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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Echoes of Pigeon Island

 

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!


Click on image to view video clip

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 Cyclone 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

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 which is contained in the above YouTube clip.

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

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!!! (although a lack of professional challenges had something to do with it - click here). 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.

I never met Lucy Irvine but I've been in contact with her by email. She now lives in a caravan in Bulgaria - click here - which is a long way from Tuin and Pigeon Island!

 

P.S. Lucy has just sent an email to correct me: she no longer lives in a caravan but has moved into a yurt (which is something like a caravan but without wheels ☺ ) She also sent me two new links to her websites at castawaylucyirvine.wordpress.com and potholepress.co.uk.