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Sunday, October 4, 2020

My latest oughtobiography


Sometimes this blog turns into a bit of an oughtobiography of all the things I ought to do and all the books I ought to read (I was almost going to add the words "before I die" but I stopped myself at the last moment), with the latest book added to my "ought to read" list being "Sisters in the Sun".

Despite the bad review it received in PIM's July 1974 issue - click here -, books about my favourite atoll Suwarrow are so thin on the ground that it easily made it onto my "ought to read" list.

Suwarrow, and the other remote atolls of the northern Cook Islands are the "stuff that dreams are made of". Tiny islets surround turquoise lagoons, and swaying palms front white sandy beaches. The weather is warm, fish are plentiful, and the troubles of the world are far away, in both miles and thought.

When one awakens from the dream, however, reality takes over. Hurricanes wash over the low-lying islands every decade or so, fresh water is scarce, and fruits and vegetables are in limited supply. Medical care is minimal, and flour, coffee, paper products and gasoline arrive every three months, if one is lucky. Despite these problems, the simple island lifestyle allows one to reflect more easily on what's important, and what really isn't so necessary.

Of all the islands in the Cooks, none has quite the reputation for romance as little Pukapuka, 820 miles northwest of Rarotonga. Robert Dean Frisbie, the American writer of the 1920s, sought a place where no relatives or friends would cry, "Young man, you are wasting your life! Here you are, nearing thirty, with nothing accomplished, with no plans for the future, with no bank account! You must reform! It is your duty to help keep the Wheels of Industry moving!"

Frisbie dreamed of an island "beyond reach of even the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world" where he could sit in a cool thatched hut fanned by the tradewinds, and a native girl would bring him tall rum punches, and tobacco for his pipe. He found his dream in Pukapuka.

And he was on Suwarrow during the great hurricane of 1942, of which he writes in his book "The Island of Desire". Little Suwarrow is one of the loneliest islands in the world. Its nearest neighbours are Manihiki and Nassau, 200 miles north, and tiny Palmerston, 330 miles south. It's 590 miles, and a dozen lightyears, from Rarotonga.

The beautiful lagoon could fully enclose Rarotonga, but the five small islets total only a hundred acres. Like Penrhyn, it has a large passage into the lagoon, and yachts often seek protection in its sheltered waters. It's home to a million seabirds, thousands od coconut crabs, and hundreds of sharks. And six people. That's high for Suwarrow, peoplewise, as it's usually uninhabited. Except, that is, for most of 1952 to 1977, when the Hermit of Suwarrow, Tom Neale, lived alone with his chickens, books, and cookstove. Official reference books of the time listed Suwarrow as "Population: 1".

Tom Neale had read of Suwarrow in Frisbie's book, and thought it might be a nice place to live, assuming another cataclysmic hurricane wouldn't be in the offing for quite a while. In 1945 the ship he was working on stopped by the island, and he fell in love with the tiny atoll.

He soon saved enough to buy flour, rice, tea, tools and fishing gar, but the government denied him permission to live on the remote island, fearing a costly evacuation trip would be necessary if he became seriously ill or injured. It took him until 1952 to get permission to live on the island, and on October 7, 1952, Tom Neale became a modern Robinson Crusoe on his beloved little atoll.

For fifteen of the next twenty-five years Neale lived alone on Suwarrow, tending to his garden and his flock of chickens, and catching fish and coconut crabs. In 1966 a friend helped him publish the story of his early years on the atoll, which he appropriately titled "An Island to Oneself".

Long out of print and as rare as hen's teeth (a hardcover edition sells on amazon.com for $604 - and that's US$!!!), it's yours to read online at www.archive.org. SIGN UP (it's free!), LOG IN, BORROW it, and enjoy!

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