Palmerston Island is one of the Southern Cook Islands and around 650 miles going west from our last port of call in Bora Bora. We had a mixed passage getting here with everything from squalls to calms and it took us 5 days. We had debated missing out the Cooks on our way to Tonga but were really pleased we hadn’t, we would have missed one of the nicest and most interesting places in the world.
Sunset over Bora Bora
Arthur Neale, the Island administrator described it as, “the most isolated remaining bastion of the British Empire”, visited once by Prince Philip on Brittania in the 60’s. The island is still a British protectorate and administered by New Zealand. It is a community of only 55 people most of whom are descended from William Masters who was a 19th century adventurer from Gloucestershire who arrived via the northern Cook island of Penryn with 3 Polynesian wives and later settled on Palmerston in the late 19th century after a life as a whaler and a prospective gold miner in the US. The marriages produced 26 children and from there a dynasty was born. There are now over 1500 Masters family members, who originated from here, around the world but only around 50 who still live here. Palmerston island is one of several Motus (islets) around the rim of the 10 mile wide atol but the only one which is inhabited. The other Motus are reserved for coconuts, crabs and birds. The next nearest Cook island is about 200 miles away to the south.
Looking to Palmerston from the anchorage.
By good luck we arrived on the island at the start of their 4 day annual independence celebrations having asked for permission to land by SSB email en route. Palmerston is not a recognised port of entry into the Cook Islands but nevertheless we received permission from Arthur Neale the island administrator. We tied up to one of their buoys just off the reef and dropped our anchor to a metre off the bottom as added security against failure of the mooring rope, it happens! If it broke the noise of the dragging anchor would alert us to the problem as we drifted towards the reef and this way we didn’t damage the coral by digging our anchor in.
We were greeted by brothers Simon and Edward Masters in their dory’s who directed us to pick up a mooring buoy. Unfortunately we missed on the first few passes (women drivers!) and then got the mooring line jammed around the rudder, not a very auspicious arrival. I dived in while Edward pulled Romano back with his launch to ease the tension on the mooring line and I was able to free us.
Martha the health inspector and Island nurse was first on board and sprayed the boat with some lethal chemicals so we had to seal everything and stay in the cockpit for 20 minutes. This was mainly a precaution against fruit fly from French Polynesia. She told us we could keep our stocks of fresh fruit on board, now nicely flavoured with chemicals but on no account were we allowed to take any ashore. Once the boat had been fumigated by Martha for the princely sum of $20 she was followed on board by Arthur Neale the island administrator and customs and immigration officer who cleared us in to the island for a further $70. Arthur explained that Simon and Edward would be our hosts during our stay however it wasn’t clear at this stage what that meant. After clearing in and despite being bleary eyed after little sleep we were whisked ashore by Simon to join in the festivities. The beach volleyball semi finals were underway, chairs were brought for guests and cold drinks provided while we watched four very good teams battle it out for a place in the final. The final proved to be quite a close game but the team with the biggest slammers won.
After the volleyball Simon took us and three Swedish guys off SV Salsa on a brief tour of the island which measures just half a mile in diameter and showed us the main facilities. The island is covered in sand and is kept very clean and tidy, coconut trees predominate but there were giant mahogany trees and mango and pawpaw to provide fruit in season. Palmerston is no more than half a mile in diameter and completely surrounded by reef with only a couple of very small passes for the islander’s fishing dorys. There is a shallow multi hued lagoon around the island, inside the reef, with lots of coral heads making for tricky navigation. It looks and feels like everyone’s idea of a typical island paradise pure white sandy beaches, coconut palms leaning casually over the turquoise lagoon water, the distant thunder of breaking waves on the outside of the reef and the deep blue of the ocean beyond. I had to pinch myself it’s not paradise but it’s pretty damn close.
Fishing is the main occupation now that the copra trade has ceased and the main export is parrot fish caught around the reef and highly prized in Rarotonga. The island is served by a cargo ship which arrives each 3 to 5 months and intermittently goods and food are brought by yachts travelling from other Cook Islands. The only way to get here is by yacht or cargo boat, we were the 24th yacht to visit in 2016, so not a busy place. Simon told us that the island could easily be self sufficient but they have now got used to imported luxuries from around the world. The island economy was sustained for many years by the copra trade but this was very hard work for little reward and involved even children being given quotas of coconuts to collect and husk which kept them busy from daybreak to dusk. Today the government gives the islanders a generous social allowance and there is no longer any need for people to work. They have television, Internet, fridges and freezers, washing machines, showers, mobile phones, tablets and all the modern equipment you would find in a UK home, all bought and powered by government handouts! The local school has 21 children aged from 5 to 16 being taught by a young American/South African couple on a three year contract, the headmistress is Arthur Neale’s New Zealand wife.
After our tour the five of us were taken to Edward’s house where lunch had been prepared for us. We dined on a huge dish of fish cooked in a rich soy based sauce and washed down with homemade fresh lemonade. Over lunch we talked about the island and its rules and customs most of which had been set down by the original William Masters.
Brothers, Simon and Edward are 5th generation Masters with Simon head of the family and Ed the local policeman. The island had been divided into three equal parts for each of the original William Master’s three “wives” and then their 26 offspring and Simon was the current head of his family’s section. No one can sell land or change the original distribution although their are common facilities like the church, solar farm, school and central water catchment facility. Rainwater is the only source of fresh water being caught on the roofs of houses and stored in large tanks hopefully holding enough to see them through the dry season. The houses are of reinforced concrete construction with corrugated tin roofs and spacious. Chickens and pigs run wild and I asked how egg collection worked, the chickens and pigs are marked, the chickens by clipping their claws and each family has a different clip pattern. The chickens can lay their eggs anywhere around the island but any eggs laid on your land are yours. There is a barter system in operation on the island so if one family has a surfeit of Mangoes or PawPaw they can exchange for something they need. No money changes hands, cash is used to buy things off island. Ed explained how he came to be the island policeman. The government in the capital on Rarotonga asked him to do the job but he refused, a thankless task on a tiny island. However the government ignored him and paid his salary anyway so he thought after a couple of months he should do it anyway. There is no cell on the island so he has to radio Rarotonga to send a boat for any miscreants. This happens very seldom and normally a warning from muscly PC. Ed is enough to deter any troublemakers.
We asked what everyone did as no one worked any more, Simon said “they gossip about each other”, it’s the favourite pastime. We could imagine the island being a political hot bed with everyone living in very close proximity and nowhere to go.
After a lazy afternoon Edward took us back to the boat, through the coral maze, at high speed. Clearly he had done this many times before but for us it was an exhilarating white knuckle ride.
Ed promised to pick us up at 08.30 the following morning in time for the next days events, when he arrived the following morning, bang on time, we were still fast asleep. I staggered up top and apologised profusely asking if he could come back in an hour. After an hour and a half it was clear he wasn’t coming back any time soon so we launched the kayak and set off for a nearby gap in the reef with our bags etc securely tied down. We thundered through the reef on the back of a rolling wave and fortunately didn’t turn turtle or hit anything, exciting stuff. When we arrived in the village the “eating a sticky donut on a string” competition was underway with the crew of Salsa up against two big Polynesian men. They had no chance!
The two island guys had already finished well ahead of the two Swedes
Next up was the “quickest to thread a needle” competition” very difficult to do under pressure and one of the old grannies beat everybody else twice over with ease. We had missed the tug of war earlier through sleeping in and learned that Ed had been a key member of the losing team which explained why he hadn’t been able to come back for us. In the afternoon after another great lunch at Ed’s house we went to watch the singing and dancing competitions and joined in afterwards to try our hand at wiggling bums and leg shaking, much to the amusement of the locals.
One of the young girl dancers
A group of singers with Simon in the foreground
The following day was Saturday with the whole day dedicated to a fishing competition, it started at 6am so I didn’t volunteer to go out with the boats but stayed in the weighing in station to see the catches as they came in. The women and children walked across the shallow lagoon to the edge of the reef and fished from there. The men went out in boats after larger catches and the first to come back had four big wahoo the largest of which weighed in at 31kg and was easily 8 ft long. The man who caught them was massive himself with arms like tree trunks, he needed to be, he caught them on a simple handling trolled behind the boat. I asked him if we was going out again as he still had hours to go before the competition closure time of 2pm but he said no one would beat his catch and he was right as it turned out. He gutted and filleted the fish and then his wife cooked some of it including the skin which was fried to crispy and tasted delicious, so we had lunch there that day.
The boats and reef fishers came back with lots of different fish, big barracuda, Mahi-Mahi, tuna, flounder, parrot fish, surgeon fish, grouper, bass and many more we didn’t know the names of. There were prizes for boat catch and largest fish for both reef fishers and boatmen and prizes for children’s catches.
Everyone on the island was very open and friendly, the children were fearless and took to us as easily as if we had been a part of their family. One young boy of twelve came up to us on our second day while we were looking at grave stones in the churchyard and shook our hands and introduced himself as Noumi. He asked us questions about ourselves and our travels and home and told us about his life all in an open and confident but not pushy way. How many children in our society would have the maturity and confidence to do similar? Our hosts had been especially hospitable and we wanted to repay a little of that so we gave the family, books and colouring pens for the school and tinned foods, nuts, raisins, rum and beer for themselves, all of which they were very pleased to receive. No alcohol is consumed in public but it was clear that Simon and Ed were pleased with the booze.
The South Sea islands are very strong on religion so Sunday on Palmerston is kept as a day of rest, church going and prayer. We asked if we could join them for the morning service so Ed came out in his dory to collect us at 8.30 and this time we were up breakfasted and ready to go, Gill in a posh dress and me in checked shorts and a yellow tee shirt. When we arrived at Simon’s house he took one look at me and disappeared in the house to emerge with a pair of long black trousers and a cream long sleeved shirt. Shirley, Ed’s wife loaned Gill a very fetching floral hat to cover her head and off we went in procession. In the church the men and women are segregated, no hanky-panky here, so we parted, men on the left and women on the right. I tried following some of the hymns in the Polynesian hymnal but gave up and listened to the congregation, men singing one line the women the next in beautiful harmony. The minister who was dressed in white trousers and white jacket with gold buttons included us yachties in his sermon thanking us for swelling their population! and bringing “things” to the island, I wasn’t sure if it was a hint but I went up anyway and thanked him afterwards for his well meaning words of welcome.
Back at Ed’s house I quickly stripped off the hot clothes and was much happier back in my shorts and tee shirt. Sunday lunch was impressive with fish, chicken and some local birds they had shot or trapped which tasted and looked like tender grouse. This was followed by slices of delicious chocolate cake that Gill had made the day before. Over lunch Simon mentioned that he was looking for a new wife as at 63 and head of the family and a man of property but with only 3 sons (10 children would be closer to the norm) it was clearly time to have more. He had decided an Australian or New Zealand doctor was who he wanted to marry next which would also provide the island with better medical facilities, two problems solved! He said he would go to New Zealand to pick the woman himself, he didn’t want any of his sisters who lived there doing the selecting for him. The island is a very chauvinistic place and the men have no hesitation in telling you that the role of women is to cook clean, warm the bed and bring up their many children. We tried explaining to Simon that a young doctor from New Zealand or Australia wasn’t going to take kindly to that kind of life or treatment and that 50 patients were not likely to satisfy her professional needs but he couldn’t understand, in his mind he was a plum catch any woman would be pleased to marry.
We had the rest of the afternoon off and went snorkelling in the lagoon to return to the village at 4pm to watch a hymn singing competition. Each team was dressed in matching designs and or colours and the ladies wore beautiful floral hats or lei’s. Some of the hymns were surprisingly aggressive with both men and women battling words, jumping around and throwing lines like spears across the room and at the top of their voices. You’d be thrown out of most churches for that kind of behaviour but they seemed to enjoy it hugely.
The ladies competed that afternoon in a bake off for the best cake with the theme of “the throne” as this was a celebration of their constitution. The best bit was we were allowed to taste each of the entries, not very slimming but yummy!
After the hymn singing competition I thanked the people gathered for allowing us to join in their festivities, for showing us unconditional friendship and for arranging such generous hosts and thanked them in particular for their outstanding hospitality. Afterwards we had been invited to a village feast which was held on the beach near the Blue House, the table must have been 30ft long and was laden with many different dishes, enough at least for a double our number. There were however a few 20 stone trenchers there who make short work of the leftovers.
Visiting the island had been a great experience and even after such a short stay we felt we were leaving good friends behind. Ed took us back to the boat through the coral maze unerringly in the dark. We left at first light after radioing Ed a final farewell and thanks. The island of Nuie was 300 miles to the west and the wind was fair and following so off we wallowed. Our friends on Red Thread had gone north up to Suwarrow in the Northern Cooks, a national park only populated by a couple of Rangers and we had agreed to keep in touch during our track across to Nuie. They left a day before us and were there on Nuie when we arrived but more of that in the next blog.