Palmerston: The island at the end of the earth

By Thomas Martienssen
BBC News, Palmerston, Cook Islands

Image source, Thomas Martienssen

It is one of the most isolated island communities in the world. The tiny Pacific island of Palmerston is visited by a supply ship twice a year - at most - and the long and hazardous journey deters all but the most intrepid visitors. What's more, most of its 62 inhabitants are descended from one man - an Englishman who settled there 150 years ago.

Nine days of constant movement. Nine days in a boat, unable to stand. Nine days with the fear of being hit by a tropical storm, thousands of miles from rescue. The Pacific Ocean is big. Far bigger than one would imagine. This is the journey to the island at the end of the earth.

Part of the Cook Islands, Palmerston is one of a handful of islands connected by a coral reef which surrounds the calm waters of a central lagoon. But within this entire area the reef sits too high in the water for sea planes to land - and outside it the ocean is simply too rough. It is also too far from anywhere for a normal helicopter to fly to. The sea is the only access.

So getting there is not easy. After two days of flying - from London via Los Angeles - we set off by boat from Tahiti.

After five days of sailing in our small yacht, the clouds turn a menacing black. The strength of the sun has gone and a worrying chill hangs in the air. A sudden clatter of heavy rain hits the side of the boat. A bolt of lightning strikes the sea.

With the sail at full height, the strength of the wind pushes the boat over a full 60 degrees, dragging us sideways through the water. There's very little that can be done once the sail has dropped - the boat is at the complete mercy of the elements.

And there is no-one to help. During nine days at sea we see nothing. No other ships, no wildlife, and no aircraft - not even at 50,000 feet. Nothing.

This extreme journey prevents all but the most determined of visitors from ever reaching Palmerston, a tiny patch of green surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean.

Image caption,
There are four main islands in the atoll - Palmerston is the only inhabited one

The height of the island means it is not visible until just two miles away and in bad weather it's simply impossible to see. Over the years, tens if not hundreds of boats have hit the reef hiding just below the waves, leaving the sailors stranded. The latest wreck, brought down just three years ago, sits on the beach with a gaping hole in its side. The parts of these ships - engines, wooden planks and masts - have been salvaged by the islanders and re-used. Nothing goes to waste here.

Learning how to safely navigate the natural barrier takes years of practice. Even the boat we arrived in - a mere 34ft (10m) long - had to be moored 500m off the beach to avoid striking the coral.

As we finally near Palmerston, a small boat, shining in the sun, roars towards us, swerving left and right through the reef, the little outboard motor screaming.

"Hello, hello, I'm your host. Hook your boat up here, we'll get you over and you can grab lunch. I'll look after you from here," shouts Bob Marsters, his blue-green Hawaiian shirt an almost perfect match to the crystal clear water.

Bob is the head of one of only three families on the island. They compete for the handful of yachts which pass every year, and the winners of this race cater for the needs of the visitors. The islanders pride themselves on their kindness and revel in the extra company.

This generosity, and the island's etiquette, legal system and traditions have all been passed down through the generations by word of mouth. And they are all the legacy of one man born in the English county of Leicestershire, 10,000 miles away.

William Marsters was Palmerston's first permanent inhabitant 150 years ago. I was told - with some confidence - that he had sailed with Captain Cook's ship as a carpenter. But while the famous explorer died in 1779, William wasn't born until at least 1830.

Marsters lived in the Cook Islands from the 1850s and in the early 1860s, he was appointed caretaker of Palmerston by its then owner, a British merchant, John Brander. He moved there in 1863 accompanied by his wife, a Polynesian woman, and two of her cousins.

He covered the island with palm trees and for the first few years Brander's ships stopped by every six months or so to collect the coconut oil he produced. But then the visits slowed - six months between visits became three years and eventually they stopped altogether. John Brander had died.

Marsters was granted possession of Palmerston by Queen Victoria. His wife's cousins became his wives too, and together the three couples had 23 children. Before his death in 1899 he split the island into three parts, one for each of his wives. Today, all but three of the residents are direct descendants of William.

Image source, Thomas Martienssen

Approaching the beach, the revs of Bob Marsters' small craft drop and we drift quietly towards the white sand. It is absurdly beautiful. Fish in their hundreds swim below the boat and, as the clear water ripples, a shark glides past with stingrays in tow.

"Welcome to my world, a land of white sands and coconuts. Nothing goes wrong in Palmerston," says Bob as we arrive at his tin-roofed home.

"Eh boy, grab these fellas a coconut - drink, drink." Bob's son knocks off the top of a coconut using a machete and I sit down on a plastic garden chair and drink.

"You know I love this place, all the people fighting wars should just come to Palmerston and go for a swim, play some volleyball," says Bob. "No need for all that fighting and killing everybody, no-one fighting here."

I listen to the wind rippling through the leaves of the palm trees. Then, in one of the most surreal moments of my life, surrounded by 3,000 miles of open ocean, I hear one of the islanders listening to her favourite song. Not a gently lilting melody but rather, "The Vengabus is coming" - the distinctive sound of cheesy Euro dance pop.

Officially a New Zealand protectorate, Palmerston receives many of the modern amenities that we take for granted. Housing, power (for a couple of hours a day), the internet (for a couple of hours a day), even - for a lucky few - a mobile phone signal.

Yet the people of Palmerston have no shop, just two toilets, and rainwater is collected for drinking water. Money is only used to buy supplies from the outside world - not from each other.

"That's one thing I'm so proud of with the families living on Palmerston - we work together, we love each other and we share," says Bob.

"For instance, when I'm out of rice or flour I can just go next door and if they have - they give.

"I'm really happy people don't sell things here. The supply ship hasn't been for six months but we don't cry over rice or steak, we just manage with our coconuts and our fish. But the day the freighter arrives it's like Christmas Day," he laughs.

Bob is the mayor of Palmerston and lives at one end of the main street. It is a strip of sand no more than 100 metres long and is home to just half a dozen buildings. "This is the main road, no bus stops here, no buses to wait for in Palmerston," says Bob with a hearty chuckle.

Sitting proud on the right-hand side of the road is the church. It is the centre of community life. It is also one of the newest - and sturdiest - buildings on the island. The painted white bell that hangs in the porch, another of those things salvaged from a wreck, is the only part that remains of the previous church.

With no land for thousands of miles, Palmerston takes the full force of any storm. So the islanders tie their buildings to surrounding trees. In 1926 a typhoon crashed into the island - and the waves, they say, swept the old church off its foundations.

"The waves came crashing over the building here," Bob explains, pointing to William Marsters' old house, which is more than 20ft tall.

"The church was sitting on coral, stone, and it was moved 200m inland - the whole building. Our fathers and mothers went to move back the building. They rolled the building on coconut logs. They rolled it all the way back."

There is an established rhythm to life on the island on Sundays. The bell rings to summon this Christian community for a service at 10:00 and there's no work or play allowed until after 14:00.

After church it is time to eat. As a guest, I am given a table to myself. Four pots are lined up in front of me - there is fish, rice, chicken and a sweet pastry. Bob's four children look longingly at the table. The entire family must wait until the guest has had their fill before the rest of the family are allowed to eat.

But after about 30 seconds, Bob breaks into the food. "Normally I'd wait, but you're my friend. We know each other too well to wait." And before he finishes his sentence he is chewing profusely.

"Eat, eat," he says, swinging his arm across the table. "I want to make you too fat to fit back on your boat! You have to get thin again before you can leave. Stay on Palmerston longer."

Food is a huge part of life. Fishing takes up most of the day for many Palmerstonians and as a visitor it is virtually impossible to walk anywhere without being offered four separate lunches.

Bob's brother Bill is a serial offerer of lunches, a member of the council - and a proud fisherman.

"The fish are declining," he says. "Before, there would have been hundreds of fish in schools, but not today. It's not easy."

The previously-bountiful stocks of their favourite parrot fish are being depleted quicker than others. So standing on the back of his tiny, patched up aluminium rib, Bill heads out past the reef and into the towering waves in search of other fish, the pockets of his favourite camouflage trousers filled with line and hooks.

After two hours with four long lines dragging in the water, we have just two - a barracuda and a wahoo.

"The previous councils in the 90s put a ban on the parrot fish for two years," says Bill, "but six months later someone said, 'We need money for Christmas.' And it just opened from there.

"We can't really do anything because we're going to get a lot of objection. Anything we say to the people - they just ignore it."

Fish is the islanders' staple food and their only export. One or two tons of parrot fish are frozen and collected by the supply ship which comes twice a year to deliver essential supplies such as rice and fuel.

Or, that is the theory, at least. Sometimes the ship doesn't turn up at all. Just two years ago it didn't come for 18 months.

Image source, Thomas Martienssen
Image caption,
Mama Aka at the island's church

The island's remoteness presents other challenges, too. Something as simple as going to the dentist becomes a major expedition. When the island's oldest inhabitant, 92-year-old Mama Aka, went for dental work on Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, it took her four days to get there. But after the short procedure, she had to wait six months for a ship to bring her back.

While some see this isolation as one of the attractions of life on Palmerston, in other ways it is a menace, particularly as everyone - except two teachers and a nurse - are related to each other.

Bill had six children with his first wife, a woman he thought was his second cousin.

But when she was very young, she had been handed to another family to bring up - a common practice in Palmerston if parents need help. In fact, she was Bill's first cousin.

"I heard that if you marry a close family cousin, it will have an effect on the baby," he says. "But I didn't believe it until our second-to-last child. He was a normal child right up to six months... we headed off to New Zealand for treatment, but there was nothing they could do.

"Her father and my father were brothers. I didn't know it, but by the time we found out it was too late and we already had kids. There's nobody on the island, that's why the intermarriage is going on."

Image source, Thomas Martienssen

For some, Palmerston's isolation is a reason to leave. Between 1950 and 1970 the population was as high as 300, but now it is just 62.

A third of the population are children and all look healthy and happy as they attend classes at the island's school.

But many of them are hoping to leave for the cities hundreds of miles away, where amenities are better, wages are higher and where - perhaps most importantly - there is a bigger choice of potential spouses.

When Mama Aka was growing up, some people used to marry their half-sisters or half-brothers, she says. But the children of today are "looking further ahead".

"Maybe they plan to marry away," she says. "Only a few of them come back. They don't really get in touch with the families."

Sixteen-year-old Shekinah Marsters wants to become a lawyer. She may be the first pupil from the island's school to go to university and may even have the chance to study at Harvard.

"I wanted to go to New Zealand for university, but now I hear there are some opportunities in America," she says.

"I want to pursue my career but I also want to come back and Palmerston will always be my home, I'll want to come back whenever I can, but I think my career would come first."

She currently studies English, algebra, American history and the basic life of Christ - next year she's adding law. All of these are part of a Christian home-schooling programme taught at the school.

She has also studied in New Zealand: "You have a lot more opportunities [there], a lot more stuff to do, more friends. Ever since I went to New Zealand I've wanted to go back.

"I don't get bored here, but I get discouraged. I swim, fish, play guitar, talk - that's about all."

Palmerston has always been a place where people come and go - but while some intend to visit, others have the experience forced upon them.

In the 1950s, Lt Cdr Victor Clark's boat was shipwrecked and he lived on the island for nine months while it was repaired. This experience features heavily in his book, On the Wind of a Dream: A Saga of Solace. When he died aged 97, his daughter Rose made the long journey to Palmerston from her home in Devon to scatter his ashes.

"It was his favourite time of life," she says. And a year after she first arrived, she is still here.

"My adventure here's been great, not what I planned. I thought I was coming over for a short visit before heading off to carry on with the rat race of life."

During her visit, she was asked to look after the school's only special needs pupil, a child who has ADHD.

"I initially turned it down because I could not imagine living on a tiny atoll hundreds of miles from the nearest life. But then I realised - that's what I was doing in the UK, it'd be pretty selfish to leave this little eight-year-old that couldn't be at school.

"They're such a family-orientated community - it's very beautiful. I've learnt a lot about their closeness while I've been here."

On the days when there is no school, Rose joins other women to make traditional hats or baskets from palm leaves.

More often than not, the group can be heard singing and laughing together. It is a social gathering, but it also highlights the lack of young adults. While the young children do the lifting and unskilled tasks, the older women do the intricate weaving, a skill perfected over many years. But there are no young adults here for the women to pass on their knowledge and family stories to.

Image source, Thomas Martienssen
Image caption,
Edward: Policeman, musician and brother to Bob and Bill

Nevertheless, the Palmerstonians seem to have a good life. The days are long and the working hours short. As Bob says: "You are free to do what you want to do."

In the evenings, the schoolchildren go swimming or play volleyball, while some of the men gather around the island's only TV to watch the rugby highlights. The women relax on hammocks, laughing and joking.

In all this, alcohol plays no real part. Until the next supply ship makes an appearance, the island is dry. Beer is sometimes brewed, but only for special occasions. Edward, the island's policeman, is probably the least busy police officer in the world.

I ask one of the islanders what would happen if someone was to steal a coconut.

"I'd fill a wheel barrow [with coconuts] and take it round," he tells me. "They're obviously desperate but too proud to ask for one."

So with his spare time, Edward makes things. He's particularly good at making ukuleles. He uses a piece of wood from the tree they call the mahogany tree, a coconut and fishing line for strings.

He also plays them, very well as it happens. As we sit outside his squat house, his brother Simon runs over with a plate of food.

"No one fed you lunch yet, eh?" he says, placing it on the table. And so, surrounded by engine parts, coconuts and my third lunch of the day, Edward and his brother Simon sing the Farewell song.

It tells of William Marsters' trip to Palmerston a century and a half ago, when he "sang farewell to happy London town".

And farewell was what we had to say to the beautiful island and its people.

As we prepare to leave, Bob appears with a basket of fish. He has been luckier than Bill with his catch and shares it across the whole island. "We share everything with our family," he says, handing us two fish for the return leg of our journey.

Bob turns and looks out across the lagoon. "We were made to enjoy the world, enjoy the fresh air, enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the things God put us on the earth to enjoy. He didn't put us on the earth to kill other people or hate other people."

With Bob's words in our ears we weave our way out through the reef. It is a journey that many young islanders will do in the years to come. The question is, how many of them will return?

Listen to The Island at the End of the World on the BBC iPlayer.

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