One writer takes a trip to one of the most remote islands in the world.
One writer takes a trip to one of the most remote islands in the world.
One writer takes a trip to one of the most remote islands in the world. (Photo: Alison Van Houten)

Welcome to Palmerston Island, Population 35

Reachable only by boat, this remote Pacific atoll is inhabited by descendants of a footloose Englishman. The idyllic vibe is unmistakable, but it's tested by the realities of living in a very vulnerable place in a warming world.

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When our 38-foot sloop approached Palmerston at dawn one September morning, more than 200 miles from the nearest speck of land, we’d been staring down squalls on the South Pacific for five days and nights. We hadn’t seen a soul since departing from Bora Bora 800 miles ago, but we knew we were close when we noticed the phrase “Kiss My Arse Rock” on the chart plotter.

I had jumped on Serena three weeks earlier to help my dad, a seasoned amateur sailor, crew a zigzagging passage of roughly 1,500 miles from French Polynesia’s Society Islands to Tonga. Joined by a third crewmate, Mason, an olive-skinned 22-year-old, we decided to make Palmerston our stopover in the Cook Islands, based on the hearty recommendation of two fellow California sailors we’d befriended. Per our cruising manual’s instructions, we had e-mailed our potential host, Edward John Dick Marsters, and quickly heard back that we would be welcome—especially if we brought tobacco.

Now, as we near the barrier reef encircling the atoll, an outboard-powered aluminum skiff approaches, carrying three middle-aged men. A sturdy islander clad in a rust-colored Budweiser tee and Lilliputian purple shorts guides the dinghy close. He helps us tie onto a mooring ball anchored on the coral shelf before introducing himself as Edward Marsters, chief of police.

Ed and his brother, Goodley Marsters—Palmerston’s agricultural inspector—stay aboard the dinghy, fending it off Serena’s carbon hull, while the customs officer, Arthur Neale, boards our vessel. Ed winces slightly as he gingerly flexes a knee. “Too much judo,” he explains through a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache.

This is a place where the traditional advice for cyclones is to lash yourself to a coconut tree on Refuge Hill, the island’s high point at just under 20 feet.

Arthur is a sprightly sailor who turns out to be the son of a Palmerston woman and Tom Neale, a now deceased Kiwi known for living as a hermit on the Cook Island of Suwarrow, just to the north. He sits cross-legged on the deck, carefully pinning down our documents so they don’t flutter away as he scribbles on the immigration forms.

The shallow channel through the reef is impassable for yachts, so my dad, Mason, and I are invited into the skiff to go ashore. The men from Palmerston chivalrously use a life jacket to protect me from spray as we navigate the waves roiling over the rocks. A series of anchored sticks guide Ed through the deepest part of the pass, but I get the sense that any of these men could find their way through with their eyes shut. Though the wind must be blowing at more than 20 miles per hour, Ed pauses, and the five of us watch him roll a cigarette.

Looking back over his shoulder at Serena bouncing on her tether just outside the surf, my dad asks how often the winds turn westerly—a potential catastrophe, since the only moorings are on the west side of the reef. “When they turn west,” Ed deadpans. This is a place where the traditional advice for cyclones is to lash yourself to a coconut tree on Refuge Hill, the island’s high point at just under 20 feet.

Safely inside the lagoon, we clamber out, splashing ankle-deep into warm, limpid water. Dad and Arthur help Ed drag the boat ashore as Mason, who’s been nursing some kind of infected insect bite on his knee, hobbles in behind me. We follow Ed across the sand, studded with sharp fragments of coral, and into the trees to his brother’s house.

Nearly 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand, Palmerston is 500 miles away from the Cook Islands’ capital and main population center, Rarotonga. The atoll has no airport or any commercial service by sea, but if you can get there, the islanders are happy to host visitors, usually in exchange for gear like nautical hardware and rope. Most cruisers bypass it in lieu of the Cooks’ southern group, since there are no supplies for sale here. Nevertheless, Palmerston gets several hundred visitors each year, during a dry season that lasts from May through October. Often relegated to a mere paragraph or two in guidebooks, Palmerston is known more for its unusual human history than its natural beauty, but it has plenty of both.

In the early 1860s, an English itinerant named William Masters arrived on the island, part of a wave of European missionaries and traders who flocked to Polynesia in the 19th century. Although the Cooks became a British protectorate in 1888 and were eventually annexed by the colony of New Zealand in 1900, the archipelago was politically sovereign when Masters was sent there by an employer to plant palm trees for copra, a form of dried coconut from which oil can be extracted.

Masters had left England for the American goldfields in his early twenties and spent the subsequent years plying the South Pacific, working jobs thought to range from carpenter to interpreter. He came to Palmerston by way of Penrhyn, an atoll in the northern group of the Cooks. There he married a chief’s daughter named Akakaingaro, who he called Sarah. He brought her to Palmerston, as well as her cousin, Tepou, who is recognized as his second spouse, though Masters had previously fathered children with a third woman from Penrhyn named Arehata. Between those three and his third official Polynesian wife, a Penrhyn native named Matavia, Masters sired 23 children. (He also sired several before leaving England.) Today almost everyone on Palmerston can trace their roots back to Masters, with some influx from other islands.

While polygamy was not unusual in Polynesian cultures, Palmerston’s history is unique. Even on Pitcairn—the isle between French Polynesia and Easter Island that was famously settled by the mutinous crew of the Bounty in 1790—at least four original families have yielded its present-day population of about 50.

It’s difficult to understand why an expat would choose to live out his days in such a sequestered locale—until you go to Palmerston yourself.

Masters was well suited to being a patriarch. Known to this day as “Father” by his distant descendants, he instituted marriage policies and other forward-thinking practices that are still in effect, like an annual bosun bird hunt, his take on the Cooks’ traditional ra’ui conservation culture. On the first Saturday of June, the islanders catch enough fowl to give each person exactly half a bird. Hunting the long-tailed white seabirds outside of this ritual is forbidden, a way of ensuring that healthy flocks exist in the future. Masters’s fears about food supplies were legitimate: despite his conservationist attitude, he died on Palmerston in 1899 from malnutrition, a fairly common fate at the time.

It’s difficult to understand why an expat would choose to live out his days in such a sequestered locale—until you go to Palmerston yourself. Windswept coconut trees arch over screen-saver-blue waters and bone-white sand. A ring of named but uninhabited auxiliary islets, called motu, complete a circuit around the seven-mile-long saltwater lagoon, shielding it from the open ocean that surrounds the atoll.

All of Palmerston’s residents live on Home Island, the largest in the atoll, which is less than a mile long. The three main maternal families retain their own areas (in addition to their own motu), with descendants of Masters’s first Polynesian wife, Akakaingaro, residing on the desirable interior.

Thanks to a combination of fishing, rainwater-catchment systems, and a solar generator, the community is largely self-reliant. But there are obvious downsides to this. Palmerston is far from modern medical facilities, and there are undercurrents of tension about the costs of isolation. For years, industrious types from New Zealand have tried to build an airport on the atoll. Some balk at the suggestion, worried that another pristine environment will be polluted and overrun with tourists. But easier access to the outside world is a tempting proposition—especially in light of the climate crisis, which unduly affects low-slung island nations like the Cooks. An airstrip could be the lifeline Palmerston needs to get emergency support in the wake of a natural disaster.

It’s a double-edged sword: an airport would have the power to both shore up Palmerston’s greatest vulnerability and destroy the atoll as it currently exists.

Thick stands of coconut and mahogany trees shelter a home we're approaching from robust mid-Pacific gusts. Pigs and chickens wander freely under a green awning that appears to be an old parachute, supported by the aluminum mast of a ship that ran aground. The battered hull still rests near the beach.

Simon, Ed's older brother, is waiting for us, casually swinging a machete by his side. He’s shirtless, and a potbelly protrudes slightly over the top of skintight navy swim shorts. His pale, kindly eyes are striking against his dark complexion as he invites us to sit where a table is laid for lunch.

Simon’s adoptive adult daughter, Terupea, tends to his 88-year-old mother, Tuine, inside the house. She sits chairbound and mute while the rest of us settle at the table outside. Terupea’s husband, Will, a schoolteacher on the island, joins us. A shrewd Kiwi, he settled on Palmerston in 2015 to help a friend renovate a house. He’d already visited twice, both times en route to Suwarrow, having been inspired by Tom Neale’s 1966 memoir about his experiences roughing it in the Cooks, An Island to Oneself. Will married Terupea in 2018 and is now building them their own home on the north side of the island.

It’s warm but threatening to rain as we drink sweet tea and devour curried chicken with potatoes, peas, and green beans. Although the islanders grow a few crops in small quantities—they harvest starchy staples like taro and sweet potatoes and rely on trees for breadfruit and star fruit—the soil is poor, and most of what’s eaten comes from the sea. They fish for black jack and parrotfish, both crucial for sustenance. The latter is exported throughout the Cooks as well.

“We have more than enough fish for our own diets,” Will says, explaining that other islands’ lagoons are affected by ciguatera, a naturally produced toxin that can render seafood inedible. “Demand for reef fish is insatiable in Rarotonga and Aitutaki.”

To supplement the Palmerston diet, they raise pigs and chickens, and a supply ship comes through every few months from Rarotonga, carrying luxuries and goods like rice, sugar, and lamb from New Zealand. 

I ask Arthur, a New Zealand national who’s lived on Palmerston since 2009, how he wound up here. “Like everyone else,” he replies. “By boat.”

As we eat, Will regales us with a story about visiting another island, Niue, after having been on Palmerston for months. Approaching it in a boat, he saw what he assumed were the glinting eyes of animals visible onshore. “I resolved that I would not make landfall until I figured out what they were,” he says. “Soon enough I realized they were cars! It had been so long since I had seen a car that initially it did not dawn upon me what I was looking at.”

Despite their remote location, our hosts are able to keep up with current affairs abroad via Wi-Fi. The Cooks are politically associated with New Zealand, meaning that Cook Islanders are automatically granted Kiwi citizenship and can move freely back and forth. Many of the young adults on Palmerston, like Ed’s son David, have lived in New Zealand to work for a while before returning home.

Aside from exports, government jobs are the primary source of income on Palmerston. Three family heads and an equal number of deputies form the Island Council, the local governing body. The national government also compensates Ed for his duties as the constable, for example, and Arthur for his customs work.

I ask Arthur, a New Zealand national who’s lived on Palmerston since 2009, how he wound up here. “Like everyone else,” he replies. “By boat.”

After lunch, David gives the three of us a leisurely tour. Ambling past the crude structures that line the main street of the village, we learn that his family is descended from Tepou, Father’s second wife. He points out a sandy graveyard, where nearly every tombstone is inscribed with the surname Marsters. (The r is a phonetic addition derived from Masters’s rural English accent, which you can still hear reflected in the curious Palmerston pronunciation of some words.) 

Peering at Father’s grave, I see his death date and age, 78—though that figure is thought to be off by as many as 11 years—followed by an inscription in Maori and one in English: “Blessed are the dead which die in the lord.” What’s not included is the rest of the biblical passage. “That they may rest from their labours,” it goes, “and their works do follow them.”

The next morning at nine, Ed comes out to Serena, where we’ve spent the night, to ferry us back for the most important social event on the island: church. Nearly every one of Palmerston’s 35 residents is in attendance. Ed is looking dapper in gray slacks and a matching button-down—but no shoes.

Following an hourlong Protestant service with roof-rattling hymns in both English and Maori, we return to Simon’s and feast on grilled lamb and potato salad before convening in the shade in front of Ed’s house, 100 feet away. I notice that one of the cracked plastic chairs is braced with a scrap of plywood.

“It’s a day to rest,” Ed says, as a fuzzy replay of last night’s All Blacks rugby match blares from a television inside. Two Union Jacks hang by the TV. 

By this point, Mason’s knee is so swollen that it’s shiny, and he can barely bend it. Though it’s the Sabbath—no one is even supposed to swim on Sundays—Ed phones the island nurse, Sheila, who makes an exception and does a house call. She declares it a boil and administers antibiotics free of charge.

The prospect of more convenient health care is a bargaining chip that’s long been used by proponents of the airport. Still, the islanders have historically vetoed development. Only one dissenter is necessary to halt the project, and last time around, about a decade ago, one of the families voted against it: Ed and Simon’s. Ed told me their mother had gestured skyward and said, “Doctors do not hold my life. God does.”

Located on one of the motu—the trees razed—the airstrip would desecrate Palmerston’s natural resources. “Think of the lagoon in one year,” Ed says, comparing the potential effects of tourist infrastructure to the rampant pollution in Rarotonga. 

There are cultural reasons for rejecting development, too. The languorous island way of living would not—could not—exist as it does. “We would not be sitting here now,” says Ed, gesturing at our impromptu circle. According to him, he was largely thinking of future generations when he opposed the airstrip. “But if my great-grandchild wants it…” 

But Ed is losing ground. Despite the fact that South Pacific countries like the Cook Islands account for less than 1 percent of our planet’s greenhouse-gas emissions, sea levels are rising even faster in the Cooks than the worldwide average. The ocean is acidifying—a detriment to coral reefs and the sea life they support—and rainfall patterns are becoming more erratic, undermining traditional farming and water-capture practices. Meanwhile, cyclones, which can not only damage infrastructure but also erode invaluable land via storm surges and flooding, are predicted to decrease in quantity but worsen in severity, facts that are all the more troubling when you’re as far from aid as Palmerston is. 

“It’s almost like, ‘Hi, guys, you need to do this and that,’ without the acknowledgement that it was not the people of Palmerston who stuffed the environment up.”

Tropical hurricanes have hit Palmerston as recently as 2016, with really damaging ones occurring only a few times per century. The island just built a new cyclone shelter with funding from the Japanese government, but if a storm does hit hard, it could be back to ground zero.

On a national level, the Cooks are taking basic steps to preempt the effects of global warming, like improving water-capture systems in anticipation of droughts and installing and upgrading weather stations to help fishermen and farmers get reliable, real-time information. Although the United Nations Adaptation Fund has poured $5,381,600 into projects like this, it’s a small comfort when a major storm is bearing down on you and your family.

“Ease of access would greatly benefit the Palmerston people,” Will says. He understands each side of the debate, though. “The more we expose ourselves to the outside world, the more we have to worry.”

For Will, the biggest threat to Palmerston is reliance on modern conveniences. “We are slowly losing our traditional subsistence techniques,” he explains. “Climate change will affect food production elsewhere, and in the face of resulting unaffordable prices, we will have no resort but to return to our traditional basic agriculture and foraging. If we have lost those skills, then a remote atoll can be very unforgiving.”

When I ask him if he worries about more acutely destructive crises, like severe cyclones, he gets defensive. “It is very easy to sound like a propagandist when you are talking about climate change to someone who has no motor car and catches fish with a palm frond, including myself,” Will says. “It’s almost like, ‘Hi, guys, you need to do this and that,’ without the acknowledgement that it was not the people of Palmerston who stuffed the environment up.”

Ultimately, he concedes that Palmerston’s way of life is fragile. “We try not to worry about it,” he says, “but we realize our vulnerability.”

As long as there’s a vestige of nonconformity on the island—someone like Ed, who’s willing to do things his own way, for better or worse—daily life on Palmerston will remain much as Father experienced it. Until the last holdout caves, there’s little that can change the fate of the atoll. So for now, we content ourselves on our wobbly plastic chairs, trying simply to enjoy the breeze as William Masters might have.

Lead Photo: Alison Van Houten

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