It’s a far, far away island, much further than most can imagine. I discovered this tiny Eden when I was but a young lad in high school studying the heavy, huge world atlases at my local library.
There I came upon a book titled An Island to Oneself. This volume by Tom Neale is a collection of dreamy stories that only a true beachcomber could write. It’s an account of a man’s passion for solitude and escape – escape from rules, bureaucracy and the humdrum of civilisation. Tom Neale lived alone on Suwarrow for some 16 years in three different periods between 1952 and 1977. He was without question the king of all beachcombers. Next to Tom, Robinson Crusoe was second–rate.
In the early 80s, myself and a few friends hitched a ride on the Stormvogel, a 72-foot classic sailing yacht which was on her way from Hawaii to Australia. We struck a deal with the ship’s captain to tag along. For a fee, he would stop at Suwarrow for a few weeks and later drop us in Samoa.
The Stormvogel is the setting for the movie Dead Calm starring Nicole Kidman. The ship has also accumulated a long list of prestigious racing awards – to hitch a ride on her is a sailor’s dream.
One week out of Honolulu, Suwarrow finally came into view. I held one hand on the bow’s railing and Neal’s book in the other (the same book I had pinched from the library 20 years earlier). On page eight of the book, there’s an illustrated map of the atoll. I wanted confirmation that I was truly here, that the green specks in the distance were really the islets that made up Suwarrow.
There is no describing my feelings as we inched through the pass. I couldn’t wait for the dinghy to be lowered – I dove in and swam to shore. And there, finally I stood on the gleaming white beach of Anchorage – Suwarrow Atoll’s largest islet. Yet so tiny was the island, one could throw a coral rock from one side of the island to the other. I couldn’t believe after 20 years of dreaming about this speck of sand I was here. Nothing could possibly impair this moment. Except bureaucracy.
Jimmy Tangi and his two assistants interrupted my daydream. Jimmy was the island’s caretaker, immigration officer, customs agent and agricultural inspector. He asked for my passport… Damn officialdom, just can’t escape it.
Jimmy and his two young helpers were the total of Suwarrow’s population. In the mid-80s, a pleasure craft was a rare sight on this lonely dot in the middle of the Pacific. The red tape disappeared quickly once Jimmy found out that we had rum on board. From that moment on, I was treated as royalty.
One native climbed to the top of a tall tree for fresh drinking nuts, another went in search of coconut crabs. These crabs are ugly, yet tasty creatures resembling a gigantic version of our soldier crab, minus the shell. When I visited, there were about eight islands that made up the atoll – now this can vary from year to year because some of the islands have been washed away by storms.
Jimmy, Raro and Daniel were government employees. Their main job was as “official coconut watchers”. According to Jimmy, nasty termite bugs have been found flourishing inside some of the nuts and trees of Suwarrow atoll. As official “coconut watchers”, their job was to ensure that no coconuts left the island.
Trees, along with fallen and floating nuts were inspected routinely and those infected were burned. Copra (dried coconut meat) is an important means of income for many Cook Islanders. It’s used for making oils, soaps and even fodder for livestock. The coconut shell is used for making souvenirs, buttons and drinking cups, but most important of all (in my opinion) the coconut tree is the symbol of the South Seas. What good is a tropical island without coconut trees?
While Daniel checked the coastline for nuts, Jimmy and Raro would boat through the lagoon and gather any that may be floating. By midday, their job was usually completed and the rest of the time was spent napping, fishing and cooking.
“Jimmy,” I asked, “do you really get paid for this, to watch and gather coconuts?”
The question was a mistake, I should never have asked. Jimmy went on to whine about his minuscule salary and how the next government was going to give all civil servants a raise. So here I am, in the middle of the South Pacific, on a tropical paradise listening to someone grumble about politicians, political parties and administration. Just can’t escape it. In vain, I attempted to convince Jimmy how lucky he was to have such a job.
“Jimmy, you fish most of the day, lie in your hammock under the shade of a palm tree and burn a few coconuts now and then. It’s an occupation to die for,” I told him.
Missing my point, Jimmy looked up at the coconuts, 80 feet above his hammock. “You know you could be right,” he agreed. He then went about moving his hammock to a new location. (More people get killed by fallen coconuts than shark attacks.)
“Jimmy, what more could any human on this planet ask for than have a job as an official coconut watcher?”
“How about rum and a woman?” he shot back.
Mmmmmm, couldn’t argue with that response. I could provide the rum but not the latter.
That evening, myself and the three Cook Islanders gorged on coconut crab, bananas and rum and coconut water. Once the intoxication took effect, they persisted with their complaints against the Cook Islands government. Party politics was the last thing I wanted to listen to 6,000 miles from my home. I escaped towards the beach, stunned at the quiet that surrounded me. You could almost hear the contrail of the falling stars.
The island was beautiful in the morning light, the palms rippled under the south east breeze. Over the ship’s rail, in the clear lagoon, I could see the coral and colourful fish waking to the sun’s rays that shone like laser lights through their aquatic garden. We had been here for 10 glorious days. Our rum supply was running out, yet our ship’s freezer was now filled with fish, lobster and crab. The first mate brought coffee from the galley.
“What poor souls,” he said, “to be stuck on this half-mile long island and the only thing to spice up their lives is a rare visit from foreigners with a good stock of rum.”
I said nothing to that ludicrous remark. In my humble opinion, the tiki gods had handed Jimmy, Raro and Daniel the best deal on this planet – a dream job, the “Official Coconut Watchers” of Suwarrow atoll.