The Pitcairn Islands are a loosely grouped handful of tiny islands in the remote South Pacific, farther from any continent than any other inhabited island. The islands are the last British colony in the South Pacific and most isolated British dependency. The rugged main island was settled by the infamous mutineers of the HMS Bounty and their Polynesian companions, and most of Pitcairn's mere four dozen current inhabitants are their descendants. They are one of the least-populated entities given an ISO country code (PN).
Pitcairn was either inhabited or frequently visited by Polynesian peoples in earlier centuries (they left glyphs etched in the rocks), and was visited briefly by Portuguese and British explorers (one of whom gave it his name), but it was deserted when in 1790 the infamous mutineers of H.M.A.V. Bounty and their Tahitian companions settled there under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. They burned and sank the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay (there was nowhere else to hide it), and founded a village on Pitcairn. At first a rather lawless community of violent drunks, it was "tamed" when John Adams, the last mutineer to avoid accident or murder, converted the women and children to Christianity. They lived there for 24 years before being rediscovered by the British, who allowed the community to continue. Pitcairn was the first Pacific island to become a British colony (in 1838) and today remains the last vestige of that empire in the South Pacific.
Emigration – first to Norfolk Island and mostly to New Zealand in the last century – and a nearly-prohibitive approach to immigration have thinned the population from a peak of 233 in 1937 to less than 50. Furthermore, the island was rocked in 2004 by accusations of chronic and ubiquitous sexual abuse of the community's young female members (including pre-adolescent girls), and the subsequent investigation of much of the adult male population (including several who were no longer living there), six of whom were sentenced to terms in prison. It's unclear whether the Pitcairn society – already hovering at the lower fringes of self-sufficiency – will survive.
The climate is humid and tropical (the Tropic of Capricorn lies a short distance to the north), with average temperatures ranging from 60°F (16°C) on winter nights to 85°F (30°C) on summer days. Rainfall is moderate with no strong seasonal pattern, just a bit wetter in the winter. The island is subject to infrequent typhoons during the season from November to March.
The islands are each unique, with differing origins. Pitcairn is distinctly volcanic, jutting steeply out of the ocean with a peak of 337 meters, seemingly a stone's throw from the shoreline (in any direction). As such it has very little of what would be called a "beach" – however the word "cliff" gets used a lot – and harbors are hard to come by. Bounty Bay hardly deserves the name, consisting of a small indentation in the shoreline with water deep enough only for small boats without keels and a small sea-level landing area... connected via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. It is the only island of the group with fresh water sources. Henderson is the largest island, a flat coral formation, but raised 50-100 feet above sea level by volcanic activity. It has caves along its shoreline which served as either tombs or ill-fated residences to an ancient people (remember: no fresh water). It might be suitable for building an airstrip if it weren't for all the endangered seabirds that find it an ideal spot to land. Oeno is a small, flat island (accompanied by another sandy island known as "Sandy Island") surrounded by a circular reef, a typical South-Pacific paradise with palm trees, lovely beaches, and a sheltered lagoon. Ducie is distant from the others (over 100 miles from Henderson and well over 200 from Pitcairn), a circular reef and island, popular with seabirds.
The remoteness and ruggedness of Pitcairn's geography, the insularity of its bureaucracy, and the scarcity of its resources conspire to make it a very difficult place to visit.
Visitors staying on the island for any length of time require a license from the governor, because the irregularity of transport means they're effectively residents of the island for the next several weeks or even months. These licenses require proof of good health, the means to leave at the end of the visit (e.g., passage on an upcoming ship), at least NZ$300/week to cover your cost of living on Pitcairn, various other conditions, and a $100 fee; they are valid for six months.
There is no airstrip in the islands, and it's out of range of land-launched helicopters, so flying is not an option. (The largest flat area on Pitcairn would offer a very short runway, and level Henderson Island is both a UNESCO-listed bird sanctuary and inconveniently located.) The nearest airport is on Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, 330 miles away. You can catch a charter vessel from Mangareva.
Pitcairn Island is accessible to tourists via scheduled visits by a small number of commercial cruise ships, and via private ocean-traversing yachts. Sailing from French Polynesia is relatively practical; from almost anywhere else (e.g., New Zealand, Chile) it requires crossing thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The best way to get to Pitcairn Island is to fly to Papeete in Tahiti and then fly by Air Tahiti to Mangareva. This flight occurs once per week (every Tuesday). A ferry is available from the small island used as the runway to the town of Mangareva (in the Gambier Island). The fee is 50 polynesian french francs one way.
The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and the Panama Canal, near a main shipping lane, so travel via cargo ship is possible several times a year. Contact the Pitcairn Island Administration in New Zealand (+64-9-366-0186) to arrange passage; fares are typically US$800-1000 one-way.
There is no safe harbor for medium-sized or larger vessels; visitors access the island itself by small longboats launched from Bounty Bay (which is scarcely large enough to be called a "bay") to meet up with ships anchored off-shore.
Since October 2005 there is now one short paved road on Pitcairn (up the Hill of Difficulty from the landing at Bounty Bay to Adamstown), but most routes around Pitcairn Island are dirt trails, generally very rugged. Walking and personal all-terrain vehicles (3- and 4-wheel "motorbikes") are the main ways to get from one place to another, and a bike is usually available for rent.
English is the official language and spoken by everyone. Pitkern, a mixture of 18th century English and Tahitian with a bit of sailing jargon thrown in (e.g., "all hands" means "everyone"), is spoken by the residents amongst themselves.
The internal economy is based primarily on barter, with residents producing much of their own food and sharing supplies from passing freighters or large fish catches communally. When money is used, the New Zealand dollar is the standard currency, but easily-exchanged currencies such as US or Australian dollars or UK pounds will be accepted.
The main locally-produced items for sale are handicrafts (especially woven baskets, models of the Bounty, and carvings of local wildlife out of miro wood harvested from Henderson Island) and honey, and the island's postage stamps (also available by mail overseas) are of interest to philatelists. Anything else has to be imported, and is priced accordingly.
There is a small co-op general store which stocks imported foodstuffs from New Zealand or French Polynesia, mostly ordered by customers in advance. It is open 3 mornings/week, an hour each. The local cuisine relies heavily on seafood. Deep-fried nanwi (bluefish) is a local favorite, with red snapper, tuna, whitefish, grouper, wahoo, and others also being common. Pilhi is made from pureed fruit (such as banana, sweet potato, or breadfruit) with sugar and milk, then baked to custard consistency. Food staples grown on the island, include arrowroot, sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cabbages, pineapples, melons, citrus fruits, bananas, and breadfruit. Some families keep poultry or goats.
Other places on island:
Alcohol was prohibited on Pitcairn prior to 1991, It was then legalized and a license was then introduced to purchase and consume alcohol on the island.
In 2009, the alcohol license was abolished. The Islanders and visitors are no longer required to purchase a license for consumption.
The Government now offers a Commercial License for Bars, Clubs, Restaurants & Cafe's to sell alcohol.
There is one Cafe & Bar, Christian's Cafe open on Fridays from 6:30PM till late.
The Government Store on the island sells alcohol and tobacco at duty free prices.
There are 2 types of accommodation on Pitcairn.
When you book your trip to Pitcairn you may contact individuals to book accommodation in advance otherwise the tourism co-ordinator will arrange home stay accommodation upon your arrival and introduce you to your hosts. Note if you are staying longer than 14 days, visa requirements dictate that you have your accommodation organised before arrival.
There are no jobs per se available to non-residents, only a few professional services (e.g. teacher, nurse, social worker) hired by the government in New Zealand, and a pastor assigned by the international Adventist church. On the other hand, anyone taking up temporary residence on the island is expected to be self-supporting, and to help with community needs such as crewing the longboats to reach supply vessels.
At present there is an Australian GP on the island (Dr. Bruce Dixon - e-mail = firstname.lastname@example.org). Previous medical practitioners have come from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The island has a small health clinic with dental and X-ray equipment and emergency medications, but is not equipped to deal with major problems, which may require waiting days or weeks for a nearby passing ship to provide evacuation to a medical facility. The island is out-of-range of all evacuation helicopters. Needless to say, this is no place to have a heart attack, stroke, and so on. A full medical check-up back home a couple weeks before arrival is strongly recommended.
The population are mostly members of the Seventh Day Adventist church, following mission work in the late 19th century. Although religious observance has declined, church doctrine strongly influences both public practice and civil law. For example, alcohol was legally prohibited until recently; dancing, public displays of affection, and cigarette smoking are frowned upon; and the Sabbath (Saturday) is consistently considered a day of rest (if not worship). Reasonably modest, climate-appropriate western clothing is worn.
The recent trials of several Pitcairn men (including the former mayor and much of the island's workforce) on sexual abuse charges have been very difficult for the close-knit island community, with everyone being a friend or family of at least one of the victims, the suspects, or the convicted. The incident has also brought to the surface tensions over Pitcairn's sovereignty (such as unfamiliar UK laws being tried by New Zealand courts). Strong feelings should be expected, and statements expressing any opinions beyond an acknowledgement of how difficult this has been for the islanders stand a high probability of upsetting someone in your audience.
Don't bring bees or beekeeping equipment. The island's bee population has been certified as disease-free and Pitcairn honey is becoming an important economic activity.
Each household now has their own private telephone and most have internet also. The country code is +64 like New Zealand.