Palmerston Island


Palmerston Island


PALMERSTON is an island paradise that will adopt you.  On this fascinating South Pacific island, all 62 residents are related, everyone shares the same surname ——– MARSTERS ——- and can trace their lineage to one British man ——— WILLIAM MARSTERS.

Located between the better-known South Pacific sailing ports of Bora Bora and Niue, Palmerston is the only Cook Island that the prolific explored actually set foot upon, although the clump of fifteen islands are named for him.  Cook dubbed the then-uninhabited atoll PALMERSTON.

Today, it is a postcard -perfect paradise with no bank, store or road.  Islanders have to travel 800km south to the largest island, RAROTONGA,  to find these modern day conveniences.  The island has the largest number of freezers per capita in the southern hemisphere.

Marsters landed on Palmerston in 1883 to set up a COPRA (dried coconut) trade with other Polynesian Islands.  He brought two Polynesian wives from neighbouring PENRHYN, and later married a third lady from the same island, producing an impressive 23 children and 134 grandchildren.  Before he died in 1899, Marsters divided the 2 sq.km atoll into thirds to give each of the three wives and their descendants a share.  The residents still govern themselves based on these hypothetical lines, and cluster their families on their respective chunk of the atoll.  Marriage within a family branch is prohibited.


Palmerston Island beach


White sand  frames the island.  Wind, rain and waves have slowly eroded the atoll, leaving most of it just barely submerged.  The highest point on the entire island is only 6ft high ———- a man-made mound called REFUGE HILL, where the residents cluster during summer cyclones.  Boats are still the only mode of transport to and fro.  A cargo ship from RANGIROA, the largest city in the Cook islands, stops by just three times a year to drop off supplies, loading back up with crates full of flash-frozen parrotfish, Palmerston’s only export.

Palmerston’s residents sometimes hop aboard the cargo ship, squeezing in alongside the freezers, to visit neighbouring islands to catch a flight to New Zealand.  The only other option for leaving the island is to hitchhike on a passing sailboat.  But the window for thumbing a ride is narrow : Yachts only travel through this part of the South Pacific from May through September to avoid cyclones and maximize the trade winds.


Palmerston Island people


Palmerston Island has a tradition of welcoming cruising yachts . When you arrive, you are met by a member of your host family, who will show you where to anchor and give you a lift to the island.  They say they want to think you are part of the family, but it feels more like you are an honoured guest.

There are some shared facilities on Main Street that are for the community.  Then, there is the famous driftwood Church that was damaged in the last hurricane, and it has been replaced with an attractive modern Church.  Marsters’ driftwood house is still behind the church, and gives a feel of the early structures which were built from the timbers of early shipwrecks.  The water catchment is an open community area with two large tanks that collect rainwater from the roof  for the community during droughts.  Most homes have their own water catchments, but after several months they run dry and the community system is used.


Palmerston Island homes


Palmerston is surprisingly civilized for such a remote island.  All homes have electricity from 6 to 12 in the morning and evening, provided by a community generator supplied by the government.  The island pays maintenance and fuel through a charge based on electric meters on each house.  Many houses have TVs and VCRs and movies are a big hit with the locals.  Almost every house has a freezer, though few have refrigerators and some have automatic washing machines.

The freezers are important, because the cash crop of Palmerston  Island is the parrotfish, which is plentiful and safe to eat.  They sell the frozen parrotfish fillets to Rarotonga for $14 NZ a kilo, which is a little over $3US.  It is a lucrative catch, but they have a big problem getting the supply ships to call regularly, thus they have a hard time getting their product to market.

It is a good idea to bring things for the people on the island  ———- clothes, staple foods like rice and flour, VHS movies and educational tapes and toys for the children.  Do not bring alcohol, firearms or ammunition, bud DO BRING fishing tackle and line.

Palmerston is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places on earth.

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2 thoughts on “Palmerston Island

  1. Palmerston is one of the most hospitable places I have ever visited and worked in the world. They now have 24 hour power provided by a solar power station backed up with a larger generator and even have street lighting.
    Bill Marsters and his family looked after us extremely well.

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