in self-governance means the books are running into the red.   

Origins of Norfolk Island

The Norfolk Island group consists of three islands and various rock stacks – Norfolk, Nepean and Phillip make up the three islands with Bird Rock, Moo-oo Stone, Green Pool Stone and Cathedral Rock being the largest of the many rock stacks.

The islands feature a range of dramatic landscapes, including the subtropical and vine-filled hardwood forests, green rolling hills and spectacular coastal cliffs, with skylines dominated by majestic Norfolk Island pines.

Norfolk and Phillip islands are almost completely volcanic in origin, arising from the Pacific Ocean roughly 2.3 million years ago as masses of hot basalt. They form the highest point of the submerged Norfolk Ridge, which stretches from New Zealand to New Caledonia.

Karlene Christian has direct lineage to the Tahitians and mutineers, resettled from the Pitcairn Islands in 1856, remnants of the famous mutiny on the Bounty. With her father, Karlene would visit Phillip Island in her early childhood, taking part in traditional whale bird egg collecting.

This is one of the unique elements of engaging with the people of Norfolk – a majority of the island’s 1600 or so residents have tangible connections to the island’s history, a connection that runs deep. Karlene speaks in the unique dialect, an amalgam of 18th century English and Polynesian, to the driver of the boat that will drop us on Phillip Island.

“I have been going out to Phillip all my life,” she tells us, breaking back into perfect English, “to collect whale bird eggs during season, still do it today.”

Bird watching

The whale bird is actually the sooty tern, called a whale bird for its association with whales, feeding on the same plankton, so often found in the same areas. Harvesting the eggs for eating is allowed periodically and considered a traditional practice by Norfolk Islanders.

Phillip Island sits six kilometres south of Norfolk, the distinct red and orange colour easily visible. Arrival at uninhabited Phillip is very rudimentary indeed.

A leap from the bow of the small boat onto a slippery rock ledge and a scramble between swells onto higher ground. Immediately, we scale a vertical rope ladder and series of chains up steps cut into the steep terrain. A variety of nesting seabirds noisily take flight as we pass nests perched on rocky ledges.

A rudimentary shack sits on a rocky outcrop detached from the Phillip Island mainland opposite our vertical scramble. “A family shack,” Karlene tells us.

As we catch breath above the last chained section an aluminium dinghy rolls into the bay below us, onboard are three young boys, none over 14, with a plethora of fishing gear. I can’t help but envy the freedom of an island childhood.

Regenerating the environment

Karlene leads us around the barren lower reaches of Jacky-Jacky Ridge. Feral animals introduced by early settlers all but destroyed the island’s environment. The power of the pigs, rabbits and goats is astonishing – all the topsoil stripped, trees gone, but for a few Norfolk Island pines clinging to a small protected valley, root systems exposed to the ocean-driven winds.

The last rabbit was eradicated some 20 years ago, and the island is making small but tangible steps to regeneration.

We pass a group of re-gen workers set the unenviable task of assisting nature in reclaiming its own. Small wins are visible, but much work lies ahead. The island is home to a variety of terrain, from the deep bare earth in the interior, to rock platforms and the boulder-strewn wind-sculpted coastline.
Jacky-Jacky Ridge is the island’s high point; it stands proudly facing south into a blue abyss of sky and ocean. We pick a route in the thickening undergrowth, which provide home to tens of thousands of seabirds.

The sound of the mass of birds is deafening and the air above us is filled with their darting about. I am amazed they don’t collide. To our east I spot two of the lads from the dinghy with buckets in hand, collecting eggs, a mass of sooty terns above them the telltale sign.

Phillip Island is considered a special habitat separate to Norfolk due to the eradication of feral animals. Many seabirds that call Phillip Island home periodically don’t inhabit Norfolk. Without rats, cats or many of the weeds found on Norfolk, Phillip Island is once again a safe haven and important habitat.

We spot a ground-nesting common noddy and the red-tailed tropicbird of which Phillip Island is home to one of the largest breeding populations in Australia.

Karlene points out the rare white-necked petrel, and the black-winged petrel: “Those birds fly long way, eh.” She points to another small bird: “Ghost bird.”

The ghost bird is a wedge-tailed shearwater, an amazing little seabird known to cover vast distances across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The birds are certainly back to roost on Phillip Island.

Norfolk Pines

Back on Norfolk we head to the Norfolk Island National Park for some walking and to admire the huge Norfolk Island pines. The tall straight pine is burnt into the consciousness of all who grew up on Australia’s eastern seaboard.

Planted so ships could spot populated areas and for their ability to handle sandy soils and salt laden air, the species stands like a guard of honour on the beachfront of virtually every township along the NSW coast.

After skirting the impressive northern coastline the track leads into a grove with huge pines stretching impossibly high. No wonder Captain Cook thought they would make fabulous mast timber.

The timber was later found not to offer the required resilience. But not before the British scrambled to ensure their flag was raised on Norfolk in the hope this great, straight timber and the variety of flax grasses (used for rope and sail making) may assist an empire built on the back of ships, ropes and sails.  

Mountains and snorkelling

Norfolk Island rose out of the ocean through volcanic activity. Two predominant landmarks, Mt Pitt and Mt Bates, are basaltic rock. The walking trail leads us over Mt Bates and onto Mt Pitt. Although only 320m above sea level, the 360-degree views give a great sense of the isolation. You really do feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

I love coming here, I can almost hear the excited squeals of all my buddies down here after school,” Emily Ryres recalls as she pulls on her snorkel and mask.

Emily is a twenty-something Norfolk Islander by birth. She is showing us one of her favourite haunts. “I learnt to swim with my dad here, and it’s like our own pool, except its full of fish.” The Cord, as it is known, is a huge rock-formed pool, which traps the high tide.

Easily as big as a public swimming pool, and with a variety of layered depths, the cord is full of life – a microcosm of the surrounding ocean.

The Cord is also the perfect launch for a kayak sojourn around the rock formations that sit just off Norfolk Island NP. Green Pool Stone, Cathedral Rock and Bird Rock offer hours of sublime water level exploration.

The water is incredibly clear and there’s not another soul is in sight. Emily guides us around the natural structures, in and out of towering archways, spotting blowholes, and swimming off pebble-strewn beaches. We could be on our own deserted island.  

Emily talks of farming goats, and learning the art of cheese making amongst other food growing and permaculture practices. “Many of the younger folk on Norfolk are really interested in getting some sustainable projects up and running,” she tells us.

“That’s what Norfolk can really offer, great island-grown produce, as well as to better sustain our own communities… The soil is amazing, it’s paradise really, I love it, and we can thrive with some creative thinking about what we have out here.” I admire Emily’s attitude; her love for her Island home is infectious.

Surfing around Norfolk Island

The beauty of an island is that if one side is swell-less and windy, the other is quite likely to be offshore and pumping. Sure enough, we drive over the headland back toward the southern coast to be greeted by lines of groomed swell marching toward the reefs of Kingston.

Empty waves peel left and right over the reef some 200m off the protected lagoon. As we suit-up, a ute pulls up with a bright-eyed husky onboard. A young grommet who had spotted us wandered over, tells us it’s Bergs, “the best surfer on the island; Norfolk’s Kelly Slater.”

Bergs is a builder who drops tools at the first hint of the right combination of wind and swell. And he’s a master of them all. And he has plenty of options on Norfolk; world-class waves break around the island.

Norfolk was once touted in international surf magazines as the “best surf spot you’ve never heard of”. There are only about 30 fully committed surfers on the rock, crowds are thin and the vibe for respectful visiting surfers is friendly.

A reserved Bergs simply offers, “Better round the corner, I reckon, wind’s due to change.” We follow our new guide to a little reef with nice lefts running along it’s edge into a steep-walled bay surrounded by huge pines with roosting black noddies watching our every move.

A humble Bergs simply lets his surfing do the talking. It is plainly obvious his style and power has been groomed on the island’s myriad powerful breaks.

Bergs speaks of many of the young crew heading to Australia: “Bright lights and warm waves on the Goldy mate… but many do return, often bringing a mainland girlfriend or boyfriend, and new skills. They realise this place is unique, and pretty cool really.”

Island living

By evening we are exhausted, sun-kissed and feeling the distinct vibe that comes from island living. The rolling green hills, another amazing sunset, a wave from a passing driver (everyone waves on the island), cows wandering along the side of the road returning to home pastures – island life lulls us to a slower pace.  
We dine on locally grown organic produce and fresh fish.

How easy it would be to spend another week out here? We hadn’t even dived, fished or surfed half the spots and the swell was still to peak, according to Bergs.  

We pass through the departure area at the Norfolk airport – all 20 feet of it. A uniformed airport official wanders over. It is Haydn, one of the passionate mountain bikers who showed us around the trails of Selwyn Reserve and lent us a couple of bikes. As well as airport duties, Haydn runs a mechanical workshop, and brings in most of the island’s mountain bikes.

“That’s how it works on the island, we all pitch in and do what’s needed,” he says. “Pity you guys are off, it’s my 50th birthday bash at the RSL tonight, I wanted to yarn some more.”

It’s probably a good thing we couldn’t make it, I lament. Haydn would have chewed-on-our-ears about bikes and trails well into the wee hours given half a chance. No shortage of passion and, with a couple of active teenage boys, he understands that Norfolk needs to reinvent.

Haydn is desperate to get Norfolk onto the radar of the younger, active traveller. “You’ve seen what its like, we could really be an outdoor destination, less Zimmer frames, more surfboards and bikes, I reckon,” Haydn laughs. I can’t help but sense the underlying truth in his words.

Reinvention

It’s easy to draw on the negatives of Norfolk – history, isolation, and the difficulties of self- governance. Equally, the opportunities and positives are a plenty – lifestyle, community, independence and natural beauty.

These are real island people, people with a genuine connection and passion for their island home.

In a time when sustainability is often tossed about willy-nilly, Norfolk could just be uniquely positioned. Its isolation, the cost of shipping consumables across the ocean, just may make this the ideal place to build a model community. Big ideas for a small island, sure, “but ideas worth discussing,” a smiling Emily says.

“Young, creative islanders can learn from the issues of the past and build a good future on this island.”

The Norfolk Islanders are a strong, resilient and independent bunch – inherent traits in a people who choose to etch out a life on a 34 square kilometre rock.

From what I have seen, this island paradise definitely has the opportunity to reinvent itself once more.

I can see the real estate ad: The best address in town (29.0333° S, 167.9500° E), a little renovation and this natural beauty can shine again. Oh, and there’s plenty to do here!

The essentials

Getting there: Air New Zealand has direct flights to the island from Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland. See www.airnewzealand.com.au

Information: Norfolk Island Visitor Information Centre, www.norfolkisland.com.au;  Norfolk Island National Park – Parks Australia www.parksaustralia.gov.au

Immigration: Yes, that’s right, Norfolk is seeking individuals and professionals who want a lifestyle change to move to the island and be part of building the Norfolk Island of the future.

Maybe you have an eye for opportunity and reckon you could turn Norfolk into an amazing fully-sustainable-adventure-island.

Or you could just eat fresh fish, grow your own vegies, practice yoga and surf everyday – whatever works.

Check out destinationnorfolkisland.net and start island dreaming.