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Friday, January 20, 2017

Thereby hangs another tale

Click here for a GOOGLE-view 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, is now in his early 50s 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 - see here, times had not been easy: their daughter Tasha, born 1958, was mentally retarded and is living 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

Thankfully, they were then already 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 simple webpage (which has since been replaced by this one) 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".

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 the 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.

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 in August 2003, 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