TOM NEALE: ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Slow Life on Suwarrow
There are few among us – that is, the adventurous souls who look for Tusker Geografica in our inbox each week and make travel a priority – who haven’t at least entertained the idea of permanently dumping modern civilization and seeking out a remote paradise in a far off corner of the world.
Starting in the early 1950’s, that is exactly what New Zealander Tom Neale set out to do. Neale was born in 1902 in the town of Wellington and by the age of 18, he had joined the Royal New Zealand Navy and was frequently traveling through the islands of the South Pacific. Some of his tasks included clearing bush and planting bananas, but while doing so, he gained a strong appreciation for the beauty and the slow life that the islands offered. When his stint with the Navy was over, Neale left New Zealand behind and settled on the island of Tahiti, in the town of Moorea. This would be his home for the next 15 years, where he would support himself taking odd jobs, while at the same time enjoying the island life. He eventually took a job as a relief storekeeper, traveling when needed from island to island. It was during this time that he met the famed author Robert Dean Frisbie, who entertained him with stories of the tiny atoll known as Suwarrow.
Suwarrow, located in the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, is located 577 miles NNW of Rarotonga. It’s one in a series of 22 islets that can be described as nothing less than paradise on Earth. In ancient times Polynesians inhabited Suwarrow, but it was officially discovered in 1814 by the Russian ship, Suvorov, whose crew followed a flock of birds directly to it. Ever since its discovery, Suwarrow has been a place that the adventurous have often visited and subsequently spoken fondly about. Fanny Vandergrift, the wife of famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, described Suwarrow as “the most romantic island in the world.” And Frisbie actually lived on the island for a brief period. In 1942, when a hurricane washed away 16 of the 22 islets, coastguards who surveyed the damage left behind water tanks, wild pigs and chickens on the island.
These elements, along with the will to live out a fantasy life that “God must have had in mind” for mankind, was all that Tom Neale needed to set out on his one-of-a-kind adventure.
God’s Intended Way
In 1952, after a long and difficult search, Neale was able to find a boat that would be passing Suwarrow and that he could book passage on. Setting out to live out the rest of his days on the island, the boat dropped him off with nothing more than two cats and whatever supplies he could scrape together on the nearest islet of Anchorage.
At first, Neale was pleased to find the pigs and chickens that had been left behind, but it turned out that the pigs were a liability in that they not only destroyed the local vegetation, but also made planting a garden impossible. Neale proceeded to build a hut, spear the pigs, domesticate the chickens, plant a garden and repair a badly damaged boat that had been left behind. He caught fish and crayfish, and ate coconuts and breadfruit daily. He was surviving on his own, in paradise and enjoying himself in a way he had never done before. It wasn’t until 10 months after arriving that Neale got his first contact with humans in the form of two couples that arrived on a yacht. The British Consul in Tahiti had informed them of Neale’s existence and they came to check up on him. They only stayed for a few nights, but when they left, they left him with a new plan – to rebuild a pier on the island that had been wrecked during a hurricane years earlier.
Neale spent the next six months working on the pier and building it back up so it was like new. When he was done, he celebrated by taking the following day off. That night, a massive storm hit the island and destroyed the pier within a few hours. Neale soldiered on and went back to his previous relaxed lifestyle on the island. Three months later, while on his boat, he threw his anchor in the water and simultaneously threw out his back. In agony, he fought to make his way back to his hut and spent the next four days laying there in severe pain. Another yacht happened to come by and when the passengers learned of his condition, they called for a ship that came and took him off the island. Doctors informed Neale that his pain was caused not by a slipped disc like he believed, but rather arthritis.
For most people, this would have been enough to give up the island dream and go back to a normal life in the civilized world. Not for Tom Neale.
Decline of a Dream
Several months later when Neale had experienced a degree of recovery, he went back to live on Suwarrow. Though his back continued to hurt, he wanted to stay despite the wishes of the government who didn’t want to take responsibility for him.
He would end up leaving again before returning once more in 1960, this time getting married and having two children in between. When he did return, he came back with more provisions and stayed for three and a half years before voluntarily leaving. During this stint on the island, he received numerous visitors including some who had heard rumors of his death. One of the reasons Neale gave for leaving the island was the nuisance caused by a group of pearl divers who would periodically visit. He found them hard to tolerate and began to believe that the island didn’t have the exceptional solitude and charm it once had. Nonetheless, stories of his long stay on the island inspired countless others to attempt to live on the island at different periods of time, though most did not possess Neale’s survival techniques and instincts that allowed him to maintain his lifestyle there for so long.
Ultimately, Neale’s love for Suwarrow was so strong that he actually returned to the island once more before leaving due to stomach cancer, which took his life in 1977.
Tom Neale’s adventures in the South Pacific are not only proof of his fearlessness, exceptionally strong will and determination, but also his open mind and open heart, which are critical to being a true adventurer. Neale did on his own what few others have attempted to do and he is an inspiration to anyone who dreams of living a simpler existence in a place of great beauty.
If you feel inspired by Neale and the island life happens to tickle your fancy, then perhaps the next time you trek Kilimanjaro with Tusker Trail, you’ll want to head for Zanzibar Island, which lies off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean and is a bona fide journey back in time.
If you’re open to the possibility, there’s no doubt a unique adventure awaits you.