The famous pines, trees of majestic height, tower over groups of cattle resting peacefully in the green-gold haze of early afternoon. Patches of intensely blue ocean show between the branches, giving the scene the bright simplicity of a children’s picture-book.
Down by the old harbour, other cows and calves amble along the road – they have right of way here – before settling to graze on meadows so vibrantly green that they seem lit from within. Just metres away, more pine trees fringe an arc of white sand lapped by a lagoon-like expanse of calm, pale turquoise water, beneath which a coral garden grows.
To the east and to the west, yet more pines grow from the sides of jagged cliffs. Below, waves crash furiously against volcanic rocks. Ferns and pandanus lend a prehistoric touch to the rough landforms, although the clifftops look as neat as bowling greens with their smooth carpet of grass, browsed by placid cattle.
There’s something about the juxtaposition of subtropical and pastoral landscapes that is irresistible to my eyes. You see it in northern New South Wales and in southern Queensland. You see it, too, in New Zealand, especially the North Island, and you see it in Hawaii. All those places come to mind, here on Norfolk Island, but none of them expresses more beguilingly the particular combination of European and Pacific elements that is responsible for its dramatic and richly coloured scenery.
In culture, as in landscape, Norfolk Island is a hybrid – and proud of it. The English influence is strong, from the ubiquitous (and delicious) cream teas served all over the island, to the beautifully tended private gardens, which you glimpse as you drive around or can visit on dedicated garden tours. And where else in the world, other than the United Kingdom, is God Save the Queen the official national anthem?
But a Pacific Island heritage is also evident. The community retains close ties with Pitcairn Island, an even tinier and more remote speck of Pacific land where, in the late 18th century, the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian partners sought refuge from the wrath of the British navy, and from where the bulk of Norfolk’s founding families migrated in 1856. Galleries sell fabrics, woodwork and handcrafted shell goods produced on both Pitcairn and Norfolk, bringing the flavour of First People’s Pacific art traditions to the high street of the island’s only town, Burnt Pine.
The two main strands of Norfolk Island’s cultural heritage – British and Pacific – are sometimes woven together in surprising ways. At a ‘Norf’k Laengwij’ class included in my tour package I learn that a distinctive island language, recognised by the United Nations no less, evolved by blending Tahitian vocabulary with the seafaring English of the Bounty sailors. It’s fascinating to hear how this creole language is peppered with nautical expressions such as ‘dip your oar in’, ‘take to the bridge’, ‘big surf’, and ‘capsize’, all of which have now acquired figurative meanings. Although classified as ‘endangered’ by the UN, Norf’k definitely still exists and I was chuffed to recognise a few words and phrases – notably ‘watawieh’ (hello) and ‘all yorlye gwen?’ (how are you going?) – spoken by locals at the supermarket.
Another wonderful surprise is St Barnabas Chapel, the island’s historic Anglican church. In this beautiful 19th-century sandstone building, the pews are decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl shell and the complexly vaulted wooden ceiling has been designed to look like an upturned boat. These lovely oceanic elements in the architecture sit alongside the pure Englishness of the stained glass windows which, as the creations of the renowned pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, would not look at all out of place in an Oxford college chapel.
History buffs will love this church, but an even greater treat awaits them at the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area on the southern coast of the island. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes museums, homes, naval buildings, and the ruins of the infamous prison built here in the mid-19th century. All are connected with the two periods in Norfolk Island’s history – from 1788 to 1814, and again from 1825 to 1855 – when the island was operated as an adjunct to the Sydney penal colony.
Today’s Norfolk Islanders refer to their home as Paradise, but in the convict era it was known as Hell on Earth. The sufferings of the prisoners held here were memorialised by Marcus Clarke in his classic Australian novel from the 1870s, For the Term of His Natural Life. Ramble over this site on a sunny day with the sea sparkling and the green grass glowing, and it’s hard to believe that a life sentence here was for many a fate worse than death.
But if the wind comes up and the sky turns dark with rain, as it does on my last day on the island, you may stand at the centre of the pentagon marked out by the foundation stones of the ruined prison and feel something of the desolation of its former inmates. The convict precinct highlights Norfolk Island’s involvement in Australian history, as does the adjacent island cemetery. Convicts, convict rebels, the soldiers who guarded them, killed them, or were killed by them in turn, lie side-by-side in this ground that is resonant with echoes from Australia’s turbulent past. To spend an hour wandering among the old headstones, deciphering their inscriptions and learning the strange fates of those buried here, is a fascinating experience.
Only Port Arthur in Tasmania can rival Norfolk’s Kingston as a window into Australia’s convict past. Indeed, as I explore this part of the island I’m strongly reminded of that other island, especially in the well-preserved Georgian buildings with their background of lush pastureland. By my count, this makes six destinations outside my home state of New South Wales that have come vividly to mind here: Queensland, New Zealand, and Hawaii for the landscape, and Polynesia, England, and Tasmania for the cultural heritage. At a time when opportunities for global travel have been curtailed, a single place that holds so much variety is one to be prized, especially when its various elements are combined in such unusual and surprising ways.