Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Rock Climbing for Rock Art

The trail we followed yesterday to the see ancient Polynesian rock art at a place called “Down Rope” was one of the steepest, narrowest, scariest stretches of trail I’ve ever been on. I am however a pretty conventional hiker and haven’t see many very tricky places.

Mike Fay however has walked across thousands of miles of uncharted African jungle. And even he was taking this trail inch by inch, scooting down rock-hewn steps in a seated position, as we later discovered many others have done before us.

Our local guide on the other hand bounced up and down the trail barefoot, waiting for us and pointing out good footholds when needed. Brenda Christian is the one who actually clears this this trail when other people want to go down. Her brother Steve says that she is, in the best of ways, like a mountain goat. I think I saw the goats give her a look of admiration.

At the end of the day, most every Pitcairner has been to Down Rope though, and there are surprisingly few stories of accidents. The worst anyone can recall was just two years ago when a crew member on a visiting tall ship, the Picton Castle, fell nearly half the way down, shattering his arm and breaking his back in three places. Within a month however he was nearly fully recovered, dubbed by media accounts as “The Pitcairn Flying Miracle.”

When we finally made it to sea level, the natural beauty of the place would have been enough to make it worth the trip. Seeing the mysterious ancient Polynesian rock art though was what had driven me to get there, and I was thrilled to be standing in front of it at last. Like much of the world’s prehistoric art forms, we know very little about who made it or why. Polynesians came to this island roughly 900 years ago, but also possibly thousands of years before that. Some of the images bear a resemblance to other carvings on Easter Island or throughout the South Pacific, but we cannot ascribe definite meanings to any of them.

Perhaps that is what makes rock art so captivating–like climbing the cliffs at Down Rope, it is unfamiliar, and leads to the unknown. Traveling that way physically or mentally always makes for a memorable adventure.


Human Journey


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.