Pine and dandy
Whimsical wanderings on Norfolk Island
THE Norfolk Island phone book contains so little diversity of family names ( there are dozens of Buffetts, Christians, Nobbses, Quintals and Youngs) that there’s a section headed: ‘ ‘ Fast find a person by their nickname’’.
What follows is a smorgasbord of sobriquets — I could have a yak with Quack, call up Cane Toad or Carrots, shoot the breeze with Scotty, Skeeters or Snobbles, or trifle with Toyboy if Tardy’s too slow to the phone. Such evocative monikers are an amusing start to a long weekend on this whimsical island 1400km northeast of Sydney. There could be few other places where cows are afforded right of way on the roads, the wearing of seatbelts is a novelty, and the first in a list of handy local phrases published in the Norfolk Island Cookery Book is: ‘‘That little child is stuck in that pine tree.’’
This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Norfolk Island is virtually covered with the eponymous pines that first attracted Captain James Cook’s attention in 1774 (the wood was in demand for making ships’ masts).
Norfolk was thrown into turmoil after the 2002 murder of Sydney woman Janelle Patton. During the inquiry, several residents were named ‘‘persons of interest’’, which cast a shadow over the tight-knit community. A New Zealander was eventually convicted, but the damage was done. ‘‘It’s what everybody asks about,’’ says one local with a sigh when I mention the case.
But Norfolk, an 8km by 5km subtropical oasis that’s home to 1800 people, has much to celebrate. The undulating landscapes (almost 20 per cent of the island is national park or public reserve) are thick with more than 180 native plant species, from giant vines and ferns to lush palms, and birdlife such as richly coloured crimson rosellas that dart in and out of the forests like cartoon characters. Walking trails crisscross the volcanic terrain (be prepared to share the tracks with feral chooks and assorted cows) and pristine beaches are ideal for snorkelling and swimming.
I take a tour with guide Rick Kleiner who, like many locals, can trace his history back to the mutiny on the Bounty. His greatgreat grandfather was the chief magistrate on Pitcairn, the tiny island on which the Bounty mutineers settled before relocat- ing to Norfolk in 1856. Raised in California, Kleiner moved to Norfolk 15 years ago for ‘‘the lifestyle’’. He points out tranquil Emily Bay, one of the loveliest beaches I’ve seen — a blemish-free stretch of white sand bordering crystalclear water protected by a reef. ‘‘Kids can leave their surfboards behind and expect them to be there days later. There are no security issues, our kids have no idea how lucky they are,’’ he says.
He takes me to the World Heritage- listed Kingston and Arthur’s Vale, first settled in 1788. The lack of a harbour and the sinking of supply ship Sirius off the coast in 1790 hastened the settlement’s demise and in 1825 came the second tranche of arrivals — the worst criminals from NSW. The convicts were kept in appalling conditions and the remains of the jail, barracks and officers’ houses are stark reminders.
Many of the Georgian buildings have been restored and given new life as museums, churches and administrative centres; the World Heritage-listed golf course is nearby.
The island’s bleak history makes its only graveyard, beside the aptly named Cemetery Bay, a fascinating spectre. The headstones, resilient against the headwinds buffeting the coast, are perhaps the most tangible evidence of the families that shaped Norfolk’s history.
Many descendants of the Bounty mutineers are interred here. I am riveted by the epitaphs, including one for Yorkshireman Thomas Saulsbury Wright, a twice- convicted counterfeiter sent to Norfolk after failing to mend his ways. He presumably had the last laugh when convicted of the same offence a third time and sentenced to life at the ripe old age of 103. Wright rests alongside clusters of executed convicts, and one unfortunate ‘ ‘ accidentally killed by a whale’’.
You can barely swing a sextant on today’s Norfolk without hitting, say, a Buffett, a Christian or a Nobbs. The smart-as-a-whip Glen ‘ ‘ Spud’’ Buffett heads Norfolk Island Tourism; Andre Nobbs, a man with myriad ideas for attracting new visitors to the island, is tourism minister, while Marie Bailey, a descendant of Fletcher Christian, commissioned the magnificent Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama, a 3.6m-high, 50mlong depiction of the Bounty’s story painted by two local artists near the town centre.
Norfolk still has no working harbour. Two piers are the only means of bringing in freight, which must be loaded on to smaller craft and brought to shore in military-style manoeuvres. Such tricky logistics, coupled with strict quarantine regulations, means little fresh produce can be imported (potatoes, onions, ginger and garlic are the only exceptions) so islanders must rely on the few commercial farmers, such as Matt Biggs of Bigg Fresh (one of just three stallholders at the island’s Saturday morning produce market), or grow their own supplies.
Chefs must be creative, making the most of the island’s seasonal crops, such as bananas, guavas, kumera, cauliflowers and pumpkins, says ex-Queenslander Damien Davidson-Kelly. ‘‘I had the best peach I’ve ever tasted on this island,’’ he tells me. ‘ ‘ But peaches are available here for all of two weeks.’’
Davidson-Kelly, previously executive chef at Moo Moo The Wine Bar + Grill and Chill on Tedder on the Gold Coast, now works for Norfolk’s popular Hilli retaurant and also does private dining. He visits my luxury clifftop cottage at the excellent Forrester Court complex on the island’s northeast coast and prepares an extravagant three-course meal. I meet him again the next day at Mastering Taste Chef School and Garden Tour, a new cooking experience run by Hilli’s owner Kim Wilson on her glorious property in the island’s north.
Wilson’s head gardener Peter Barney tends a flourishing crop of fruits and vegies, which are incorporated into dishes demonstrated by Davidson-Kelly. Our small group clusters around as he shows us how to whip up a risotto, crowned by locally caught steamed trumpeter and finished off with a banana pud with caramel sauce and honeycomb, which we eat on Wilson’s balcony.
‘‘Norfolk is the only place in the world that actually looks more beautiful than the photos,’’ Wilson says, and it’s not hard to agree.
On my final day, I pop into the buzzing Olive Cafe, owned by former Sydneysider Naomi Thompson, for a bite to eat and a flick through The Norfolk Islander newspaper. My eyes fall on a headline in the police incident reports: ‘‘Flare sightings’’.
I misinterpret it, at first, as a reference to bell-bottomed trousers, as this is an island where you can count on being instantly transported to the past. Michelle Rowe was a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism, Air New Zealand and Forrester Court.
Don’t miss the lift-off of T&I’s Secret Shopper series featuring all Australian capitals and main holiday centres.
Norfolk Island is described by one of its residents as
‘the only place in the world that actually looks more beautiful than the photos’
Chef Damien Davidson-Kelly conducts a cooking class
Tour guide Rick Kleiner
Naomi Thompson, a former Sydneysider, at The Olive Cafe