Exploring the beauty of Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is not convenient to Mount Isa, but when your significant other moves there for work, there's no option but to plane-hop and cross half a continent and then half an ocean to get there. A South Pacific haven with a New South Wales postcode (2899), Norfolk is a slice of paradise directly two hours east of Byron Bay. It's tiny, 35 sq km all up, and isolated - the only landmass on the submarine Norfolk Ridge that links New Zealand with New Caledonia.

Norfolk Island comes into view from the air.

Norfolk Island comes into view from the air.

It was well I was flying. Access by sea is difficult due to the surf and high cliffs. Norfolk has had three human migrations, the earliest the Polynesian population c800-1200. British settlers had hints of that settlement and in 1974 archaeologists confirmed obsidian they found came from the Kermadec Islands near New Zealand. The settlement disappeared for unknown reasons and its lasting heritage was the Polynesian rat which still survives on the predator-free island. Norfolk was rediscovered in 1774 by James Cook in his second voyage of discovery. Cook came ashore at what is now Captain Cook Lookout to claim the island for Britain. He saw flax plants there ideal for making sail canvas, which Britain relied on Russia to supply.

Captain Cook Lookout on the north side of Norfolk Island.

Captain Cook Lookout on the north side of Norfolk Island.

When Britain sent convicts to New South Wales 14 years later, Norfolk was a critical part of the plan. Admiralty orders to First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip was to "send a small establishment and prevent it being occupied by any other European power". Within a month of landing in Sydney he ordered a convoy of 22 (including 15 convicts) to begin a second British settlement in the Pacific. Norfolk's new settlers cleared land, sowed seeds and cut timber. They fought rats, parrots, caterpillars and worms for enjoyment of the crops but gradually built up a working supply of food. The flax plants proved unsuitable for Navy use.

Mt Bates is the highest point on the island at 319 metres above sea level.

Mt Bates is the highest point on the island at 319 metres above sea level.

While Norfolk thrived, food in Sydney was scarce and in 1790 Phillip sent 183 convicts and a consignment of marines to the island. First Fleet flagship HMS Sirius approached Norfolk on March 19 but in heavy surf crashed upon the reefs and was wrecked. While no one was killed it was a terrible blow to the island and to Sydney itself. On hearing the news Phillip contemplated ending both settlements. It took the arrival of the Second Fleet later that year to save the colony. A plaque at Slaughter Bay marks the spot of the sinking and a nearby museum hosts one of Sirius's six anchors.

The plaque marking the site of the Sirius sinking with Phillip Island in the background.

The plaque marking the site of the Sirius sinking with Phillip Island in the background.

The settlement lasted 26 years. Britain was concerned about its cost, its distance from Sydney, and the lack of a safe anchorage. By 1814 all convicts were sent to Van Diemen's Land, the buildings were destroyed to prevent further use and a dozen dogs were left behind to eat what stock remained.

Ruins of the old jail.

Ruins of the old jail.

But Norfolk found another use as the home for the doubly damned - the worst prisoners in Sydney and Hobart. From 1826 new settlers used the crumbling walls of the first settlement to rebuild according to instructions of colonial secretary Lord Bathurst: "to hold out that Settlement as a place of the extremest punishment short of death". Bathurst was aided by a succession of sadistic commanders who treated their prisoners with contempt far from Sydney's gaze.

The settlement at Kingston with Slaughter Bay and Nepean Island.

The settlement at Kingston with Slaughter Bay and Nepean Island.

Beyond hope, the convicts mutinied many times without success. In 1826 fifty convicts bound their overseers, robbed the stores and put three boats to nearby Phillip Island where they were re-captured. In 1834 a hundred convicts rose up, aiming to take charge of a boat and sail to freedom. They were overcome by the military garrison and the rising was crushed in hours. Authorities convicted 29 men and 13 were hanged.

The Kingston grave of William McCulloch, who was executed for a failed mutiny in 1834.

The Kingston grave of William McCulloch, who was executed for a failed mutiny in 1834.

In 1856 Britain closed the jail again and allowed Pitcairn Islanders to move in. The new arrivals were the descendents of the 1789 Bounty Mutiny. HMS Bounty under Captain William Bligh was taking its breadfruit cargo from Tahiti to the West Indies when mutineers led by Fletcher Christian took command. They released Bligh and fellow officers who escaped on a longboat 6500km to Timor (unaware of the new Norfolk colony a third of the distance away). The mutineers picked up Tahitian natives who eventually joined some of them sailing to remote Pitcairn. Sexual troubles led to most of the men being murdered but the women survived and raised families which became a peaceful settlement over the next 70 years. By the 1850s they were outgrowing their island but their exemplary Victorian morality had many supporters in England who suggested they move to Norfolk.

Kingston Harbour, Norfolk Island.

Kingston Harbour, Norfolk Island.

Though some returned to Pitcairn, the majority settled on Norfolk, taking military homes in Kingston's Quality Row. They survived on rudimentary farming and whaling, believing Victoria granted them ownership of the island, which the British disputed. When an inquiry in 1905 was dissatisfied with cultivation on the island it suggested commonwealth control and the withdrawal of privileges including the use of Quality Row. The Pitcairners burned the cottages in protest but gradually fanned out across the island.

Beautiful Emily Bay is the only sheltered beach on the island protected from the breakers by a coral reef. The majestic lone pine was seen by early British settlers.

Beautiful Emily Bay is the only sheltered beach on the island protected from the breakers by a coral reef. The majestic lone pine was seen by early British settlers.

The area around Kingston is now a World Heritage Area and tourism delivers 40 percent of Norfolk's GDP but the island has always struggled to turn a buck. Accepted into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1913, it was granted limited self-government in 1979 though lurched through a series of financial crises. In 2015 Canberra abolished the Island's legislative assembly with the territory run by an Administrator.

Passengers from a cruise ship are shipped ashore at Cascades Pier.

Passengers from a cruise ship are shipped ashore at Cascades Pier.

A new Regional Council was elected and most Commonwealth laws including taxation, social security, immigration, customs and health were extended to Norfolk Island. Islanders held a referendum in 2015 where 68 percent voted for a say in their own future. Aggrieved Pitcairners set up a "tent embassy" at Quality Row. As well as income tax, they pay land duties on previously untaxed ancestral properties and some are ineligible for previous pensions under Norfolk's welfare system.

Quality Row as seen from the hills above.

Quality Row as seen from the hills above.

Pitcairners consider themselves the "indigenous people" and have appealed to the UN. In Norfolk's town centre at Burnt Pine, there is a "field of democracy" display. Each sign of green hands is signed by an Islander who collectively "are imploring the world to unite and join their crusade for continued custodial rights."

Norfolk Island "field of democracy" display in Burnt Pine.

Norfolk Island "field of democracy" display in Burnt Pine.

While I appreciate the David v Goliath romance, I don't believe Norfolk Island can sustain itself without outside help. Instead of having a chip on their shoulders about their place in the world, Pitcairners - who now make up less than half the population - would be better served improving their Council and making the most of natural advantages. They have a gorgeous geography and a rich colonial history which because it mostly happened before 1856, they have ignored. Norfolk Island is a beautiful and unique place. But its people need to lose its sense of entitlement and work for democracy from the ground up. Demanding a 4G telecommunications service would be a good place to start.