Exploring Norfolk Island

Norfolk from Cascade Bay. Photo: Lena Padukova

In April 2019, I set out to sail across Tasman Sea, from Auckland (NZ) all the way to Gold Coast, on a 44 ft Beneteau s/y Ocean Gem. This post will describe the fascinating island of Norfolk where I had a brief stopover. See the post about the actual sailing here, and the post about the anchoring adventures here.

Arriving by sail to Norfolk was beyond all expectations. I knew almost nothing about this fascinating place, and was of course eager to see it. I've seen a few remote islands, but as we were approaching after a few days of only seeing water in all directions, it looked unlike anything I had expected, and called for more exploration.

Eastern side of the island, seen from the sea upon arival
Norfolk is an isolated island located in the middle of Tasman Sea. Its remoteness made it the perfect location for a high security convict settlement during 1788-1855. The coast is steep and forbidding, waves breaking against cliffs, somehow it seems that escaping the island by sea was not attempted too often. 

Northern coast of Norfolk, seen from Cascade Bay
Green, green grass - and the Norfolk pines
Landing onshore from a sailing boat is difficult. There are no moorings, large docks or marinas, and it’s dangerous to anchor. Somebody needs to stay on board all the time, in case the anchor would drag. The south side of the island has a small dock that can be approached by a dinghy, if you are able to negotiate the swell that is 2 meters in calm conditions, and the narrow channel that has been made in the shallow reef, barely visible from the surface. Falling into the water is not an option around here, as tiger sharks frequent the area – especially on the South side. The north side also has a small dock suitable for dinghies, but landing there leaves you quite a long distance from the settlement.

The dock on the south side, in Sydney Bay.
Waves rolling over the reef.
As we arrived to the island of Norfolk after crossing from New Zealand, the swell was from South and East, leaving us with the alternative of either sailing on towards Australia, or anchoring in Cascade Bay in the north of the island. We opted for the latter, as it would give us the chance to grab some extra fuel, as well as see this fascinating and remote place.

Cascade Bay. Note all the cars at the dock approach, gathering to receive cargo - or just watch the unloading.
Norfolk Island receives a freight boat every once a few weeks, shipping food, fuel, and all kinds of cargo to their tiny community that is just below 2,000 people. Apparently, there has been an irregularity with the freight boats, and none have been arriving for a long while – causing a shortage of... well, everything. Most urgent was the shortage of milk (a liter costing 10 dollars at the moment of arrival) – and beer. As we were approaching the island, we saw a cargo ship come in and drop anchor at the same bay. Full activity commenced! The dock was full of people and cars, and unloading started, carried out by small boats, bobbing precariously on the swell between the ship and the dock. 

Workers returning to the cargo ship at dawn, to continue unloading which takes several days.
The whaling boats, low and more stable, are used to load the cargo. The dock cannot handle containers, so everything has to be taken out and placed in the boats. If the cargo is too large, then two or three boats would be secured together alongside. The crane at the dock can take a maximum of 5-6 tons, so the goods ordered need to be light enough. Then, a launcher boat would tow the whaler boats to the dock for unloading. We saw cars and even trucks get unloaded into the whaler boats!

A car riding a boat.
There is a car dealer on the island, and the island with a population of just below 2,000 people actually has about 4,000 cars. The reason is mostly that getting rid of a car is pretty expensive. When buying property on the island, the furniture and even a car would be included, because it's so expensive to ship otherwise. Old cars were burned and dumped into the ocean until recently, now under new legislation this has to stop. The burning of rubbish is not environmentally friendly and it has to be disposed of in a proper way. However, sending just a pallet of rubbish to mainland instead of burning it costs 400 Australian dollars, not mentioning how much sending a car would cost. Whether this will resolve the environmental threat at this beautiful island with the clear air and water - time will tell.

A truck is being transported by a whaler boat, to the dock with a fishing crane - same dock as we used for arrival by dinghy.
We inflated the dinghy, and made it to the dock, leaving a crew aboard as anchor watch. The customs were very service-oriented, and met us up at the dock, giving us a ride to the office - and later back, past the fuel station where we grabbed 40 liters of extra diesel. I was surprised by how beautiful it was at the police station - blooming flowers and perfect lawns all around. 

View from the police station, including Border patrol's car we got to ride.
The Border Control never received the notice from Brisbane police/customs about that we would be arriving, so they needed some time to get the papers figured. Wifi was not working at the island, so this could take a few hours. 

Off to take a walk in Norfolk!
We took a walk around the town, which had a peculiar feeling of a 1950’s postcard, or a collection of doll houses. Bright colors and the perfect lawns everywhere added to the feeling of parallel reality. 

There were definitely some places that were more retro than the others. One of them is the fuel station. An absolute delight to visit. Apparently, the locals do not use so much fuel. The roads are not very long, and there are not too many places to drive to.

Local fuel station.
Extremely green grass everywhere, perfectly dark blue sky and seas and the abundance of Norfolk pines, looking like a simplified rendering of a tree (or something taken from a botanical garden) made it look like a bit like a computer game.

Near Ball Bay, East Norfolk

The end of the road near Kingston, South Norfolk
The Olive Café served us a very nice lunch. The shortage of milk showed there too, but most islanders were elated – as the freight ship was in the bay and unloading, it was a matter of just a couple of days until the foodstuffs were hitting the shelves of the local supermarket, so soon even the café would resume serving their lattes and cappuccinos to the tourists that arrive here with airplanes (much easier than sailing boat, for sure).

Retro-looking shop nearby Olive Café
Clear notice to café guests
Norfolk has been under Australian governance during the last three years, and there are surely many who have outspoken opinions about that. The most obvious changes have been legislation alterations, such as use of breathalyzers – causing driving under influence to instantly rise as the most common crime on the island. Closer ties with Australia have meant other changes, such as fully covered medevacs – there have been over 80 such cases during the past couple of years. Such a transport can cost as much as 30,000 Australian dollars, but it will save lives as the only medical center on the island is not permitted to treat serious medical conditions.

The new cyclone season routines. Great advice during extreme weather, in all locations!
Swell rolling onto the rocks in Ball Bay. No landing here today.
On the topic of medevacs or the lack of them: the islands cemetery is highly fascinating. It is divided by a stone structure into the “old cemetery” and “new cemetery”. The old one is an insight to the island’s history, stones witnessing final destinies such as “fell of a horse” or “drowned when fishing”. The convicts were buried at that part of the cemetery. Apparently though, there have been a couple of criminals that were so entirely and absolutely bad, that they got buried outside of the graveyard wall, which is not on sacred ground. I tried to find out what terrible crimes would cause convicts to be evicted even from a convict cemetery, but I found no apparent answer - and now my imagination will probably not ever get settled. Both cemeteries face a beautiful beach, probably the only graveyard with its own private beach in the entire world. This is truly the place where surfers from all over the world should dream of getting buried. The graveyard, including the beach, is separated by the road by barbed wire. I am not entirely sure why, unsettling my imagination even more.

View of the new cemetery
Cemetery beach, the barbed wire, and the old cemetery. Note the two graves outside.
The remains of the prison are preserved to be seen in Kingston, on the South coast. There is an old and a new “Gaol” (pronounced “jail”), but the old one was destroyed by flooding and time, and the new one was disassembled by the Pitcairn folks for building materials. 

The wall of the New Gaol in Kingston, Norfolk
Remnants of the cells inside on the gaol walls.
The gaols were used for the convicts that committed further crimes on the island; the rest were living in barracks around Kingston. The wall around it is preserved, and the platform and stairs for the gallows can be seen, where the executions were made so as many as possible, including the prisoners, could see them, as the bodies were left to hang to serve as an example.

The jail gates.
So how does Pitcairn relate to Norfolk? Once again, a fascinating bit of history. The survivors of Bounty mutiny settled on Pitcairn, but as they became too many and overpopulated the island, they were also given Norfolk to move to. The language of Norfolk (called “Norfuk”) belongs to the same family as Pitkern language, and is an Atlantic Creole language consisting of a mixture of 18 century English and Tahitian - the latter mostly used for words that are negative or taboo subjects. There are several dialects of Norfuk, as there were several original families moving here. Up until some point, Norfuk language was forbidden on the island, and anyone speaking it at school would be subject to flogging. Today, efforts are made to teach the language (including to children), create dictionaries and tutorials, and keep it used to preserve it.

A beautiful beach near Kingston, south Norfolk. One of the only places suitable for bathing.
View of the beach
We got a warm welcome here, including a drive around the island by one of the people who has businesses here. Full of impressions and memories, we headed back into the boat. As we headed further Westwards, and were about to set sails, we discovered two things: a hole had been torn in the main, and the rigging I had fixed before the start of the trip had come loose – steel wire had snapped as it were sewing thread!

And so we headed back into the anchorage of Cascade Bay. Little did we know that we were up to some serious adventure

Philip Island, an uninhabited rock just off Norfolk.

The south coast