The Pitcairn Islands are a loosely grouped handful of tiny islands in the remote South Pacific, farther from any continent than any other inhabited island. The islands are the last British colony in the South Pacific and the most isolated British dependency, apart from Tristan da Cunha. The rugged main island was settled by the infamous mutineers of the HMS Bounty and their Polynesian companions, and most of Pitcairn's mere four dozen current inhabitants are their descendants. They are one of the least-populated entities given an ISO country code (PN).
Pitcairn was either inhabited or frequently visited by Polynesian peoples in earlier centuries (they left glyphs etched in the rocks), and was visited briefly by Portuguese and British explorers (one of whom gave it his name), but it was deserted until in 1790 the infamous mutineers of the Royal Navy ship Bounty and their Tahitian companions settled there under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. They burned and sank the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay (there was nowhere else to hide it), and founded a village on Pitcairn. At first a rather lawless community of violent drunks, it was "tamed" when John Adams, the last mutineer to avoid accident or murder, converted the women and children to Christianity. They lived there for 24 years before being rediscovered by the British, who allowed the community to continue. Pitcairn was the first Pacific island to become a British colony (in 1838) and today remains the last vestige of that empire in the South Pacific.
Emigration – first to Norfolk Island and mostly to New Zealand in the last century – and a nearly-prohibitive approach to immigration have thinned the population from a peak of 233 in 1937 to less than 50. The island was rocked in 2004 by accusations of chronic and ubiquitous sexual abuse of the community's young female members (including pre-adolescent girls), and the subsequent investigation of much of the adult male population (including several who were no longer living there), six of whom were sentenced in New Zealand to terms in prison.
The prison building in Adamstown is currently unoccupied, but there are plans for it to house the library and small tourist office, and possibly some tourist accommodation.
The climate is humid and tropical (the Tropic of Capricorn lies a short distance to the north), with average temperatures ranging from 60°F (16°C) on winter nights to 85°F (30°C) on summer days. Rainfall is moderate with no strong seasonal pattern, just a bit wetter in the winter. The island is subject to infrequent typhoons during the season from November to March.
The islands are each unique, with differing origins.
Pitcairn is distinctly volcanic, jutting steeply out of the ocean with a peak of 1,106 ft, seemingly a stone's throw from the shoreline (in any direction). As such it has very little of what would be called a "beach" – however the word "cliff" gets used a lot – and harbors are hard to come by. Bounty Bay hardly deserves the name, consisting of a small indentation in the shoreline with water deep enough only for small boats without keels and a small sea-level landing area... connected via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. It is the only island of the group with fresh water sources.
Henderson is by far the largest island with an area of more than 14 square miles (37.3km²) - more than eight times larger than Pitcairn but with a largely inaccessible interior. It's a flat coral formation, but raised 50-100 feet above sea level by volcanic activity. There are caves along its shoreline which served as either tombs or ill-fated residences to an ancient people (remember: no fresh water). It might be suitable for building an airstrip if it weren't for all the endangered seabirds that find it an ideal spot to land.
Oeno is a small, flat island (accompanied by another sandy island known as "Sandy Island") surrounded by a circular reef, a typical South-Pacific paradise with palm trees, lovely beaches, and a sheltered lagoon.
Ducie is distant from the others (over 100 miles from Henderson and well over 200 miles from Pitcairn), a circular reef and island, popular with seabirds.
The remoteness and ruggedness of Pitcairn's geography, the insularity of its bureaucracy, and the scarcity of its resources conspire to make it a very difficult place to visit.
Those wishing to stay on Pitcairn for under two weeks do not require a visa or license prior to arrival. The Immigration Officer assesses applications for short-term visitors to Pitcairn upon arrival.
Visitors staying on the island for longer than two weeks require a license from the governor, because the irregularity of transport means they're effectively residents of the island for the next several weeks or even months. These licenses require proof of good health, the means to leave at the end of the visit (eg, passage on an upcoming ship), at least NZD300/week to cover your cost of living on Pitcairn, various other conditions, and a NZD100 fee; they are valid for six months: [email protected]
There is no airstrip in the islands, and it's out of range of land-launched helicopters, so flying is not an option. (The largest flat area on Pitcairn would offer a very short runway, and level Henderson Island is both a UNESCO-listed bird sanctuary and inconveniently located.) The nearest airport is on Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, 330 miles away. You can, however, catch a charter vessel from Mangareva.
Pitcairn Island is accessible to tourists via the island’s dedicated passenger/shipping vessel, the MV Silver Supporter, which provides passage from Mangareva to Pitcairn every few weeks. The schedule of the MV Silver Supporter allows tourists to arrive and depart Pitcairn on a rotation system, allowing 4, 11, or 18 days on Pitcairn (note that to stay 18 days, you'll have to apply for a visa in advance). 4 days is the most common length of time spent on Pitcairn; most visitors will find this to be enough time, though staying 11 days will allow you greater flexibility and the ability to visit some places more than once, and to immerse yourself in Pitcairn culture a bit more.
A small number of commercial cruise ships and private ocean-traversing yachts also visit the island. Sailing from French Polynesia is relatively practical; from almost anywhere else (e.g., New Zealand, Chile), sailing would require crossing thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The best and most reliable way to get to Pitcairn Island is to fly to Mangareva via Tahiti. Air Tahiti offers the only domestic flights to Mangareva. Air Tahiti flights occur once a week (every Tuesday). You then catch the airport taxi ferry to Rikitea village on Mangareva (in the Gambier Islands). The cost is XPF1000 one way. The crew of the MV Silver Supporter will meet you at the wharf in Rikitea and you to the ship. 32 hours later you’ll be at Pitcairn.
Since October 2005 there is now one short paved road on Pitcairn (up the Hill of Difficulty from the landing at Bounty Bay to Adamstown), but most routes around Pitcairn Island are dirt trails, generally very rugged. Quad-bikes are the primary means of transport for locals, however tourists aren't permitted to drive a quad-bike alone. For a small fee, locals can and will often drive you somewhere.
Pitcairn is a great place for walking, although you must be reasonably fit as walking on Pitcairn is something akin to walking all around the roof of an A-frame house. In the wet season the roads can be extremely slippery. Pirate Pawl provides a free map to all visitors upon arrival.
The local languages are English and Pitkern.
Pitkern, a mixture of 18th century English and Tahitian with a bit of sailing jargon thrown in (e.g., "all hands" means "everyone"), is spoken by the residents among themselves. The Norfuk language spoken on Norfolk Island is a dialect of Pitkern. Nevertheless, everyone on Pitcairn speaks standard English fluently.
The internal economy is based primarily on barter, with residents producing much of their own food and sharing supplies from passing freighters or large fish catches communally. When money is used, the New Zealand dollar is the official currency, but easily-exchanged currencies such as US or Australian dollars or UK pounds will be accepted. The New Zealand dollar and US dollar are both used, rather confusingly. The cost of passage on the MV Silver Supporter, purchases at the general store, and at the post office will be in NZ dollars. The cost of accommodation, landing fee, purchases at the souvenir shop, and the museum entry fee will be in US dollars.
The main locally-produced items for sale are handicrafts (especially woven baskets, models of the Bounty, carvings of local wildlife out of miro wood harvested from Henderson Island), honey, and the island's postage stamps (also available by mail overseas) are of interest to philatelists. Anything else has to be imported, and is priced accordingly.
In Adamstown, you will find the Post Office, General Store, Museum, Public Hall, Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the Pitcairn Island Medical Center and Doctor. You can get cash on credit cards in the Government Treasury. Generally, all facilities are open in the morning on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Saturday is the Sabbath and you are welcome to attend the local church for the interdenominational service, where you'll enjoy meeting local residents and off island professionals.
There is a small co-op general store which stocks imported foodstuffs from New Zealand or French Polynesia, mostly ordered by customers in advance. It is open 3 mornings/week, an hour each. The local cuisine relies heavily on seafood. Deep-fried nanwi (bluefish) is a local favorite, with red snapper, tuna, whitefish, grouper, wahoo, and others also being common. Pilhi is made from puréed fruit (such as banana, sweet potato, or breadfruit) with sugar and milk, then baked to custard consistency. Food staples grown on the island include arrowroot, sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cabbages, pineapples, melons, citrus fruits, bananas, and breadfruit. Some families keep poultry or goats.
Other places on island:
Alcohol was prohibited on Pitcairn prior to 1991, It was then legalized and a license was then introduced to purchase and consume alcohol on the island. Until 2009, visitors had to purchase a licence to purchase and consume alcohol.
The Government Store on the island sells alcohol and tobacco at duty-free prices.
There are two types of accommodation on Pitcairn.
If you are staying longer than 14 days, visa requirements dictate that you have your accommodation organized before arrival.
There are no jobs per se available to nonresidents, only a few professional services (e.g. teacher, nurse, social worker) hired by the government in New Zealand, and a pastor assigned by the international Adventist church. Anyone taking up temporary residence on the island is expected to be self-supporting, and to help with community needs such as crewing the longboats to reach supply vessels.
At present there is a New Zealand GP on the island. Previous medical practitioners have come from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The island has a small health clinic with dental and X-ray equipment and emergency medications, but is not equipped to deal with major problems, which may require waiting days or weeks for a nearby passing ship to provide evacuation to a medical facility. The island is out of range of all evacuation helicopters. Needless to say, this is no place to have a heart attack, stroke, and so on. A full medical checkup back home a couple weeks before arrival is strongly recommended.
The population are mostly members of the Seventh Day Adventist church, following mission work in the late 19th century. Although religious observance has declined, church doctrine strongly influences both public practice and civil law. For example, alcohol was legally prohibited until recently; dancing, public displays of affection, and cigarette smoking are frowned upon; and the Sabbath (Saturday) is consistently considered a day of rest (if not worship). Reasonably modest, climate-appropriate Western clothing is worn.
The recent trials of several Pitcairn men (including the former mayor and much of the island's workforce) on sexual abuse charges have been very difficult for the close-knit island community, with everyone being a friend or family member of at least one of the victims, the suspects, or the convicted. The incident has also brought to the surface tensions over Pitcairn's sovereignty (such as unfamiliar UK laws being tried by New Zealand courts). Strong feelings should be expected, and statements expressing any opinions beyond an acknowledgment of how difficult this has been for the islanders stand a high probability of upsetting someone in your audience.
Don't bring bees or beekeeping equipment. The island's bee population has been certified as disease-free and Pitcairn honey has become an important economic activity.
Each household now has their own private telephone and most have internet also. The country code is +64 like New Zealand.
Electricity (240V/50Hz) is available only for 5 hours in the morning and 5 hours in the evening.
Although there is no broadcast radio or television in the region, most homes are equipped with televisions and VHS/DVD players. If you bring any recordings with you, be sure they are PAL format and DVD region 4 (or bring your own DVD player), as the locals' equipment supports those standards (not NTSC or other DVD regions). That said, some PAL DVD players will play region-free NTSC, though it's better not to take a chance on anything important.
If you're sailing your own vessel, the nearest islands are in French Polynesia, roughly to the WNW: the isolated Gambier Islands are 330 miles away, the Acteon Group of the Tuamotu Islands are 450 miles away, and Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands are a mere 1,300 miles off. Easter Island is about the same distance in the opposite direction.