No dancing or garlands on the isle that lost its 'joie de vivre'

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The Independent Online

Pitcairn Island's strange history and the vast Pacific ocean define its isolation. It is inordinately difficult to get there. It has no airstrip, ferry or links with French Polynesia. Visitors must first apply to the Pitcairn administration office in Auckland for a "land and reside licence". They are asked their religion, profession, state of health and reasons for visiting, and they must send two character references from "holders of public office". Applications are then considered by the islanders at a council meeting. Most are rejected.

Pitcairn Island's strange history and the vast Pacific ocean define its isolation. It is inordinately difficult to get there. It has no airstrip, ferry or links with French Polynesia. Visitors must first apply to the Pitcairn administration office in Auckland for a "land and reside licence". They are asked their religion, profession, state of health and reasons for visiting, and they must send two character references from "holders of public office". Applications are then considered by the islanders at a council meeting. Most are rejected.

I and a friend managed to wangle our way there on a cargo ship. We thought ourselves lucky, though we were warned there was no guarantee "whatsoever" of transport off the island at any time. We were the only passengers on the Tundra Princess which was taking $10m-worth of kiwi fruit from Tauranga to Panama. Two containers of supplies were to be off-loaded at Pitcairn. The main item of these supplies was the perimeter fence needed to complete the new jail.

This jail is far smarter than most of the islanders' houses. It looks like a Swiss chalet. It has six rooms in tongue-and-groove wood, each with its own shower room and veranda. There is a communal kitchen and a tennis court. It is being built by the men facing trial - the pay was too good to refuse. If the jail is not needed, it is hoped it will serve as a hotel for tourists.

The voyage from New Zealand took eight days. The weather on arrival was dire - driving rain and gusting winds. The male prison builders came pitching out in the island's longboats to meet the ship. Sodden food supplies and mail were lowered into the boats. The ship's Indian crew kissed me and my friend goodbye and whispered encouragement then we wobbled down the Jacob's ladder, flung ourselves into the longboats, and were caught like leaves by burly Pitcairners.

Most of the islanders were at the primitive jetty to greet us. Their exotic heritage is apparent in their appearance - half Polynesian, half British - and in their pidgin language - Pitcairnese. All the transient paid officials from Britain and New Zealand were waiting too: the policemen, social workers, the governor's representative, the doctor and the teacher. Islanders are Seventh Day Adventists. They were converted in 1886 by American missionaries who baptised them in a rock pool, pushed their pigs over the cliffs, and persuaded them that their Polynesian past was sinful. Alcohol, tobacco, shellfish and bacon were all proscribed. Islanders do not now dance, make music or wear garlands of shells and flowers. The colour and joie de vivre of other Pacific islands is absent from their lives.

In church the Saturday after we arrived - attendance was scant - the sermon revolved around God's motives for sending rain on supply-ship day. Isolation means that the focus of the islanders is on themselves and each other. The gene pool is small and all are related and interdependent. Most young people have left and there are only four children in the school.

There are no newspapers, televisions, banks, roads, cars, cafés or bars. Because of the forthcoming trials, there is now a satellite email network which islanders can use. They depend on rain for their water supply and to grow their vegetables. At times they have near drought conditions. Summers are intolerably hot. The lanes are of red volcanic earth that turns to a sticky, indelible volcanic mud when it rains. The electricity generator goes off at 10 at night. The village store opens three times a week, but popular items sell out fast. Most islanders manage several jobs: Steve is the mayor, engineer and dentist. He also, when the feral cat population gets too large, castrates the toms with a chisel.

The Pitcairners feel neglected in material terms. The island has no infrastructure, no links to the wider world. Their homes are like store houses. Food figures hugely and obesity is a problem. At Barbara's birthday party two trestle tables groaned with goat stew, fried chicken, chips, pizza, rice, pasta, mashed squash, jelly, cheesecake, pumpkin pilhi and pineapple buns.

For some reason British subsidy has been used to provide 16 public toilets on Pitcairn. One for every three islanders. Large white buildings conspicuously located at beauty spots, they are scarcely used, but provide desirable habitats for salamanders, land crabs and nesting wasps.

Place names on the island are a delight and a warning: Break im Hip, Bitey Bitey, Martin Larsoo Fall, and McCoy's Drop. It is not a good idea to fall from Pitcairn's cliffs. The health centre has scant resources and medical rescue is an alarming affair.

Island life is now at a turning point. The school has become a courtroom. The mis- sion house is rented to judges. A bevy of journalists are staying in local homes. It is all, as one islander wrote in an email to me yesterday, "rather scary". It is not the sort of outside attention they wanted. They wanted an airstrip, regular shipping and the opportunities and benefits of modern life.

Diana Souhami's book 'Coconut Chaos' will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson next year

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