Special Delivery - Norfolk Island
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
I'm not usually given to hanging around docks, but here I am, part a small crowd gathered on Kingston pier, our gazes focused towards a barge piled with rust-red and salt-faded blue shipping containers moored just outside the reef that enircles the island.
It's a mild sort of day - there's a gentle tang of salt in the a sea breeze so light it's not enough to as much as ruffle the pines that stand sentinel on the clifftops.
Despite the clement weather, it can get no closer, for Norfolk Island, a tiny outcrop in the South Pacific ocean, nearly 1500km off the Australian mainland, doesn't have a harbour.
According to local reckoning, thanks to Covid, it's been almost 4 months since supplies were shipped in. It's evidenced in the almost-bare supermarket shelves and notices on the windows of cafes apologising for their mid-week closures as they try to eke out dwindling stocks.
But the local radio station has announced the barge's arrival and that unloading will take place over the next few days and it's the subject of all conversations I eavesdrop on. And so, like them, I head down to the pier for a look.
The unloading process is one has remained unchanged pretty much since the Pitcairn islanders outgrew their even smaller and more remote island and moved here.
Shipped from Australia and New Zealand, the cargo is unloaded using "lighters" - a type of stable, easy-to-manoeuvre longboat, towed out over the reef to the barge. The netted cargo is carefully craned down and the lighter towed back to shore to the pier, where the men attach the cargo nets to a crane arm which lifts it onto the pier.
The lighter design came with the Pitcairners, the original descendants of The Bounty mutineers, who used the agile boats for fishing and whaling, lowering them into the sea from the larger vessels to engage in the whale chase. In fact, they reminded me of the whaling 'canoas' I'd seen in the Azores (a group islands in the Atlantic, between Europe and America.)
The lighters are never given names, only numbers - up to 12, then starting again from one as they are retired. On the grassy foreshore among the convict era architecture are the old ones, gradually being reclaimed by the earth.
It's quite a skill to make them - knowledge that has been passed down from local boatbuilders charged with the task since the 1800s. Over 4000 copper nails are used, the ribs, bent in a special steam chamber, the hulls fashioned from Australian hardwood.
Due to the cost of airfreight, anything of any size or weight down to the resident's cars are unloaded this way on Norfolk. in fact, 90% of everything here has been transported by ship.
These little boats are expected to carry around 30,000 tonnes in their lifetime, an impressive feat.
If you're on the island and you hear a ship is due in, make sure to head down to either Kingston or Cascade pier (dependent on the weather) and have a look. It's a rare opportunity to see the skills of both builders and crew as they navigate often delicate balancing acts. And of course to witness something that has remained unchanged for 150 years.