The Exceptional South Pacific

So what on earth are 34 people doing living on a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the huge Pacific ocean? This whole island is only about half a nautical mile wide by two-thirds of a nautical mile long and is one of a number of sandy cays within an atoll about halfway between Bora Bora and Tonga. I thought the Marquesas were remote, but this place really takes the cake. But it gets weirder, these people are all related to each other and are descended from one Englishman who settled there about 150 years ago. Palmerston Island was first discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook during his second voyage. Then in 1864, William Marsters, previous occupation, whaler, seeks land to call his own. He’s previously visited this uninhabited atoll and rather fancies the idea of having the place for his own purposes. He arrives with two wives & assorted children. Then procures a third wife who has been abandoned by her spouse. He sets up zones on the island for his three different families (which, to this day, are still adhered to). Using shipwreck timber and driftwood, Marsters builds a house for his family, which is still standing today. He writes to the Queen of England and asks to lease said island paradise (which she grants) and bingo! you have Palmerston Island. Today, there are three extended families living on Palmerston Island, each being descended from Marsters and one of his three wives and 26 children. You could also call this place “Screensaver Island” with numerous opportunities for stunning images. 

Apparently part of the Marsters philosophy handed down by the patriarch is that hospitality should always be extended to passing vessels. Even today this tradition is proudly maintained. On the afternoon of our arrival we were greeted by two men in a dingy who advised us we could pick up a mooring. They subsequently introduced themselves as part of the family that would host us during our stay. The next day we were visited by Cook Islands officials to complete Customs, Immigration & Health (mostly the same guys), after which we were invited to come ashore for lunch with our hosts. The locals are very friendly and incredibly generous, providing lunch for all the yachts (of which there were up to ten whilst we were there) every day. After a tour of their small island we were free to walk around and chat to anyone we liked. I couldn’t help but notice what was left of the upturned hull of a yacht wrecked on the reef here in 2011. As always, there’s a story behind that one. 

Palmerston has a treacherous fringing reef, which is not for the uninitiated to negotiate (especially in a soft-bottomed dingy like ours!) so the host family ferries visiting yachties to and fro on a daily basis. Have a look here:

The current island residents seem completely untroubled by (if not proud of) their ancestral history. Their founding father’s grave is in the middle of the village. The locals lead a fairly uncomplicated life which focuses on fishing. They make a living supplying parrot fish to the resorts in Rarotonga, whose own parrot fish are affected by ciguatera and can’t be eaten. But paradise comes with its own set of problems, such as how to keep their young people interested in staying. There are currently nine children at the school ranging from 5 to 18 years. Also, this place is really isolated and the supply vessel only comes about every three months or so. But if the weather’s bad, it may not come at all. We had a good chat with the local missionary (as far as we could ascertain only he and the nurse from PNG weren’t related to each other). It would seem that for those who have stayed, there are many more who have left and are now living on other Cook Islands or in New Zealand. So how much does it cost to maintain an island inhabited by just 34 people? Well, there’s the newly built double-story cyclone shelter at a cost of $1.5 million, funded by the Japanese. (At the risk of sounding a little cynical, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an International Whaling Commission vote or some fishing rights in there somewhere). Then there’s the solar energy plant, which will be more environmentally friendly than running diesel generators long term. But I guess if the Cook Islands government doesn’t maintain this place then goodness only knows who else might just move in and set up shop.

During our stay our host family decided to treat us to an excursion to one of the outer motus. Some of the yachties elected to go on a fishing expedition with the locals and came back with loads of parrot fish, fresh out of the lagoon which was then cooked on an open fire on the beach. Meanwhile the rest of us enjoyed the superb snorkeling in the crystal clear aquamarine waters of the lagoon where there were turtles, stingrays, reef sharks and heaps of fish. Before the afternoon was over the yachties had pitched in and helped scrub the hull of Edward’s tinnie. Many hands made for fast work. It really was a remarkable day and we greatly appreciated the generosity of the islanders – it will be well remembered by all. But after four days, with a sou’ westerly swell on the way, it was time to move on.

If Palmerston Island has the smallest number of inhabitants then is Niue the world’s smallest country? The resident population is somewhere between 1300-1500 people, depending upon who you ask. Apparently there’s about another 5,000 of them living in Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, many of whom come home at Census time to ensure that Niue doesn’t lose their “country” status. Upon arrival you must first negotiate the slightly inhospitable dock where every dingy, and all small vessels including the police rescue boat need to be hoisted ashore by crane. You are then met by Customs & Immigration officials and all the form-filling-in is conducted by multiple skippers in the back of a minivan. It’s all very low key and chilled out here.

But it’s the spectacular natural beauty that supports their growing tourism industry, with caves, chasms, canyons and rock pools aplenty to explore. Yet again we were very lucky to have the right weather for our visit. Another yacht we spoke with who arrived a few days earlier than us had two days where they couldn’t get off their vessel because it was unsafe to attempt getting ashore. A reminder that at times this is a wild and woolly part of the world. We enjoyed our time here, but we were conscious of picking a good weather pattern to get us to Tonga. So all too soon it was time to say farewell to Helmy who had joined us in Bora Bora.

The Kingdom of Tonga is a quite lovely, underdeveloped part of the world, with lots of good natural anchorages. After so much time either at sea or on anchor it was nice to be able to pick up a mooring buoy in a protected harbour and not have to think about wind, waves or swell. We also enjoyed the novelty of the floating “bar” in the harbour. It’s been great to catch up with various people and yachts that we’ve seen on and off as we’ve made our way across the Pacific over the last 7-8 months. Some we hadn’t seen since Panama, so it was good to know that they had arrived safely. A lot of the bays are well protected and there is some good snorkeling in places. We’ve also enjoyed the local hospitality, including a couple of Tongan feasts, which usually involve a suckling pig or two.

One of the most wonderful things about travelling is the people you meet along the way. Whether it be fellow yachties or locals, people are fascinating. The other day I met some Dutch yachties, one of which is an engineer. He has invented a solar oven that can be used to recycle plastic. He has a small version of it on his yacht. He and his crew have been crossing the Pacific, engaging with schools, getting kids involved with cleaning up plastic in their local environment, then showing them how to turn the plastic rubbish they’ve collected into flower pots! You can check out their website: Unfortunately its all in Dutch, but you’ll get the general idea!

And if you know any marine biologists then you’ll know that they get really excited about things like krill and plankton. A lot of yachties, us included, are mostly oblivious to the invisible stuff at the bottom of the food chain that we’re sailing along with all the time. At night you’ll often see “phosphorescence” in the waves alongside your boat. But what is that stuff? At the local Buy, Sell, Swap meet one of the yachties decided to set up a stand complete with microscopes and water samples taken straight out of the bay. It was amazing and very informative to see all the really little critters that are floating around down there. But seeing the reaction on the local kids faces as they were getting up close and personal with what’s in their own bay was awesome.

So we’re now at the business end of the season and the passage to New Zealand is our final leg for the year. We’ve pulled the storm sails out from under the bunk and hoisted them to refresh our memories on how to put them up. (Lordy that trysail is a VERY small sail. Let’s hope we don’t see that one out of the bag!!!) We’ve been studying the weather in readiness for our departure. Conventional wisdom has it that after leaving Tonga it’s best to steer a course that makes sufficient westing so as to counteract any possible strong sou’ westerlies on approach to New Zealand. Martin & Maudie have joined us today and we will soon be setting off for the 1300nm voyage to NZ.

Not long now until we will be heading back to Australia. We’ve had a great experience with some awesome adventures along the way but are both very much looking forward to heading home and seeing friends and family soon!



2 thoughts on “The Exceptional South Pacific

  1. Wow! What a fabulous trip Kate. So many adventures and spectacular places visited over the last
    five years, but it seems the Pacific is the most spectacular of all. Your photos are magnificent and
    tell the story of your travels so beautifully. Let’s hope we can all pull together
    to keep the Pacific beautiful, clean and independent for the friendly laybacked people who live in the region.
    Thrilled to see you went to Niue. Angie and Tim honeymooned there because of the diving. They loved it
    Can’t wait to see you in person and have wonderful catch up.
    Sail well and stay safe on the NZ leg.
    Sue xx

  2. Thanks Kate for sharing your amazing journey and sharing beautiful photos and experiences of the fabulous places you’ve visited.
    Look forward to seeing you when you are back in Melb.
    Safe travels home
    Cheers Bernadette

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