Palmerston, on the brink of fascination and disappointment

On our voyage we tend not to create expectations of the places to be visited. We only have empty ‘mental’ pages ready to be filled once we visited a place. 

This was not the case with Palmerston. After chatting with other cruisers and reading about the place, we had involuntarily built an ideal picture of the place. That was sadly the cause of a great disappointment. 

Palmerston is an atoll in the South Seas with a particular history. About  half way between French Polynesia and Tonga, and part of the Cook Islands, this isolated atoll was first inhabited around 1850 by a crook Englishman, William Marsters and his three Polynesian wives. Together they planted palm trees, harvested copra and had a total of 21 children. 

Palmerston has a curent population of 34 inhabitants, belonging to three families. Everyone on the island is a Marsters. Marriages between family members are not allowed. When the time comes, the young travel to neighbouring islands to look for their other half. All the sectors of the Palmerston atoll are divided in 3 equal parts and all families live on one sector.

Unlike other Cook Islands were the official language is Maori, the official language in Palmerston is English. The island is to a certain extent self governed, with minimal intervention from Rarotonga, the capital island of the Cook Archipelago. 

Reading the above, you will have made a vague picture of the place. I would be curious to know what that picture looks like…Because sadly our picture did not correspond with the reality at all. 

Palmerston is undoubtably a beautiful natural spot. The manta ray shaped blue lagoon is surrounded by white sand beaches and a number of independent motus (not linked by ‘hoa’). These are home to a varied vegetation (unlike Ahe in the Tuamotus) and numerous beautiful sea birds. On our way here, just before reaching the motu we were welcomed by puffing whales and whilst snorkelling in the lagoon we bumped into a few sharks. 

Sorin teasing the baby albatrosses
View of the lagoon of the main road

The atoll does not have an entry. Therefore boats pick up a buoy or anchor off the west coast of the main sector outside of the lagoon. Unless the cruisers have strong RIBs, which is not always the case, it is almost impossible to enter the lagoon with your dinghy, kayak, etc. Therefore the ‘hosting family’ picks cruisers up in the morning, hosts lunch, and drops everyone off in the afternoon. 

Because almost all contact with the outside world comes from the cruising boats that stumble in their voyage across the island, traditionally sailors were given a royal welcome here. But, as traditions are set by people they are also broken by people.

Tradition holds that one of the three families, by mutual understanding, will welcome cruisers, show them where to moor (pick up a buoy or anchor), arrange formalities, arrange transportation from the boats to the motu and back, host lunch and show cruisers around the atoll. 

We had a disappointing first impression. Eduard, the islander that welcomed us, was not the most helpful person. He tried to charge a fellow cruiser for anchoring, which we had read was free (as opposed to the mooring buoys). The place on the atoll where he landed us in his speed boat looked filthy: – garbage, broken engines, a part of a shipwrecked boat – overall an environmental and visual offence, and definitely not the best first impression…

Eduard showed no interest in sharing the island’s unique history. At contrary, our impression was that he wanted to prevent us, cruisers, from wandering around the atoll and meeting the other families. 

The outdoor classroom in Palmerston

Of course, we waited for the first opportunity to do just that. To our surprise, there was much more to see than Eduard’s filthy corner. Not far, there was a proper, but what looked like a deserted village. Around 1935, the atoll was inhabited by 200 people. The cyclone that year, saw most people without a shelter. They moved away to the other islands where they had relatives. 

The now almost deserted village in Palmerston

Walking around the village we came across the cemetery where William Marsters was buried along with other members of the Marsters family. 

William Marsters’ tomb

Whilst reading the tombstones’ inscriptions, a chap waved and welcomed us with open arms (and surely with an open heart) to what looked like a very authentic Palmerston Yacht Club. We felt like Alice having fallen through the hole! From a grim reality to a reality filled with fascination. Quirky Bill, assisted by numerous pictures and artefacts talked us through the history of the place to today’s regrettable reality.

We were saddened to find out that a community of only 34 people gave birth to a mafia run by Eduard, who forcefully has taken control over all contacts with cruisers. On approaching the atoll, cruisers call the island via the VHF on Chanel 16 and whoever from the 3 Marsters families make it first to the inward boat ‘owns that client’ – hosts them and takes the proceedings for the buoy. 

Since Eduard has the most powerful engine on his boat, he is always the first to reach the incoming boats and welcome them. Un unjust reality – for both locals and cruisers, who will be kept in the dark and will not be acquainted with the real Palmerston. A truly hospitable and enriching Palmerston.

Eduard and his brother standing by Mehalah whilst we are completing the check in process

We were invited to have lunch with Bill’s family the following day. We ate and we were treated like kings. We were impressed with the variety of the culinary delicacies served. It was a difficult task to persuade our hosts that we needed no cooked food to take with us on Mehalah. We felt so fortunate to have met Bill, his wife and their four children. 

Bill and his family hosting lunch

At lunch was also invited Arthur, the Island Immigration Officer, and Tom Neal’s son. Tom Neale, a modern day Robinson Crusoe, marooned himself for many years on Suwarrow, another of the Cook Islands uninhabited atolls. He is the author of the book ‘An island to oneself’.

Sorin completing the check out with Arthur

There is no bank, post office, hospital, hotel, airport or store in Palmerston. There are no cars, but there are scooters.

A scooter disturbing the peace of the tiny atoll

The locals make sure that they order everything that is needed in advance, once every 6 months when the supply ship arrives from Rarotonga with their goods. This, along with cruisers, is the islanders’ only contact with the outside world. The supply ship leaves Palmerston with anyone that may need to travel to Rarotonga or other islands included in the itinerary. The ship is also loaded with a significant quantity of frozen parrot fish that is caught locally and supplied every few months to the Rarotonga hotels. The white sand beach around the island is there, thanks to these parrot fish that eat corals and poo sand.

Parrot fish

Traditionally the copra (coconut) business was the money maker on the island but as of lately, this was abandoned in favour of the parrot fish catching. It proves to be significantly more lucrative. 

The anchorage was extremely uncomfortable, so our stop in Palmerston was short. After just a couple of days we moved on – destination Tonga, with a possible pit stop in Niue.

4 thoughts on “Palmerston, on the brink of fascination and disappointment”

  1. Bonjour les amis,
    C’est un formidable article sur cet atoll, on ressent bien votre désappointement. C’est tout de même super d’être passé par là. Merci pour tous vos récits bienfaiteurs.
    Gros bisous de toute la famille.
    Daniel, Virginie, Félix et Charli
    Marquets’family de Manutea

    1. Bonjour les Amis, on est heureux de partager nos experiences, et aussi que vous Aimez bien les recevoir. On espère qu’on jour on se revera en bateau quelque part dans le monde. Entre temps profitez bien de tous vos expériences à terre et en Manutea. Bisous à tous du Pacifique.

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