Suwarrow - a national park at the end of the world

Category: Ships Log
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August 14th - August 26th

Exploring the island paradise of Tom Neale


Can you imagine quitting your job, saying goodbye to family and friends and hitching a ride on a boat to a remote uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific? And this is not a short vacation trip. You will stay on the island for several years and live off the land, which can be challenging on a flat coral island covered with mostly coconut palms. While this sounds like a harsh punishment to some, it is a life long dream for others. There is one guy who really did it and it happened on Suwarrow, one of the northern Cook Islands. Tom Neale, a Kiwi by birth, worked in the South Pacific as a shopkeeper before he followed his dream and hitched a ride to beautiful Suwarrow where he lived alone, off and on, between the 1950s and 1970s. If you are interested in how you can survive in such a remote place you are in luck because Tom Neale wrote a book about his experiences called “An Island to Oneself”. It can be easily found and downloaded online - for example here: An Island to Oneself

Thanks to Tom Neale, Suwarrow is quite well known now among adventurers and cruisers. Plus, it was made into a national park during the last decade. When planning our route to Fiji, we decided we had to stop and check it out.


The 7-day passage from Bora Bora to Suwarrow was quite challenging with large waves, very light winds, and occasional strong squalls. One of those squalls ripped our embattled genoa and now it has a huge hole in it. Anyway with lots of help from our engine we made it to Suwarrow and entered the pass into the lagoon without any problem. The one and only anchorage in the atoll is behind the appropriately named Anchorage island and when we arrived it was populated by only two boats, plus a third boat that was clearly sitting on the reef - but more about this later. We found a small sandy spot to drop our anchor among the many coral heads and we fell into a well deserved sleep. Next morning we got to know Harry, the friendly caretaker who lives here from May to October with his wife, Vaine. Together they take care of the national park and all the check-in formalities for the arriving cruising boats. A part of the check in procedure involved spraying the cabin of our boat, which we didn’t like too much, but it was quick and painless.


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Our first view of Suwarrow when we arrived - still a bit rainy.


Next morning the rain finally cleared and we explored the island. We were delighted that Tom Neale’s house was still standing, and even got a bit enlarged. One part now houses a lending library for cruisers while the remaining rooms are used for storage. The caretakers got a new building right next door with a solid concrete frame to withstand strong storms. Tom Neale is also still present on the island in the form of a concrete bust that memorializes his stay. His vegetable garden is of course gone though, and sadly the fruit trees he planted are not doing so good either. The banana trees are history, 2 out of 3 breadfruit trees are dead or nearly dead, and even the coconut palms are having problems. This brings us directly to the sad epilogue of Suwarrow - the Termites. Nobody knows exactly when they arrived at the island, but they were most likely introduced with the importation of untreated lumber. Harry showed me what termites can do by examining the last remaining breadfruit tree. Those little insects are literally eating the tree alive, bit by bit. And there is nothing anyone can do about it since spraying an entire national park with insect killer is of course not an option. The termites also killed the other fruit trees that were planted by Tom, and they hurt the coconut palms as well by reducing the amount of nuts produced. After Tom was gone, the island was used for harvesting copra (dried coconut) but that is not economic anymore due to the termites. This is sad, but eventually it led to Suwarrow becoming a national park to prevent further injury to the atoll, which is an important nesting ground for brown noddies, tropic birds, and a couple other species. We spent one day hiking around the entire island and quickly fell in love with the palm shaded beaches on the south side and rugged scrub used by nesting seabirds on the north side.


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Harry and Vaine, the caretakers at Suwarrow.


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The path to Tom Neale's house (on the left) and the new shelter (on the right).


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The lending library in Tom Neale's old house.


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The memorial to Tom Neale on the island.


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Hiking around the rugged north end of the island where nesting noddies and white terns abound.


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A brown noddy in its nest.


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A brown booby flying overhead. We didn't see them nesting on Anchorage island, but perhaps they use a different motu.


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One of the loveley beaches on the south end of the island.


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A rope swing which we couldn't resist.


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A view of Green Panther anchored in front of the island.


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Christian relaxing in one of the super-comfortable hammocks along the beach after our hike.


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Back at the beginning of our hike...


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The main beach on Suwarrow.


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Heading back to our dinghy on the coral/concrete dock.


In the lagoon, the fishing is still good and Harry took us out to fish the pass which resulted in several good sized rainbow runners (a type of jack) for dinner. The snorkeling in the lagoon was much better than anything in the Society Islands as well (the corals are in good shape with very little algae and no crown of thorns starfish) and we got lucky at the Manta reef, which is a cleaning station for those large rays. We snorkeled there one morning, when a gigantic manta with about a 4 to 5 meter wingspan showed up. It was the largest manta either of us had ever seen and a sight we will not soon forget.


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Chris testing out the new fishing lure he created (since all our good lures already got eaten). He seems to like it! :)


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Harry tossing our catch of rainbow runners on to shore after our fishing trip.


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Harry cleans the fish on the ocean side of the island and tosses the guts to the waiting juvenile black tip, gray, and white tip sharks.


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We were happy to see the corals were in nice shape here - no algae!


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A puffer enjoying his cleaning. I (Alena) watched the wrasse cleaning this guy for a good 5 - 7 minutes! The wrasse even went all the way inside the puffer's opercle to clean the gill filaments!


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The photo isn't great and it's hard to tell the size - but this was the largest manta ray either of us had ever seen!


Another highlight of our stay was the potluck on the beach, for which we all provided fresh fish and various side dishes, which included delicious uto pancakes made by Vaine. We learned from Harry and Vaine there are 4 different stages to a coconut, all of which are edible. The last stage is the sprouted coconut, called uto. At this stage the coconut has absorbed all the water and the coconut meat takes on a very light and airy consistency. Vaine uses this for the pancakes, which were similar in texture to potato pancakes. Harry and Vaine started the bbq and we had a very fine dinner while watching the tropical sunset. While we were munching our dessert (delicious brownies made by Alena and chocolate cake from another cruiser), Harry disappeared and returned shortly with two new friends he promised to introduce us to earlier. He brought two large coconut crabs and set them free next to a coconut palm (we read coconut crabs are actually the largest living arthropod in the world!). The large red and blue crabs immediately climbed up the nearly vertically tree trunk with ease, shattering my theory that those crabs have to wait for the coconuts to fall. Harry explained that the crabs love to climb trees and that they are quite long-lived. He estimated the crabs he captured were about 30 years old, but said they can reach up to 60 years of age! As a result of their long life, like so many other long-lived species, they mature late (at about 5 years of age) and are thus easily over harvested. It is good that at least on Suwarrow they are protected.


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The bbq potluck on the beach with our fellow cruisers and the caretakers.


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The sprouted coconut, called uto.


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Harry showing us the coconut crabs.


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One of the coconut crabs climbing a nearby palm.


After a lovely four days at Suwarrow, our weather files showed a strong system from New Zealand heading north and arriving at Suwarrow in a couple days. Although beautiful, the anchorage at Suwarrow can also be deadly. It is not protected from SE winds, and when SE winds over 20 kts start to blow, the wind chop gets pretty fierce, causing anchor chains to wrap around the coral heads. This happened to an unfortunate boat in early August who was at the anchorage during a 40 kt gale. The boat moved so much in the wind, their anchor chain wrapped several times around the coral heads. The scope of the anchor chain (length of chain between the bottom and the boat) became severely reduced and the chain snapped during the night. The boat couldn’t see where to go and slammed into a reef close to the anchorage. The boat is still there on the reef (with several holes punched in the bottom) waiting for a salvage vessel to come and get it. It served as a constant reminder to all of us in the anchorage what could happen and we obsessively checked our anchors several times a day. When we saw the storm coming with 25 kt SE winds predicted, we decided we had better move on. We didn’t relish the idea of a 5-day passage to Western Samoa in storm conditions, but we also didn’t want to take our chances in the anchorage. Alena managed to repair our genoa with the domestic sewing machine we have aboard so we were good to go. With a fond farewell to Harry and Vaine, we hoisted anchor and left Tom Neale’s island paradise to meet the incoming storm on the ocean.


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Green Panther anchored in fron of Anchorage Island.


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Alena repairing the genoa sail.


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Leaving our island paradise and heading out to the ocean.



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0 #1 Mala laurin 2014-09-08 06:53
great reports!!

mala and Dean

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