A rich, fertile island located about 1,600 km from Sydney and 1,000 km from New Zealand, Norfolk Island is home to approximately 2,000 people and is a popular tourist destination. It is compact, about 35 square kilometres, and has witnessed some extraordinary chapters of Australian history. Whilst looking for something else entirely, I came across some notes I made during a trip to the island a few years back.

The origins of this place are unusual with four settlements acknowledged by the locals. The first was the Polynesian settlers, who left minimal traces and were long gone by the time Captain Cook found the island and named it for the Duchess of Norfolk in 1774. Cook was taken with the place, calling it paradise. He saw much opportunity for the thousands of tall pine trees and abundance of flax growing on the island. He found a landing-place relatively easily and didn’t spend much time on the island.

Based on Cook’s recommendations, the place was the second settlement under Governor Phillip’s command. Phillip was instructed to have the place settled and under British rule as a priority with the French also being in the area. He sent off Philip Gidley King with a small group of settlers, convicts and marines shortly after landing in January 1788. It took them about 6 weeks to get to Norfolk, and it was days before they could land. The island is still notoriously difficult to approach by sea.

This second settlement lasted from 1788 to 1814. The high hopes for the use of the pines for masts on the fighting ships of the British fleet were in vain; due to the lack of sap in the wood and the way that the branches were formed, they were unsuitable for this purpose. The flax was also a disappointment. Initially King could not identify it, thinking it was a type of iris. They had brought along a flax weaver, but the man could not make this flax work. Later on, a couple of Maoris were enticed onboard a ship and taken to Norfolk to show how to work the flax. Alas, this was women’s work and they could not assist. However the rich soil and conditions helped the convict settlement to survive at Kingston. It was eventually closed due to cost considerations. All of the buildings, painstakingly constructed, were burned upon departure to discourage anyone living on the island.

The third settlement is the most notorious. Following the Bigge Commission into the convict system in Australia, it was decided that a secondary place of punishment was required, a place so abhorrent to the convict community that the thought of being sent there would be a deterrent in itself. The settlement commenced in 1825, and was in operation until the early 1850s when it was wound down and finally closed.

The island became home to Pitcairners in 1856. The Pitcairn islanders were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, with 194 arriving on the island. They inherited all of the buildings and infrastructure created by the convict settlement, and understandably avoided the gaol areas. Stones were quarried from the buildings over time, and families lived in the houses and administrative offices in Quality Row until houses were built ‘up country’.

Norfolk Island has been popular tourist spot for decades and there are lots of tours and packages designed to explore the history and enjoy the many activities on the island. Thinking back my impressions are a mixed bag. The people were friendly – there are very few road rules apart from a speed limit of 50 km/hour, give way to cattle who range all over the place and wave at any car passing by – and the locals were proud and informative about their heritage. The island has a range of restaurants and some of the tours included a progressive dinner at various homes which provided a glimpse into what living on the island permanently might feel like. I was drawn to the remnants of the convict buildings, clustered around Kingston. Plaques dotted the island, anchoring the past in the present.

All goods need to be shipped or flown in. There is no safe, natural harbour and it felt isolated enough now in the age of telecommunications and regular air travel. I could only imagine the isolation during the convict settlements. We watched a boat being unloaded which was quite a feat in itself as it had been waiting 18 days for the water to be calm enough to get to the dock. A couple of days before we left there were major dust storms across NSW and Queensland. TV footage showed Sydney shrouded in red dust, with even the Harbour Bridge obscured. The day we left the dust was visible in the water, crashing against the shoreline.

The rugged coastline with sheer cliffs contrasted with the rolling green hills. There were many beautiful gardens, including one called Camelot which had a series of gardens designed as rooms, a sensory delight to explore. We went to a convict night out with traditional fare, singing and dancing. And jokes with lots of puns from memory. I read a number of historical books whilst there, including one which focussed on the Commandants who ruled the island. Some were average, others were sadistic beyond understanding. The reconstruction and preservation of officer’s houses along Quality Row provided insight into what life was like for the military, and we also had a chance to go through Government House which was beautifully set out. A stroll through the nearby cemetery was sobering with many gravestones of young men in particular.

Have you been to a place which has left an impression on you?

[Photo: Norfolk Island coastline]