Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Before Pitcairn: Mangareva

I got up at 5 AM to catch my flight to Mangareva, which is part of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia.  The Gambier Islands are in the southeast corner of French Polynesia and are fairly remote.  Mangareva is the most populated island in the group with about 1,200 people.  So why was I flying to this remote island with hardly any people?  Because Mangareva has the closest airport to Pitcairn, about 330 miles away.

Every three months, a cargo ship called the Claymore travels from Tauranga, New Zealand to Pitcairn to deliver goods for the inhabitants.  However, the Claymore stops at Mangareva to pick up passengers going to Pitcairn.  The Claymore can take up to 12 passengers, and the round-trip cost is 5,000 New Zealand dollars (about $3,500).  The trip from Mangareva to Pitcairn takes about 30 hours.

I had booked a spot on the Claymore and was flying to Mangareva to meet up with the Claymore.  My plan was to stay on Pitcairn for 11 days, and then take the Claymore back to Mangareva as it headed back to New Zealand.

I went to the airport with a French guy who was staying at my pension.  He was also flying to Mangareva, but not to go to Pitcairn.  He was going to camp on Taravai, an island near Mangareva with a population of nine people.  He was going to camp there for a week as some sort of experiment.

Our plane was fairly small and had about 50 passengers.  After takeoff, I chatted with the guy next to me.  His name was Leslie Jaques, and he lived on Pitcairn.  He was not originally from Pitcairn, but was sent there by the British many years ago to do some council work and ended up staying there.  I was excited to meet a Pitcairner for the first time.

After three hours, we landed on Tureia, an atoll between Tahiti and Mangareva with about 300 people.  We all had to exit the plane as cargo was unloaded.  While waiting in what was the smallest airport that I had ever seen, I met several other passengers who were going to Pitcairn.  I met Elliot from New Zealand, who was part of the Claymore crew.  I met Max from New Zealand, who was going on business to check up on Pitcairn's only police officer.  And I met Anneka from Australia, who was the daughter of Pitcairn's administrator and was going for a family visit.

We eventually got back on the plane, and after another hour of flying, we landed on Mangareva.  From the airport, we took a water taxi to reach the populated part of Mangareva.  While riding in the water taxi, I met two more guys who were going to Pitcairn.  Their nicknames were Possum and Snowy, and they were from Norfolk Island, which is near Australia.

In 1856, Pitcairn had around 200 people, and they were concerned that the population had outgrown the island.  By that time, Pitcairn was a British territory, so the British decided to move the entire population of Pitcairn to Norfolk Island, which was no longer inhabited and much bigger than Pitcairn.  After a few years, some people missed Pitcairn and decided to move back, while others remained on Norfolk.  So today, much of Norfolk's population are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.  Both Possum and Snowy were mutineer descendants, so they were visiting Pitcairn to see their extended family, so to speak.  In fact, this was Possum's third visit to Pitcairn.

As the water taxi approached the harbor, I saw the Claymore parked at the harbor.  It was smaller than I expected, maybe twice the size of a typical yacht.  After we exited the water taxi, I boarded the Claymore with the other Pitcairn travelers.  We were quickly briefed by the crew, and then told that the Claymore would be leaving in a couple of hours.  With ample time before departure, I decided to walk around Mangareva for a bit.

While briefly on the Claymore, I met Carolyn from Australia, who was visiting Pitcairn simply as a tourist.  Carolyn, Anneka, and I walked around Mangareva together and visited the cathedral, the most prominent building on the island.  Afterward, we returned to the Claymore.

As the Claymore left Mangareva into the open ocean, I explored the ship and met the other passengers.  There were actually 22 passengers instead of 12 due to a snafu.  The surplus 10 passengers were three Pitcairners, and seven scientists going to Henderson Island to study wildlife.  Henderson is an uninhabited island near Pitcairn with some remarkable wildlife.  Those 10 passengers were supposed to make the journey a week before, but the Claymore broke down and was delayed a week, so those 10 passengers were combined with the 12 on my journey.

The other passengers were a guy from Slovakia visiting as a tourist, an Indian guy from Chicago visiting as a tourist, a Bulgarian woman from Australia moving to Pitcairn for a year as the island's only doctor along with her husband, and Dennis from Germany visiting as a journalist.  Dennis was writing a book about undiscovered places, and Pitcairn was going to be a chapter.

We all ate dinner together at the long dining table.  The food was actually quite good, to my surprise, given that it was prepared on a cargo ship.  Afterward, we chatted for some time.  When people asked why I was visiting Pitcairn, I told them that I had been inspired by The Bounty Trilogy seven years ago.

We were all given cabins at the bottom of the ship, shared with another passenger.  Dennis was my roommate.  That night, I slept on a boat in the open ocean for the first time in my life.

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