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Norfolk Island

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Just 8km long and 5km wide, tiny, isolated NORFOLK ISLAND is an External Territory of Australia, located 1450km east of Brisbane. The island has had an eventful history, being linked with early convict settlements and later with the descendants of Fletcher Christian and other “mutiny-on-the-Bounty” rebels. It’s a unique place, forested with grand indigenous pine trees, and with a mild subtropical climate ranging between 12 °C and 19 °C in the winter and from 19 °C to 28 °C in the summer; Norfolk is also said to have some of the world’s cleanest air after Antarctica. Today, it attracts honeymooners and retirees, and its tax-haven status makes it a refuge for millionaires. In the absence of income tax, finances are raised from sources such as departure tax and a road levy included in the price of petrol.

Most of the 1800 local people remain unaffected by tourism, maintaining their friendly attitude, amusing nicknames (confusingly used in the island’s telephone directory) and the remnants of their dialect, Norfolk, a mixture of old West Country English and Tahitian.

Much of the land is cleared for cultivation, as islanders have to grow all their own fresh food; cattle roam freely on the green island and are given right of way, creating a positively bucolic atmosphere. At the centre of the island is its only significant settlement, Burnt Pine – on the south coast, picturesque Kingston is the sightseeing focus. Scenic winding roads provide access to the Norfolk Island National Park and the Botanic Garden in the northern half of the island, which together cover twenty percent of Norfolk’s area with subtropical rainforest. Norfolk Island is also an ornithologist’s paradise, with nine endemic land-bird species, including the endangered Norfolk Island green parrot, with its distinctive chuckling call. The two small, uninhabited islands immediately south of Norfolk, Nepean and Phillip islands, are important sea bird nesting sites.

Some history

Norfolk is one of a handful of islands created by a violent volcanic eruption three million years ago. Captain Cook “discovered” the then-uninhabited islands in 1774, noting that the tall Norfolk pines would make fine ships’ masts, but it’s now known that migrating Polynesian people lived here as far back as the tenth century – their main settlement at Emily Bay has been excavated and stone tools found. The first European settlement was founded in 1788, only six weeks after Sydney, but was short-lived – the island lacked a navigable harbour and the pine timber turned out to be too weak for purpose. The site was abandoned in 1814, its buildings destroyed to discourage settlement by other powers.

Around ten years later, Norfolk began a thirty-year stint as a prison, described officially as “a place of the extremest punishment short of death”; up to two thousand convicts were held here, overseen by sadistic commandants. Some of the imposing stone buildings designed by Royal Engineers still stand in Kingston on the southern coast.

The island was again abandoned in 1855, but this time the buildings remained and were taken over a year later by the 194-strong population of Pitcairn Island who left their overcrowded conditions over 6000km east across the Pacific to establish a new life here. The new settlers had only eight family surnames among them – five of which (Christian, Quintal, Adams, McCoy and Young) were the names of the original mutineers of the Bounty. These names – especially Christian – are still common on the island, and today about one in three can claim descent from the mutineers. These descendants still speak some of their original language to each other: listen for expressions such as “Watawieh Yorlyi?” (how are you?) and “Si Yorlyi Morla” (see you tomorrow). Bounty Day, the day the Pitcairners arrived, is celebrated in Kingston on June 8.

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