The most southern island of the northern group, Suwarrow is uninhabited for four to six months of the year – home only to 14 different species of seabird, hordes of coconut crabs and various other marine life, and a few kiore (rats), that have so far escaped eradication.
For the other half of the year, on some occasions for as long as eight months, the island’s permanent human population increases from zero to two, thanks to the regular arrival of the National Environment Service’s Suwarrow park rangers.
To my mind it must take a special kind of person to endure the sort of isolation promised by life on an island like Suwarrow, but head ranger Harry Papai doesn’t seem to think of himself as anybody particularly special, and nor does he see life on Suwarrow as something to be endured.
A ranger now for eight years, Harry spends six to seven months of each year working to “protect, conserve and manage the environment and wildlife on the island of Suwarrow”.
He also handles some general administrative duties and acts as a combination police/customs/immigration/health/biosecurity officer when it comes to dealing with those onboard the yachts that call in at the island to visit from time to time.
Dropped off by boat in May, Harry will typically remain on Suwarrow until November, although this stay can sometimes be extended by as much as a month. There are no resupply ships, and everything Harry needs for his minimum six-month stay he must take with him when he goes.
“You have to do your homework to get all that you need,” he says. “Otherwise, when you get there – oh, where’s the sugar? You can’t go get some more. You have to be fully prepared.”
What about any treats, or things like books and games that might help to pass the time?
“We take what we need,” says Harry simply. “That’s the most important thing.
“In terms of things like laptops, you take what you need with you to help you with your work. And also other necessities like medicines and so on. The things that can help you. Because you’re going there for six months.”
As far as food supplies go, Harry also supplements his and his fellow ranger’s diet with the natural bounty of the island – coconuts, fish, etc, and in fact says he far prefers to live off the land and sea rather than eating what food they’ve brought with them from Rarotonga.
“I don’t really want to eat what I’ve taken there, I like to eat what I can get – you know, what I can hunt and fish for.
“I love going out for a fish, just with a hand rod, or go out trolling outside the reef.”
And when I ask him if there’s any particular kind of food he misses, meaning food he can only get on Rarotonga – Harry seems to misunderstand the question, instead answering with what he misses from Suwarrow.
“I mainly miss the fish,” he says. “Because the type of fish here, it’s not the same as what we eat in the northern group. Anyway, the reef fish here is poisoned. I would never want to eat that.” Indeed, the only thing Harry really does seem to miss when living and working on Suwarrow is his family.
He’s solved that problem in the past by simply taking them with him, his wife and one of his sons having each served six-month stints on Suwarrow themselves.
“It’s peaceful,” Harry says of the island he calls home half the time. “It’s quiet. Not like here. There’s a lot of traffic, motorbikes, cars (here), that’s one thing. The other thing is I always like to get back to the lifestyle ay? Just get back to basics.”
While born on Rarotonga, Harry’s family is originally from Manihiki – his homeland, and he returned to live there from the late’80s until the early 2000s.
He says being a Manihikian is part of what makes him so well-suited to life on Suwarrow – and also what led him to apply for the job in the first place.
“I was actually looking forward to getting back to the northern group,” explains Harry. “It’s the same atmosphere; it’s just like home to me.
“I’d been to Suwarrow before. When we’d travel on the ship to come to Rarotonga or to go back to Manihiki, we’d stop by there. I stopped on Suwarrow a couple of times, there were other caretakers there then.”
Harry says he always looks out for other Manihikians, or others from the northern group – when hiring new assistant rangers.
“Because it’s the same way of life, the same lifestyle,” he explains.
“I’ve found that if we’re the same nationality – if we are Manihikians, then we get on well. But if you have people from New Zealand maybe – I suppose being that isolated on the island, people usually don’t take too well to it. ‘Oh man, what am I doing here?’ – that sort of thing, you know?
“I can understand that, but for us from the northern group, it’s just like being home.”
At 62, Harry is not far off retirement age, but says he will keep being a ranger on Suwarrow for as long as he can.
“I can’t wait to get back,” he says, a few days out from the May 12 boat departure that will return him to Suwarrow.
“It’s not so much that it’s ‘a good job’.I suppose it’s in the blood, you know, being up there.
“If you’re working at something and you don’t like the work, there’s something wrong you know?
But if what you’re doing is something that you love doing; well, for me, I like to do what I am doing right now. I love to work out there.”