Human Journey

Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Arrival on Pitcairn

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

The island came into view in the early hours of the 15th.  It was almost black in the morning sky, looming jagged and almost vertical.  If only I could have come with the Bounty.

A bit closer in Adamstown looked like it was perched on the cliffs, houses scattered like nests on outcroppings. I went to the bridge and Neil, the captain, was talking to folks on the island about our arrival; they would bring the long boat out.  I made up my bags, ready to camp on island for the next several days. The boat appeared through the blue undulating carpet, it was just like the ones built by the mutineers except made of aluminum with a big diesel engine. There were several men and a few women aboard; boat arrivals are a relatively rare event. You could immediately see that these people are a mix of European and Polynesian. Pirate Pawl came aboard, he had more rings on his ears than I had imagined, but his head was as round and shaved as promised. Like most exotic people you meet on Earth, you pull back the first layers of looks and get past the language barrier and they are just like you and me. Pawl, I was told, had been on the rat eradication project on Henderson, so I wanted to pick his brain.

The boat was bobbing and pitching about 10 feet with every roller that came by as people threw our bags from the ship. I jumped aboard on a high rise and before plummeting back down I grabbed a strap and held on. It felt like I was on a bull in a rodeo. The diesel revved, we pulled away and Randy at the tiller brought us in between the rocks and landed us with seeming ease behind the breakwater into the exact same cove the mutineers landed in 1794.  The first thing I noticed was the enormous landslide that happened just a month ago when they got 600 mm of rain in about 36 hours, in what should be the dry season and after 18 months of drought.

The landing was bustling with people of all ages and about 15 four-wheelers. Old friends greeted and kissed and us new guys were starry-eyed.  In a flash we were on the bikes and motoring up the concrete road built into the precipice.  The debris from the slide was still piled high on the side of the road; thousands of tons of precious soil were lost to the sea.  This was to be my assignment on the island: a look at the natural history and how over two centuries of habitation by the descendants of mutineers and their Polynesian consorts have changed the island.   The broader question is whether the people of Pitcairn would consider creating the largest marine protected area on Earth.

I was to be staying with Mike and Brenda.  We arrived at the house to leave off my stuff.  While it is a simple plywood frame house, there is electricity 14 hours a day, telephone and internet.  No longer are Pitcairners isolated from our small planet, except for one thing: there’s still no air transport, no easy way to get here from there.

After a meeting with the local council I hooked up with Brenda Christian.  While almost 60, she still has abundant long flowing black hair with a healthy dose of Polynesian in her face.   I saddled up behind Brenda on the quad and we were off to Christian’s Cave.  On the way I got my first glimpse of the endemic Pitcairn reed warbler.  Some have bright white primaries, they’re the adults, the juveniles are yellowish.  This is the only resident land bird other than feral chickens.

I got my first taste of Brenda’s ability as she flew up the sheer volcanic slope bare-footed.  She slipped past a cliffy bit and there we were in a large cavern that they say her kin Fletcher Christian used to visit to enjoy the view above their settlement.  Red-tailed tropicbirds cackled above using the uplift of the rock walls to play in the cool island air.  A rain squall held off the island sending puffs of mist over the mountain top.  Below mango, coconuts, and breadfruit trees formed a canopy around the little settlement of Adamstown.  Maybe this really is paradise.

Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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