Palmerston Atoll in the distance...land ahoy!
On the third day after leaving Rarotonga and two nights of seasickness, little sleep, cracked heads and shins on the exposed hatches of the never ending rocking “rust bucket”, little food and increasing concern about the seaworthiness of the vessel, we glimpsed a sliver of land on the horizon. Palmerston! We crowded onto the upper deck to view the sliver increasing in size as we got closer.
The captain had briefed us previously that the islanders of Palmerston knew nothing about tourism and he had had a nasty alteraction previously with one of the elders, Simon, about the visitors going to the island. It seems that Simon also had a long memory. When we were finally shipped ashore by the islanders who greeted us with huge smiles, hearty waves and much excitement, Simon addressed the passenger group as a whole, explaining that the captain was not welcome on the island…but that we were. The captain had broken a well understood protocol about visitors to the island and their accommodation situation with the island’s families. Simon made it clear to us, however, that we were most welcome and that no effort would be spared in making our two days pleasant ones.
I made us another cosy nest in our bungalow loft
After being shown to our sparse but comfortable “bungalow ”loft above the local “yacht club” my companion, Damien, and I joined the other passengers, by now good friends united in our distrust of the captain, at what can only be described as an island feast, prepared by one of Simon’s relatives, Kai and her family. As it turned out, Kai’s cousin was Stella Neale, the daughter of the lone inhabitant in the 60s and 70s of Suwarrow, Tom Neale, who recountered his experience in his book An Island to Oneself (see my post of May 10). Stella, the island nurse, was to be very much the liaison for us all during our stay.
Our first meal on land..a banquet in a thatched dining room
The feast included chilled coconut water, drunk from the coconut, fish, some salad (which we had brought with us on the boat), and coconut bread. I contributed some New Zealand sparkling wine to toast our hosts.
The following morning we all met again for breakfast, again in island style, with fish, island fruit, coconut donuts, and coconut bread.
Then it was off to a nearby motu (little island) where we could all snorkel and join in the experience of cooking freshly caught red reef fish in a makeshift “oven” on the beach which was covered with leaves to steam the fish while it roasted. We also had uto straight from the fire. The youngest coconut is husked and then put in coals. When it is opened the flesh of the coconut, the uto, is the consistency of firm marshmallow with a sweet, smoky flavour - delicious!
Stella with uto fresh from the fire
Kai made baskets and plates with coconut fronds and pandanas leaves and if we needed any implements to complement our fingers Taii Chi, one of our fellow passengers, made chopsticks out of pandanas stalks.
The afternoon was truly magical and inspirational…that people will so little could provide so much – not just food and friendship, but the laughter and genuine happiness that comes from sharing wonderful experiences.
That evening was yet another feast! So simple, but this time, we were joined at the table by Kai’s extended family. And included in the buffet was a fish caught by one of our fellow passengers, Phillip, the previous day as we were arriving at Palmerston. The fish, a trevally, was marinated in coconut milk and soy sauce and barbecued over coals complemented by coconut husks...a true taste sensation.
The fish is placed under the leaves in the oven
Simon preparing the fish in the beach oven
It was wonderful to see the beautiful manners of the children, and the respect shown to their elders.
The islanders all speak perfect English. The main religion is Christianity and the following morning dawned with the pealing of the nearby church bells calling the islanders to Friday prayers. The bells were soon replaced by beautiful island singing…a dawn chorus with no rival.
We were able to all given a small monetary gift to our host family and also a donation to Stella’s local medical centre. Additionally, I had taken some hand towels, which Stella gratefully accepted for the medical centre, and colouring in books, pencils, and crayons for the little children
It was with great reluctance and heavy hearts that we farewelled our friends on Palmerston. We exchanged email addresses, hugs, kisses and promises to “keep in touch”. We were unable to promise that we would return…