Suvarow Summer Camp- An Island to One’s Self

Welcome to Suvarow Summer Camp- your very own tropical island
paradise, complete with daily activities and fun for all the family.
Watch the palm trees glow iridescent at sunset, swim with
extraordinarily colourful fish in one of the Earth's last remaining
healthy coral reefs, get up close and personal with sharks the size of
yourself, learn to catch crabs, spear fish, make coconut pancakes, or
just hang out in one of the hammocks, find a spot of pristine beach to
read a book, or engage in quiet meditation. Whatever you are seeking,
you can find it here.

Suvarow Summer Camp. Welcoming to all and virtually free… to anyone
who can get there.

And what a gorgeous place it is. Tom Neale lived here on his own here
for six years, in two stints, between 1952 and 1963. He was a brave,
intrepid, resourceful, visionary, and very lucky man. If you're
interested in knowing more, read his book: An Island To Oneself (Ox Bow
Press), or download the full text from

We've only been here one full day so far, and two nights. I just rowed
Andy ashore to join a crabbing expedition, the results of which will
hopefully form the centrepiece to this evening's pot-luck barbecue on
the beach. I chose not to go 'though I'm sure it will be really
interesting. I'm pre-menstrual and just the site of the twelve other
dinghies coming ashore with day packs and happy camper smiles was enough
to confirm the wisdom of my decision. Some days I should just avoid people.

Suvarow is a national park, and nominally uninhabited. Two park wardens,
this year in the form of James and Apii, are employed to spend six
months here each year, from June to November, specifically to cater to
the ever-growing yachting community. The most important aspect of these
jobs, from a Cook Island Government perspective, is to ensure that the
strict quarantine rules are respected, to inform visitors of no-go zones
due to nesting seasons or other such sensitivities, and to collect the
US$50 landing fee. But the job goes much further, and everyone I have so
far met who has been here, or who is here, has nothing but overflowingly
good things to say about our hosts.

Which is great. If a bit weird. Like – take away all the bad stuff or
difficult stuff or uncomfortable aspects of everywhere in the world, ie.
the people, and leave just the paradise. Then pay people to ensure that
paradise is sustained. I guess that's the point of all National Parks.

Of course, the lack of language barrier here also helps, especially for
North American visitors of which there currently seem to be a majority.
(The two predominant nationalities found cruising these waters are
without doubt French and American.) And I also wonder if the lack of
local people is, for some, an advantage… no longer is there a need
for cultural sensitivity or an understanding of local politics and
economics. Just playtime in paradise.

There are loads of kids here too. More than I've seen, collectively,
since leaving Chile. Somewhere between ten and fifteen but it's hard to
count as they're always moving and reappearing in unexpected places,
like other people's boats. On our first morning, while waiting for the
official customs and biosecurity visit, we spent a good hour watching a
family with four kids rigging up a new kind of swing off their spinnaker
pole and then successively jumping on, falling off, being pushed off
and, when sharks were observed, rapidly pulling each other back in.
"Suvarow TV", Andy said with a big smile.

It is, of course, no coincidence that so many kids are here right now. I
imagine that two weeks from now (the maximum stay is a fortnight) there
will once again be mostly adults visiting. Unlike most cruising boats
who generally seek out solitude and a sense of isolation, families
attract each other and kids love to play together. So these groups of
english-speaking kids, ranging between 3 and 15, have clearly started
meeting up progressively more often since they first met somewhere on
the route from Panama to here. And, if I was a parent, one of the places
I would certainly choose to rendezvous with other families would be
Suvarow. Great for the kids, great for the parents, everyone's a winner.

Thankfully we had some warning that we wouldn't be the only ones here.
Every morning on the radio net we could hear boats giving their position
and destination: Suvarow. And given that at any time there will be
between eight and eighteen boats visiting, each usually with a couple on
board and sometimes a brood of offspring, the resultant summer camp
feeling is just about the best solution I can imagine. The only island
you can anchor by is not large- on a twenty minute amble around its
perimeter shortly before sunset we met three other couples
circumnavigating in the other direction (maybe there's a direction you
need to go so as to not bump into each other?), as well as another four
people at 'shark bay' where you can see black tip and grey sharks
swimming very shallow, very close to the shore. So rather than pretend
to avoid each other, best to get to know each other and have a good time.

I hear the outboard of an inflatable dinghy approach the boat, and
Italian voices calling. "Hallo? Hallo? Andy askk that we brring him his
maskk and finss." So lyrical.

Oh. So you're going swimming? Crabbing doesn't happen on shore? We
thought it was coconut crabs in holes. "Yess, we go over therre. I don't
know wherre exactaly, but they say aboutt fourr hourrs. Is a pity you're
not well." I tell them I'm fine. "Oh, really? You wanna come?"

I do consider this for a nanomoment. Swimming is an entirely different
thing. In a lagoon you can have thirty people snorkeling and still feel
entirely alone with nature. And the lagoon here, by the way, is
enormous. Absolutely vast (between 6 and 8 miles across at all points).
Unfortunately we can't visit most of it due to nesting birds on the
beaches, and the fact that it's mostly too shallow for the reach of
Zephyrus, and too far for the reach of our rowboat… so once again the
only way to see these places is to go collectively. Which I can see they
currently are: about six dinghies are all zooming across the lagoon to
somewhere beyond my imagination.

No, I'll stay. I am, after all, still liable to be a grump and would
have to throw things together pretty quickly. I'm more in the mood for
moving very slowly, walking like an old woman, and generally giving
myself large doses of my own tea and sympathy.

The zodiacs whizz off into the distance.

Hang on. Has the entire population of the bay really just left the
island? I feel myself energising already. I have the island to myself?
For four glorious hours? Suvarow Island all to myself? That's pretty
amazing. Hell, to share it with only thirty or forty other people is
pretty amazing. It's an amazing place.

Time to pack. Bikini (although if it's really empty maybe I won't even
need that?), mask and snorkel, book, a spot of lunch, washing stuff.
Apparently there's a fresh water shower here that was rigged up by
yachties for the wardens earlier in the season . When visiting our boat
said wardens took one look at our 1 litre bottle with holes in the lid
and spontaneously offered us the complete use of their facilities. That
was after bursting out loud in laughter and saying with a chuckle,
"jeez, if we had to wash with that it would take us all day!" (Cook
Islanders are typically not petite folk.)

Andy returned from the crab hunt a happy man. It was on land after all,
but far away from the main island. From what I gather he spent most of
the day with the four-child family anchored near us, reaching elbow deep
into holes and underneath rocks, wrestling with enormous crabs while one
of the kids poked at it from the other side.

In total the group returned with eighteen crabs for dinner. Does this
not, um, effect the local crab population?, I ask one of the wardens as
gently as I can in the evening. The irony is not lost on us that,
indeed, had the wardens not taken people crabbing then no crabs would
have been caught today, or any other day. Yes, and no. They're keeping a
pretty good eye on crab population and sizes on the various islands, and
have restricted crabbing on most… and, let's face it, if it wasn't for
the pot luck dinners then the wardens would have very little diversity
to their diet beyond local fish, crabs, and coconuts.

I further discover that during the months that there are no wardens here
other Cook Islanders visit Suvarow to go fishing and pearl-diving. I
guess this is the kind of National Park where humans are part of the
dynamic ecosystem. This works as long as numbers remain small and
catches, sustainable.

My day was delightful, as planned. I lay in a hammock and read, bathed
in the salty azure sea, had a shower, and listened to fantastic
classical music being blared top volume by the remaining warden who
also, clearly, thought he was alone on the island. Later on I was
cautiously invited to join those remaining for a session on preparing
coconut pancakes. To start with, find coconuts that are already
sprouting, with three leaves on the sprout. Crack it open on a big spike
(I was not a natural), and pull out the foamy white stuff inside. This
is what the milk turns into before it grows into the next coconut tree.
And tastes surprisingly ok. From there, grate the coconut, add flour,
water, sugar, and deep fry. Everyone agreed they were delicious although
I have a suspicion this was as much related to the frying and sugar as
the one local ingredient.

Since that first day we have totally relaxed into being here. Twenty
miles outside Suvarow the shaft of our self-steering windvane sheared,
meaning that we had no reliable self-steering mechanism. (For those
following our story, this is the same shaft that bent en-route from Juan
Fernandez to Easter Island, and that we replaced and fitted in Easter
Island.) The miracle of email, radio, and friendship means that in a
very short time a new shaft has been found, bought, paid for, sent to
Bora Bora and, we understand, put on a yacht headed for Suvarow. We
should therefore have the bar in about a week and can in the mean-time
enjoy legitimately going nowhere.

I can't help but smile realising that we've managed to get stranded in
paradise. Most people find themselves waiting for spare parts in the
shit-hole industrial corners of any given country.. and we are waiting
for our part in a place that has no people, no post office, and not even
a telephone. That's a skill.

Andy has been out spear-fishing a couple of times. The first time, with
a bunch of others (all men), he not only spiked some fish but also got
an amazing underwater sighting of a 50- foot humpback whale and calf
(15-20 foot), inside the lagoon. And he saw a turtle. The second time,
on a snorkeling trip with just me and two others, he caught three fish
that we all enjoyed for dinner: one electric green parrot fish, one pink
parrot fish, and one grouper, or maybe it was a reef-cod. Today,
following another crabbing expedition, there is another pot-luck so I
am, yet again, preparing cous-cous salad. One of the wardens laughingly
told me that the real reason why people leave here is that they run out
of food for the pot-lucks. I can well believe it. (Could we possibly
take a box of crackers and tin of sardines?!)

Me? I've been less active. More of a passive enjoyer of nature. The
snorkeling here is better than anything I have yet seen: warm salty
clear clear water, big fish, not too big sharks, colourful coral housing
clusters of tiny wee miniscule fish, small moray eels, big eagle rays
and sting rays…. and all this aquatic life extending for miles and
miles. On land there are zillions of birds nesting high in trees, just
as many trees and bushes, and all over the ground creatures scuttling
and buzzing: crabs, lizards, beetles, bees. But nothing very dangerous.

Thank god this place is so far from everywhere; it's so small it
otherwise surely would have been trashed.

I also joined the crabbing trip today but half the group, myself
included, went litter-picking. And a surprising amount was collected
from large gas bottles and science buoys to plastic bottles, lids, and
light bulbs. One of the kids even found a message in a bottle! All the
debris has washed in from the ocean. All in close vicinity of hundreds
of nesting birds and large fluffy chicks high up in trees.

Who knows what we'll do over the next few days, I can't imagine there's
a risk of boredom. I've even started becoming sociable again. Or,
rather, discovered some really interesting and sympathetic people, and
that it's really 'ok' to spend time with other folk from boats. Upon
first arrival I found the mass of people a bit overwhelming but I have
since been enjoying time with new individuals, learning their stories,
sharing in laughter, probing the point of it all, and life in
general…. just like summer camp.

On one evening we had dinner on another boat. As a special treat they
had chilled some champagne (they were apparently given lots when they
left, and have a fridge as well as the necessary storage space). As the
cork popped an analogy rushed into my head. Champagne bursting out of
the bottle, frothy and happy, somehow related to the spirit of the bay.
The lid of must-sees and shouldn't-dos has been released. No more the
struggle of a language barrier, no more the sense that we should meet
locals and not cruisers, and embarrassment of other (to my judgmental
mind culturally-insensitive) cruisers, no more the fear of
misunderstandings or cultural faux-pas', no more the foreigner. Like it
or lump it, one beauty of an uninhabited island (aside from temporary
visitors) is a freedom to be ones-self, and a necessity to accept others
for exactly who they are.

The two wardens are paid specifically to cater to the yachting
community. And they're having a great time. They're eating well,
laughing lots, making new friends, showing us around the island, and
being incredible hosts. They are both warm, friendly, and great
conversationalists (and conservationists). They strike a healthy balance
between engaging us in work (re-building the pier, collecting rubbish,
building a shower or stove for their base), and teaching us new skills
(husking coconuts, catching crabs, spear-fishing). There is even talk of
going camping next week on one of the outlying atolls, and catching
lobster there at low-tide. They build big bonfires, play guitar, sing
songs, live large. They show us ways of living off the land that their
own families don't even practice any more. They don't seem to resent us
being here, indeed, there's an argument that the place is better looked
after because of its visitors; the main attraction of Suvarow being the
pristine environment.

I have been enjoying one-to-one conversations more than the group
activities. Especially with some of the women and kids. To my delight I
have met two other women here who cook less than their partners, one who
has never made bread, another who was the money earner for the family
for the last fifteen years, and three who are still struggling with the
gender work balance on board and sense of identity-loss. What a blessed
relief. I was developing such a fear of being asked for my favourite
bread recipe or how I organise 'my galley' that I had started avoided
women cruisers altogether.

Last night was especially fun. It was Dave and Rayanne's twelfth
anniversary (yes, it's true, I have come to the most remote place in the
whole frikkin' world and found someone else with almost exactly the same
name as me. But I'm being very grown up about it.) and somehow I
volunteered to baby-sit the kids for a few hours. I rowed over to ask
when they might like to come over for popcorn and a movie and about
thirty seconds later discovered two fearless kids, ages three and six,
sitting in my row-boat demanding an adventure. So we went a-visiting.

First we went to Silver Lining (a French/US family of four) and were fed
tea, juice, and figgy biscuits while the three year-old girl happily
explored all corners of the deck and rails in a way that would raise the
heart-rate of even the most relaxed land-lubbing parents. Then we went
to Liquid Courage (two american men, middle-aged) where I drank a beer
and the kids played with pins and stuffed toys but sadly we had arrived
a bit too early for chocolate cake. Next we rowed all the way across the
bay to Broken Compass (two twenty-something Californian guys, twins) who
have a gorgeous husky on board that was a bit too friendly and resulted
in both kids clambering high on my lap and shoulders and throwing bits
of dried fish at her in order to keep her away. The sun was setting, and
we could see sharks larger than the kids swimming around us, so the next
two visits were a bit shorter. First to a catamaran called Zenitude (an
older Italian couple) where the little girl got to bounce on the
trampoline – gently and for not too long- and then to Tutatis (Brazilian
couple in their forties) who asked us all about our adventures.

"Tell them what you saw this morning", I encouraged the boy (age 6). He
looks at me quizzically.
"I saw a star fish?"
"Well that is cool, but I was kind of thinking of the bigger thing."
"Um- I dove for a fish?"
"Even bigger"
"The whales?"
Yes. The whales. That morning they had seen two whales leaping and
slapping their tails for several minutes just outside the reef. Every
adult who was there told me it was the coolest thing that they'd seen
yet but for these kids I guess it was just one in a long list of every
day amazements.

The sun was dropping so we had to miss the remaining boats (British,
Danish, French, and American) but were invited to collect Andy and take
the kids for dinner back on Silver Lining where the teenage boys did
most of the babysitting while we drank wine and either laughed at them
or ignored them. Around 9pm we returned to Zephyrus to play with Rocky
the racoon, make the bed (in proof that there really wasn't a bedroom on
board where they could stay), and read them a passage from The Hobbit.
"That's REALLY different from the Bilbo Baggins story we have. In our
book he goes on adventures and meets dragons and everything." Ah, I
guess that would be the condensed version.

We return the kids home happy and sleepy. They had been in my care for
six hours and not a single peep of anxiety, squabble, or a whimper. And
I had never played with them before.

So. We are enjoying this bubble, eating well, making friends, learning
new skills, doing odd-jobs, discovering underwater treasures, and
generally being happy. A holiday within a holiday. Or a holiday within
an adventure.

3 thoughts on “Suvarow Summer Camp- An Island to One’s Self

  1. I read Tom Neale's account on the Jane's Oceania site – it's a fascinating read and very absorbing, and I'm very jealous that you're there on Suvarow!

    But there's just as much in what he doesn't say than in what he does. His first stay ended in 1954, and he didn't get back to the island until 1960. He describes those years as: "Six years lay ahead before I was to see Suvarov again, and frankly I cannot look back on that time without the most wretched memories of a continual frustration, knowing that it was only a bare five hundred miles away".

    Look him up on Wikipedia and you see: "He married Sarah Haua (born (c.1924) on June 15, 1956. They had two children, Arthur and Stella."

    Marriage + two kids = six years of wretched frustration… ouch!

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