Look beyond the island’s past to discover a destination where adventure and history come together.
Despite its famed evergreen reputation, and Hollywood-represented history, Norfolk Island is somewhat of an enigma. As I board the plane from Sydney to the tiny 35-kilometre-square island in the South Pacific, I’ve convinced myself I’m about to enter a real-life production of Bachelor in Paradise, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The first thing I notice about Norfolk Island, aside from the shed-like airport, is the thickness of the air. It’s February and the subtropical climate of the island, situated 1500 kilometres east of Brisbane, is certainly delivering the humidity. The weather is milder than expected, but I’m sweating profusely and the sapphire blue waters that surround the cliff-framed cost are looking rather appealing.
A crowd of locals stands metres away behind a cream fence, waving vigorously at arrivals and preparing farewells for the departing. Everyone seems to know each other, but what would you expect of an island that has a population wavering around 2000? Through the noise, I identify wataweih and whatawee as the main greetings and I make a mental note for my future grand finale.
Rose Evans is my guide for the day and I take careful note of landmarks as she drives around grassy bends and over steep undulations. But with famed Norfolk pine trees deepening the hue of endless sweeping pasture I quickly lose my landmarks. The landscape is far less tropical than I had imagined, which I later learn is the result of one of the earlier settlements where overgrown tropics were replaced with pastoral lands. It looks like a quaint UK countryside village, with the weather you’d expect of a subtropical island.
A brief introduction to World Heritage-listed Kingston, the blue lagoon of Emily Bay, the thrashing waters of Slaughter Bay and the town centre eventually ends at my private beach-house accommodation at Coast. From my deck, the blue skies are starting to scatter with grey clouds that threaten rain but never deliver, mocking the locals who are awaiting the end of a near-catastrophic drought. Not that you could tell by the landscapes that are hypnotizingly green. Through the pine trees, I spy the varying blues of the ocean and its surrounding reef, the source of many ships’ end.
Over dinner at Hilli’s Restaurant, Rose tells me how she came to call the isolated island home. As a young Queenslander, she holidayed on Norfolk Island and fell in love with the place and a local. Shortly after, she moved and has been here ever since. I’d soon come to learn this romantic tale isn’t unusual in this part of the world, and my hope for a paradise ceremony strengthens.
A Pinetree’s orientation tour is my half-day introduction to the island’s main sights. Along with my fellow grey-haired explorers, I listen as Max, our guide, rattles off fascinating island facts. For instance, the phone book uses locals’ nicknames rather than their surnames, there are no snakes or spiders here, and cattle and birds are the main fauna. I’m thrilled to learn about the absence of deadly critters we’re so used to in other parts of Australia.
“The language is 227 years old,” Max explains of Norfuk, a combination of old English and Tahitian. “It was created by some men who stole a ship, picked up their friends, settled on an island where they burnt their ship then couldn’t speak to one another.”
His dry sense of humour gets mixed responses on the bus, which is as entertaining as his stories that have me in fits of giggles. But Max makes it very clear there’s one conversation he won’t have on his tour – politics. The previously self-governed island came under Australian Government rule in 2017 and it’s still a touchy topic.
Instead, Max recites the historical tale I’ll hear multiple times over the coming days. It’s a fascinating narrative featuring ancient Polynesian seafarers, First Fleet farm lands, brutal convict settlements and a famous mutiny.
A similar discourse is delivered at a traditional sunset fish fry, during the Pinetrees’ Sound and Light Show where costumed players enact the horrifying days of the convict era, and again as I’m wandering the cemetery on a ghost tour.
I’m transfixed by the islanders’ unwavering script on the HMS Bounty mutiny, which in 1789 saw Fletcher Christian and eight other crewmen overthrow and set adrift Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 other men. The mutineers then returned to Tahiti to reunite with the women with whom they’d “fallen in love” before eventually heading to Pitcairn Island. There they set the ship ablaze and stayed for 20 years. By 1808, all of them, apart from John Adams, had been killed by each other or their Polynesian ‘loves’. Finally, in 1856, Queen Victoria granted Norfolk Island to Adams and the women and children who remained. When I question the story, drawing comparisons to other accounts of less gentlemanly behaviour during the British Empire’s history of invasions, one local offers a dismissive forced smile. And while my journalistic curiosity has me wanting to dig deeper into the romance of this story, I have a fond admiration for the pride the Norfolk nation has in their history.
It’s at this point I decide to join a Kingston ghost tour. Thanks to the island’s violent penal past, Norfolk is considered one of the world’s most haunted islands, and this has the attention of my inner woo-woo transfixed. Being a sceptical believer, I join the group with a lantern, an open mind, some garlic and a pinch of salt, hoping to hear fascinating stories but not expecting any actual ghosts. Accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, we move through the cemetery and past headstones etched with stories of murders, drownings and untimely deaths. I catch myself smirking when a guest questions a shadow (caused by a tree) in the distance, but tighten my grip on my black tourmaline crystal and soundlessly recite, “Please don’t follow me home, please don’t follow me home” in a bid to repel spirits.
It’s said a large number of the Norfolk’s spirits hang out around Kingston’s main street, Quality Row, and its elegant official houses. But it’s the duplex that catches my attention. As we park opposite, the bus fills with whispers and apprehension. We’re told about the house’s dark past, and some people choose to stay where they are. I spend my time ensuring I’m surrounded by living people, but eventually freak out and refuse to enter the servants’ quarters. Whether it’s anxiety or the supernatural, I’m convinced the building has evil juju. I let out a hushed giggle when a man jumps because he catches his son’s shadow while taking a photo; another when a woman, who is standing near a window without glass, quietens the group to ask if anyone else felt the “chill in the air” that “ran across” her skin. When I return to my cabin, I fall asleep with the light on.
Done with ghost and history hunting, I’m determined to pursue some nature-based adventures. Heading to Emily Bay, I meet with Jay Barker from Permanent Vacations who’s taking me on a snorkelling tour of the reef. The conditions look a little choppy, and my heart rate increases when Jay tells me we’ll start the tour at aptly named Slaughter Bay. I flipper up and dive in. The water is warm and, while the waves are strong, the reef is soon in view and my initial nerves dissipate. The crackling of the ocean is calming, the coral vibrant and the fish flourishing. Wrasse and blue trevally swim by, while rare Aatuti fish show their colours as the bullies of the bay. It’s without a doubt one of the liveliest reefs I’ve ever set goggles on.
Three hours pass before we pop up for a break. The ripples on the water are lit by the sun, while Lone Pine, which has been here for as long as anyone can remember, stands tall on Point Hunter in the distance. I’m breathless from both battling the current of Slaughter Bay and the inspiring landscape.
With the tide coming in and my skin starting to wrinkle, Jay offers to take me to some rock pools by Anson Bay on the northwest side of the island. Barefooted, I walk up a narrow sandy path and find a rope tied to a tree. “Hold on to this and pull yourself up,” Jay instructs as I start to wish I hadn’t bailed on the past two months of personal training. At the top of the climb, there’s a narrow goat track leading to more ropes, a side-stepping cliff edge and vertical track to the water. I don’t make it all the way down and, in a bid to hide my fear, dub it a good vantage point for photos. As we make our way back to the top of Anson Bay, I kick myself for not going further and vow to come back and tackle the rock pools in the future.
When I wake up the following morning, with muscles stiffer than a log of pine, I’m grateful to have a day free to explore in a Mini Moke. It’s Valentine’s Day so I enlist Jay to be my lunch date and navigator. We walk from the peak of Mount Pitt to Mount Bates, the highest point of the island, where the tropical landscape I had expected is thriving, then settle in at 100 Acres Reserve for a lunch prepared earlier by Picnic in Paradise. Surrounded by the sounds of black noddy terns and white terns nesting nearby, it’s not quite a scene from Bachelor in Paradise, but I feel totally at peace here, and not in a woo-woo ghost kind of way. A session at Serenity Day Spa and homemade pasta from Dino’s at Bumboras, a restaurant run from the owner’s home, built in the late 1800s, is a fitting end to the day.
Early the next morning, a symphony of cows mooing and white terns cacawing forces me from my slumber. A rooster sounds its alarm, crowing a good morning chant to the rising sun. The sun is shining through the window, dulled only slightly by the sheer curtains. The breeze pushes its way through the screen door, filling my room with the briny smell of the ocean. I wrap my hands around a cup of tea and step onto the deck for one last view of the pastoral lands and Pacific blues. I may not have uncovered all the mysteries hidden beneath the Norfolk pines and between the haunted buildings, or found myself the recipient of a bloom at a red-rose ceremony, but beyond its museums and mesmerising sweeping landscapes, this patch of land in the South Pacific has more adventure than a lone traveller could ask for.
Air New Zealand flies to Norfolk Island from Sydney (Monday and Friday) and Brisbane (Tuesday and Saturday). airnewzealand.com.au
Located in the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, Coast Norfolk Island is set on sweeping hills and 12 hectares of gardens. It offers one- and two-bedroom apartments, private cottages and beach houses with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as a saltwater swimming pool and day spa. Prices start at about US$100 per night. coastnorfolkisland.com
Whether you’re keen on history, museums and art galleries or beaches, nature walks and four-wheel drive adventures, there’s no shortage of things to do on Norfolk Island. norfolkisland.com.au
Permanent Vacations tailors boutique experiences to suit interests and needs. With fishing, trekking, snorkelling, night diving, mountain biking and more, Jay will push you beyond your comfort zone, but hold your hand every step of the way. Tours start at about US$20 for a 45-minute introductory snorkel session. permanentvacations.com.au