Pacific Ocean

Suvarov, Tom Neale’s perfect island...

Published on 01 june 2015 at 0h00

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The Suvarov atoll (or Suwarov for the New Zealanders and the Cook Islands’ government) is situated nearly 800 miles south of the equator, over 500 miles north-west of Rarotonga (the archipelago's main island), and over 200 miles from the nearest inhabited island, Maithili. Needless to say, you might not find Suvarov in your atlas at home... A shame. Because Suvarov is an exceptional natural site, lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (13°14’S, 163°06’W) and is only accessible in a private yacht. The atoll, which measures around 19 km by 13, is uninhabited, but two caretakers sent by the Cook Islands government stay there for 6 months of the year, from May through the end of October. Since 1978, shortly after the death of Tom Neale in Raratonga, Suvarov atoll has become a National Park. Marine life there is very dense, and seabirds live there in their thousands. A Mecca for biodiversity. The atoll takes its name (slightly altered) from the Russian ship Suvorov, in which it was discovered in 1814. During the Second World War, the American writer Robert Dean Frisbie stayed with a few coastguards on Anchorage Island, the main island, situated close to the entry pass to the lagoon. In 1944, Frisbie, who had also lived on the PukaPuka atoll, wrote a book, The Island of Desire, which told of his experience of life on the atolls of this region of the Pacific. Reading this book, and his meeting with Robert Dean Frisbie at Rarotonga just after the war, finally persuaded Tom Neale to realize the dream which was most dear to him: to go and live alone on Suvarov. In 1942, a powerful hurricane devastated Suvarov. The coastguards were sent home to Rarotonga. They abandoned their cabin on Anchorage, along with some makeshift furniture, some water tanks, and a few pigs and hens, which returned to their wild state. The hens which live in freedom on the lost atolls of the Pacific have seen their morphology evolve sufficiently for them to be able to fly again, in a surprising manner. The pigs fed on coconuts, young shoots and berries.
Tom Neale moved onto Suvarov for the first time in October 1952. He was then 50 years old. He stayed there until June 1954, then returned to Rarotonga for a first time, ill. He was only able to return to Suvarov for his second stay in April 1960, until December 1963. It’s these two first stays in the atoll, the most difficult ones, which Neale relates in his book. A third stay took him back to Suvarov in 1966, for around three years. The fourth and final stay was the longest: Neale probably didn’t leave his atoll between June 1969 and his last departure for Rarotonga, in March 1977. The last words he wrote, to stick on the door of his cabin in Anchorage, were dated 11th March 1977. Rarotonga, where Suvarov’s hermit died on 27th November 1977 at the age of 75, victim of a cancer... Which just goes to show that living on an atoll, in the fresh air, and in a very natural way is no guarantee of not catching one of the nasty ...

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