Tales of a Traveller: the Self-made Desert Island Castaway

Ever dreamed of a simpler life? How about one where every day holds promise of blisteringly blue skies, the sound of gently lapping water, the rustle of palm leaves in the breeze and little else — instead of honking car horns, the drizzle of rain and a cramped commute? I know which I’d rather.

How many of us ever actually do it, though? Pack the bags, sell the possessions and escape…

In 1952, New Zealand-born bushcraft and survival enthusiast, Tom Neale, realised his lifelong dream of living a simpler life, marooning himself on a deserted island in the South Pacific with nothing but a pair of cats, a damaged boat, some books and a few chickens. The island was Suwarrow in the Cook Islands, and in fact it was more of an atoll, uninhabited since the war and 580 miles northwest of the archipelago’s main island of Rarotonga. He was to live on this sliver of sand, on and off, for the next 25 years.

Neale had been something of an oceanic nomad from a young age, spending his twenties and thirties roaming the South Pacific islands and taking up odd jobs along the way. It was when he crossed paths with a writer and traveller named Robert Frisbie on Rarotonga, that his desire to escape to a life of blissful isolation was truly fired up. Frisbie had been briefly stranded on Suwarrow with his family during the war, and his fond account of it captured Neale’s imagination, prompting him to book passage on a ship travelling in close proximity to the island.

On first arriving on Suwarrow, Neale was met with a dilapidated wartime shack, which after a little fixing-up became his home. He would spend his days, from dawn until dusk, mending, foraging, planting and building, keeping himself so busy he said he didn’t have time to be lonely. Neale survived off a limited diet of fish, chicken, eggs and coconut which, it seems, suited him fine. Neale’s first stay on Suwarrow came to an unwelcome end when a back injury forced him to leave for Rarotonga, however, eager to cling onto his life of solitude, he returned in 1960 for four more years. Neale’s book, ‘An Island to Oneself’, published in 1966, is a fascinating account of these following four years. He writes in it: ‘I chose to live in the Pacific islands because life there moves at the sort of pace which you feel God must have had in mind originally when He made the sun to keep us warm and provided the fruits of the earth for the taking.’ Following the publication of his book Neale once again found himself drawn to his remote patch of paradise, and in 1967 moved back for what proved to be a staggering 10-year-long stay.

Neale and his shack (http://thescuttlefish.com)

During Neale’s time on Suwarrow he received occasional visitors: authors, couples passing on yachts, and pearl divers — some who already knew of his existence there and a few who didn’t. Although dubbed ‘the hermit of Suwarrow’, he welcomed the company, and many of his visitors stayed with him for days or weeks on end. For the rest of the time, Neale was, literally speaking, about as alone as one can be in this world. In 1977 he left his beloved island for the final time, dying from stomach cancer shortly afterwards in Rarotonga. Neale was to leave behind an entrancing legacy, however; that he had not only the passion, but also the strength, to spend a third of his life in relative seclusion, in a place many would consider to be — at least aesthetically — paradise on earth, is perhaps both unusual and yet enviable. The freedom and peace Neale enjoyed is a life many people crave to experience, despite knowing they would never have the resolve to make it a reality. And yet that is exactly what makes Neale’s story so enchanting. He was a man chasing his dreams: living the simpler life that many desire but never pursue. So whilst I, like many, can admit that I could never do what Neale did, it is a rewarding enough thought for me to know that someone has.

Tom Neale plaque (http://mistressvoyages.blogspot.co.uk)

Today Suwarrow remains deserted of human life, other than for the two caretakers who tend to it six months a year between April and October. The island was also made a Cook Islands National Park in 1978, although access is difficult and yachts require permits before mooring. So in every sense, Suwarrow remains the exotic and enigmatic fleck of an island that seduced Tom Neale in the fifties, and as for Neale’s story, well that has become something of a South Pacific legend.