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Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Road Less Travelled




I first heard about Pigeon Island and the Hepworth family when I tried to find work in the islands back in 1969. Tom Hepworth had written a very enticing letter in response to my classified advertisement in the backpage of the PACIFIC ISLANDS MONTHLY, offering me a job as 'book-keeper' in his growing enterprise, Pigeon Island Traders. He described to me in vivid colours the sort of life I would lead if I were to join him and his family on Pigeon Island. He wouldn't be able to pay me much but, as he put it, neither would I need much money and I would have plenty of time to pursue my own interests and continue my accountancy studies.

I was sorely tempted but I was also concerned about my professional career and what "career" would there be with something called "Pigeon Island Traders" located on one of the remotest islands in the South Pacific? Instead, I accepted another offer from a firm of chartered accountants in the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea - and I have never looked back!

It was only in retirement that I began to recall my many wanderings throughout the South Pacific and around the world which led me to ponder what might have happened had I opted for one and not another of the many choices that had come my way. And so I also thought again about Pigeon Island and on the spur of the moment wrote a letter to "Tom Hepworth, care of Pigeon Island Traders, Pigeon Island, Reef Islands, Solomon Islands."

Some months went by and I thought no more of it until one day I received an envelope covered in a lot of colourful Solomon Islands stamps. In it was a letter from Ben Hepworth, the now grown-up son of Tom Hepworth, who told me that his father had passed away some years ago but that he and his twin brother Ross and his mother Diana were still living on the island. He had enclosed some photographs and told me a good deal about the island and invited me to visit them.

Ben, who was some five years old when I had been offered a job on the island by his father, was now in his late 30s and, apart from his secondary schooling in New Zeland and a short-lived attempt at a career with the Mendana Hotel in Honiara, had never lived away from the island. I was amazed at how this family had clung to their dream of living on a small South Pacific island for so long! From the time they set sail from England in November 1947, times had not been easy: their daughter Tasha, born 1958, was mentally retarded and is living today in an institution in New Zealand; they have had several fall-outs with their two sons, Ross and Ben; there has been continued trouble with traditional land-owners over their 2-pound-a-year lease of the island (signed Christmas 1958) which officially runs out in 2052; then there was the destruction caused by Cyclone Nina 1993 and again by Cyclon Danny in 1999 ... the list goes on and the words 'CAN'T GO ON MUCH LONGER' and 'SEEM TO HAVE RUN OUT OF STEAM' appear in Tom's diary more than once. They tried to attract caretakers to the island but failed repeatedly (the Austrian Wien family in 1964 was a particularly dismal failure; the Pearce family family ran off at the beginning of 1980 leaving the message 'JUST COULDN'T GO ON' hung in a bag on the cargo-shed door); they tried to sell the island in the mid-80s for five hundred thousand US dollars but 'the chains of Pigeon' kept Tom until his death in 1994 at the age of 84. 'Blue skies, fair winds, hot sun and beaches by the miles,' Tom once wrote about Pigeon, but 36 years was a long time for a man with cultural leanings to spend on an isolated island. We all have our fantasies but for most of us reality intervenes - but not so for the Hepworths!



Imagine living on a South Sea Island,
far from civilisation's worries,
and MAKING MONEY from it!


Ngarando-Faraway is For Sale!

This small resort on beautiful Pigeon Island only needs capital to become a money spinner.
Uniquely, Pigeon is leased until 2052; Tourism will take off when an airfield only 3 miles away is completed in 1988, and NOW is the time to invest.

US$500,000 will purchase everything on the island, including a profitable store, bar one acre to be used in their retirement by Tom and Diana Hepworth.

Tom's advertisement in the mid-1980s
Click here for a GOOGLE-view of Pigeon Island

Thankfully, they were now in contact with the world through the Internet and we began to send each other emails. Ben's mother, Diana, emailed me to suggest that I should come and 'house-sit' the island while she and Ben would go on what she felt may be her last chance of a 'round-the-world trip, planned for the year 2003.
Again, reality intervened for me but I did offer to put up a webpage for them to try to attract some other suitable 'house-sitters'. She mentioned that in early 1998 a Lucy Irvine had come to Pigeon Island and during her year-long stay on Pigeon Island written the book "FARAWAY".
Diana, with helpers, showing the book FARAWAY
Had I heard of Lucy Irvine? I had indeed! I myself had spent ten months on tiny Thursday Island in the Torres Strait to the north of Australia in 1977. Lucy had 'marooned' herself and her 'husband' on even tinier Tuin Island just north of Thursday Island, for over a year from May 1981 to June 1982 and written a book about it. I had read that book,
"CASTAWAY"
, and also seen the movie. Now I rushed out to get her book "FARAWAY" to read about Pigeon Island. After having read the book, I was somewhat relieved that I hadn't gone to Pigeon all those many years ago because far from living in a 'tropical paradise', the Hepworth family seems to have had more than their fair share of troubles. I have since had an email from one of the Pearces mentioned in Lucy's book: Another Pigeon Island tale

Since I heard from Ben in late 2001, I have been in regular contact with Pigeon Island. Diana was able to find some suitable 'house-sitters' and in June 2003, she and Ben and his daughter went on their overseas trip during which they contacted me from the U.K. and the US. While Padma and I were holidaying in Bundaberg, Ben called us from a motel in Brisbane before leaving on the next day's flight to Honiara. It came therefore as a complete shock to us when a few days later we received the following email:

Dear All,

My mother passed away at about 2.30pm on the 27th of August 2003. We were in a canoe, having left Lata about 15 minutes earlier, heading back to Pigeon Island after a 3 month around-the-world trip. We were still within the sheltered waters of Graciosa Bay when her spirit was taken. Mum and I had been talking 5 minutes earlier, but she left in a manner she had always wished for, suddenly. To me she appeared asleep, so it took a minute or so to realise what had happened. I felt her presence close by me as the others in the boat and myself tried to find her pulse.

She was buried next to Dad on Pigeon Island, according to her wish, in a funeral which reflected her long standing in the Reef Island community, with an overflowing of grief. Ross took quite a lot of video tape of the event.

Many of us have known the death of a loved one, like a hole that cannot quite be filled, a loss that cannot quite be redeemed, a reminder of man's mortality and God's omnipotence. Those of us who have a hope in eternal life can nonetheless put our trust in that some day, these tears will be wiped away forever.

It has been several days since Mum passed away, but I have not been able to inform anyone but our closest relatives until now.

To end on a bright note, Mum was able to see many of her friends, and her sisters, on the three month trip before departing this earth. It is a pity she did not get back to Pigeon Island before leaving this world, but our choice to leave is rarely left up to us.

God bless,
Ben Hepworth


"REQUIESCAT IN PACE", Diana,
and 'God bless' from all of us here at "Riverbend".


FOOTNOTE: Even though I never got to Pigeon Island, I went to Honiara in 1973 when at the ripe old age of 27 I was appointed Commercial Manager (they called it "Secretary" in the case of a Statutory Body) of the BSIEA, or British Solomon Islands Electricity Authority. I lived a gracious life in a big house on Lengakiki Ridge overlooking Honiara and the ocean beyond, all the way to Savo Island and Tulagi. A tall old Swede tried to get Tambea going which was a tourist destination way out west of Honiara and accessible only by 4-wheel drive and after crossing a couple of raging rivers. I was member of the Point Cruz Yacht Club and every day by 4.30 sharp the offshore breeze would fill the sails of my CORSAIR dinghy. Wednesday nights was Chess Night on the terrace of the Mendana Hotel and there was always a big do on of a Saturday night at the Guadalcanal Club (commonly referred to as G-Club). Why I ever left Honiara I'll never know!!! Those were my restless years and I simply couldn't stay put anywhere for more than six months to a year. During all those years of travel it was the people I met, the many colourful and swashbuckling characters, that left the most lasting impressions on me. And perhaps I did likewise to them, who knows? I just wished I had been a more widely-read person at that time which would've enabled me to gain a greater insight into the people I met and the places I visited. When I lived in Greece in the early 80s I visited Hydra several times without ever knowing anything about George Johnston who with his wife Charmian Clift lived for some eight years on the island. George Johnston is of course best known for his book "My Brother Jack" and I have read every one of his many other books since. When I worked in Port Moresby, one of the old accountants in my office was a Mr Chipps, and the whole office would chortle "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", every time he left the office without my ever realising that they were making a literary reference to James Hilton's famous book. And of course the same James Hilton wrote "Lost Horizon" in which he gave us the word "Shangri-La". Indeed, the Shangri-La hotel chain bought the rights to his book and placed a copy on every bedside table in place of the usual Gideon Bible. I knew nothing of this when I stayed at various Shangri-La Hotels in Malaysia and Singapore and I had barely heard of Hermann Hesse when I stayed in the suite named after him in the Raffle Hotel in Singapore. I visited Pago Pago without ever having read Somerset Maugham's short story "Rain" and lived in Rangoon before I had ever heard of Rudyard Kipling's "On the Road to Mandalay". Even Saudi Arabia would've been of greater fascination to me had I had the time to read Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". How much richer my travels would've been had I done all that reading earlier but of course as it was, I found just enough time to read the necessary technical literature to allow me to carry out my work. In those hectic days it was an almost unheard-of luxury to find the time to read a novel. Instead, I studied accountancy standards or IATA rule books, improved my laytime calculation skills, compared charter parties and worked through case studies in forensic auditing, as the case may be. To this day I am still fascinated by books about unaccountable accounting or the world's worst maritime frauds. BUT I have also found time to dip into John Donne's "No Man is an Island" and Boethius's "The Consolation of Philosophy", so things are beginning to balance out.

 

P.S. Years later I received the following email:

It was extremely interesting to read your blog – it would appear that I am one of the Pearce family that Lucy Irvine wrote about in her book and there were many inaccuracies – especially about leaving the message hung in a bag on the cargo shed door. What a load of rubbish. My husband left me on the island, sent his boys back to his mum in England and set sail around the world on an old clipper. Needless to say he only got to Australia before it sank – but there lies another tale. I stayed on Pigeon Island for another six months alone until Ross came back and took over the business. I couldn’t get away sooner as my hubby, bless him, had cleaned me out and I was too conscientious to up and leave the Hepworth’s business. To earn some money I opened up another store on the island opposite in Ngandeli. Direct competition to the Hepworths which didn’t go down well at all. Still, it meant I could finally escape that hell in paradise in July 1981.
What a dysfunctional and slightly deranged family the Hepworth’s were (are)! After living on Pigeon Island for three years and almost two more in the village opposite, I can tell you Lucy Irvine barely touched the surface in her research into their history. A lot of errors were printed in her book – but it made for good reading – as did your blog. I was sorry to read of Diana’s death but thought the way it happened seemed the way it would have been for her. I enjoyed maybe 10% of my time there – it made me a stronger, different kind of person when I returned to the UK and has made the remainder of my life one of thankfulness for what I now have and despair for the younger generation who have no idea of how the other half lives.
I intend writing my book when I retire soon of the life I spent out there. I began writing it whilst I was there but have never finished it. (Quite a few bad memories buried deep.) Lots of cajoling from friends means I may just take up the pen again and complete it.
(The advert Tom placed in the mid 1980’s about selling the island is amusing – he told us when asking for investment in the mid 70’s that an airstrip would soon be completed making communication with the outside world much easier. It still hasn’t been built!)
Again, nice to read your blog. You were sensible not going to the island………..
Carole Gibbs