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Arrival at Pitcairn Island: Hiking to Christian’s Cave

When NG Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay hits the ground, he hits the ground walking. As soon as we arrived on Pitcairn Island, still wobbly after 30-some hours pitching and rolling aboard the Claymore II, Mike was ready to walk up the cliff and visit the legendary “Christian’s Cave.”   Swashbuckler Scenery As the story books and...

When NG Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay hits the ground, he hits the ground walking. As soon as we arrived on Pitcairn Island, still wobbly after 30-some hours pitching and rolling aboard the Claymore II, Mike was ready to walk up the cliff and visit the legendary “Christian’s Cave.”


Swashbuckler Scenery

As the story books and romantic-era illustrations would have it, Fletcher Christian, leader of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, spent a good portion of the remainder of his days gazing out at sea from this cave overlooking Bounty Bay, awaiting the day that British ships would arrive to bring the surviving mutineers to justice.

Gazing out from that cave late last week, the island’s bare-footed nature expert,  immigration officer, preschool teacher, and sixth-generation Bounty descendant Brenda Lupton-Christian told us she wasn’t so sure that ever happened, but that it sure was a nice view either way. Mike agreed as he watched red-tailed tropic birds soaring in the valley below, adding that if he lived on the island, he would be up here a couple times a week, easily.


Fun if by Land

I too would agree, although I would opt to leave behind the large video camera and tripod I had carried up in hopes of getting good footage for the National Geographic television special we’ll produce about the Pitcairn Expedition.

Most of our scientists, divers, and crew are still aboard the ship anchored offshore. Being assigned to follow and film Mike Fay, I am one of the lucky few spending several days on the island. I’m being put up by Brenda’s brother Steve Christian and his wife Olive, also a sixth-generation Pitcairner.  (See a young Steve, Brenda, and their family at Christmas dinner, in a photo from the 1957 National Geographic article about Pitcairn.)

While there are numerous obvious benefits to being on land, the most unexpected one for me has been the thrill of seeing the Claymore II from the various ridges and promontories we’ve traversed. The down side has been the prolonged anticipation of getting to dive and see for myself what’s in these remote waters.


A Pitcairn Welcome and a Change in the Weather

After the first day featuring the hike to Christian’s Cave, a rained-out attempt to get a clear view from Gannet’s Ridge, and the community potluck welcome dinner referenced in expedition leader Enric Sala’s last post, a bright double rainbow appeared in the sky. Little did any of us realize that this traditional symbol of the end of a storm was more of an overture for what was about to begin.

During the middle of the night, it began to rain again. It rained hard. As I awoke, hard rain fell. Light rain fell. The rain trickled to a stop. Then it rained. It rained for a while. Then it rained some more. The rain seemed to dwindle down. Then it really rained.

By the middle of the day it was raining. Similar rains over the past two months have caused numerous landslides around the island, requiring multi-day efforts to clear major paths and roads.

Finally it stopped. Really stopped. Mike called me up from Brenda’s and said he was ready to get walking. (Calling is very easy on Pitcairn. With less than 60 users, Pitcairn phone numbers are functionally only two-digits long.)


Mrs. T and the Amazing Rocks of Tedside

Packing up some snacks, water, rain gear, and camera equipment, I hopped on the back of Steve’s four-wheeler and he dropped me off to meet up with Mike. Together with Brenda and her husband (also named Mike), we headed down to the part of the island known as Tedside, from where Mike Fay could start walking at sea level, and begin making his way across the island to record interesting plants and birds.

Later on, Steve explained to me that “Tedside” is old Pitcairner language for “the other side.”

Down Tedside we ran into Mrs. T, the last of a few Galapagos tortoises brought to the island in the 1950s. Brenda pulled some ripe bananas from a nearby tree and we took turns feeding, filming, and photographing this enormous and beautiful creature. Examining the rings on the plates of her shell, Mike estimated that Mrs. T is between 150 and 250 years old, though he admits to being no kind of tortoise expert.

Giving her a fond farewell, we continued down the hillside to the rocky shore. Volcanic boulders eroded into fantastic shapes were all around, and every rock and pebble was sculpted with holes of various sizes.  The solid rock surface in one area was criss-crossed with irregular seams that made it look like it was tiled with some kind of petrified sponge linoleum.

Out among these rocks and tidal pools, Brenda pointed out plants and animals, and even caught a small octopus to use for bait. One plant though, neither she nor Mike could identify and Mike excitedly saved a sample to show to our team’s marine plant expert, Kike (pronounced “Keek-ay”) Ballesteros, when we return to the ship.

Leaving Mike to sleep out on a cliff on the coast despite the bound-to-reappear downpours, even bare-footed nature-gal Brenda shook her head saying he must be crazy. Looking out at the view from his campsite though, I tend to think it’s a very good kind of crazy.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at