Crusoes of Sunday Island
CHAPTER FIFTEEN — The Cyclone and the End
The Cyclone and the End
deprived of the loyal help of Bess and Hettie, his cultivations and plantations rapidly becoming overgrown, his flocks depleted by lack of water and pastures burned up in a season of long-continued drought, Bell at last faced the inevitable. In the closing years of the 'nineties, he said "goodbye" to the comfortable home on the Terraces, and with his wife and four Sunday Island-born children, Roy, King, Freda and Ada, moved back to Denham Bay.
Here they built new huts not far from the lagoon and its plentiful water supply, and gradually created for themselves a new and simpler pattern of life.
Although the Kermadecs had formed part of the colony for over twenty years, little was known of Sunday Island in New Zealand. Apart from Thomas Bell's long-continued and well-known grievance, no interest was taken in the island until 1907, when a party of five young scientists left Auckland to make the first complete investigation of the island's flora and fauna, geology and meteorology, and other features of native life. The party consisted of Mr. (afterwards Dr.) W. R. B. Oliver and his brother Sidney, Messrs. T. Iredale, W. Wallace and C. E. Warden.
Landing in Denham Bay, they were warmly welcomed by the Bells, who had had very little contact with the outside world since the whalers had ceased to call, and there had been neither wool nor produce to bring the island traders. The visitors' first job was the building of a group of huts for sleeping, eating and cooking purposes, and for the storing of their specimens. Several patakas page 182(food huts) were also built on high legs, protected from the onslaughts of rats by leggings of tin. Bananas were now growing well in Denham Bay, and the big, soft palm leaves were torn into strips for the sides of the huts, which were roofed with tightly-wired bundles of rushes from the swamp.
In their picturesque little settlement, not far distant from the Bells' huts, the young scientists settled down to a year's enjoyment of a modern Crusoe-de-luxe existence on one of the most unpredictable spell-binding islands of the South Pacific. The presence of five young men as neighbours relieved the loneliness for the Bells, and Roy and King took part in many of the scientists' expeditions. Well versed in island lore from earliest childhood, the young Bells, together with their parents, were able to supply the scientists with much valuable information. Several of the latter were keen photographers, and with Roy Bell, produced the first collection of photographs of the island, its bird and plant life, and the beauties of its forest and rugged coastal scenery.
The new settlers showed far more initiative and will-to-work than the Government's party of the early 'nineties, and it was not long before their food supplies were augmented by good crops of vegetables produced in defiance of the rats.
On one occasion, a rare delicacy in the form of turtle soup and steaks appeared on the menu. Green turtles were sometimes seen round the base of the cliffs, but were timid and exceedingly difficult to catch, as they dived into deep water the instant anyone approached. On this particular occasion, however, Roy Bell sighted the creature while standing on the rocks at the foot of the Denham Bay cliffs. Taking careful aim with his rifle, he beat the turtle by a trigger snap. It sank to the sea-bed, but was quickly brought up with grappling hooks. When cut up and cooked, it yielded no less than two kerosene tins-full of delicious meat, and almost two tins of fat, which was page 183 rendered down for cooking purposes. The head was cut off and preserved as a specimen.
No ship called at Denham Bay during the year the scientists were on the island, and only once did they catch a glimpse of a steamer passing far out to sea.
All too soon the Hinemoa's whistle sounded, and early in November 1908, the scientists were taken aboard with all their cases, boxes, and tins of specimens. Yet another party of Crusoes waved their farewells as the steamer moved out of the Bay, leaving the Bell family in sole possession of their lonely island once more. But this time the farewells carried only the happiest of memories.
Dr. Oliver has put it on record that during the time his party was in Denham Bay, the Bells were growing yams, taro, potatoes, maize, kumaras, tomatoes, tobacco, oranges, lemons, bananas, citrons, melons, peaches, coffee, mulberries and peanuts. Surely an amazing achievement in ground which the Government settlers had condemned as mostly pumice, barren, and utterly useless for gardening purposes.
Immediately after the departure of the scientists, Roy Bell began to keep a diary, entries from which give a vivid picture of the family's last years on the island, and of the catastrophe that finally drove them from their false Eden.
For nearly eighteen months, the entries deal mainly with erratic weather conditions, incessant rain and tropical heat; almost daily visits to the North Beach homestead gardens for bananas which still grew more plentifully there than in the Bay; descriptions of trips all over the island in search of shells, birds, butterflies, and insects for the diarist's collection of specimens.
The game was almost played out when on March 30, 1910, Roy wrote in his diary:
"Strong, heavy rain all day. Seas immense, and the whole island one mass of fog. We think it is a cyclone sea."page 184
A few days later, disaster struck in the form of some strange combination of cyclone and waterspout.
"Light rain until sundown," runs the dramatic entry, "when a most unusual darkness fell, but nobody took any notice, as we were having tea. After a while I went outside to see what was up, and found the sky was black as ink. All at once there was a dull roaring noise, followed by several heavy gusts of wind. Then came a splutter of Hghtning with some peals of thunder, almost drowned by the roaring, which completely puzzled us all as we had never heard anything like it before.
"All at once the full fury burst over us. Down came the rain in a way we had never seen. It seemed to fall in long strips. All the gullies in the cliffs at the back of the Bay became tearing rivers; in fifteen minutes the whole place was six inches deep in water and presently it deepened to two feet. . . . The water rushed through the house like a river. The walls were burst in on one side and out the other; everything was swept before the flood and carried out into the bay. The noise of falling rocks and landslides and the roaring of the rain was so terrific that we could not hear each other speak. This went on for four hours. Then the water began to fall away and the rain lessened. When morning came, it had stopped, although the sky still looked black."
After the collapse of their house, the Bells made their way through the storm to the shelter of one of the scientists' huts which had withstood its fury. Here they camped until new huts were built. Denham Bay presented a scene of complete devastation the morning after the disaster. The swamp level had risen until most of the huts were three feet deep under water. The patakas and boat-shed had been washed out to sea, and the boat was buried in mud. Worst of all, the gardens were completely destroyed, being covered to a depth of five feet beneath rocks, logs, mud and debris brought down in landslides from the page 185 cliffs. All that was left in the way of food was a few bunches of bananas, and some yams and other food stored in one of the patakas. The storm had also wrought havoc with the bird life in Denham Bay. The diarist wrote on April 10:
"All through the night we had heard the birds crying out in great distress. The beach was now piled with their dead bodies," runs the following day's entry in the diary. "This is certainly the worst disaster by tenfold, of any that has ever occurred to us during the past thirty years." He concludes: "We have held a grand council, and the resolution is, 'off first trip!' "
But it was a full year before a ship called, a year during which the Bell saga drew sadly to an end just as it had begun, with increasing threat of starvation, renewal of the plague of rats, and weary day-by-day vigil as the family waited for a ship more than six months overdue.
On the brink of despair, Roy and his brother built a raft of long calabashes, braced together in a frame. In other calabashes, they placed bottles containing letters describing the disaster and the family's need of assistance. The raft, which had a sail, was marked in red lettering "h.m.s. firedrake" and set adrift. It sailed quickly out of sight. "I have not much faith in it," wrote Roy, "but still, it is all we can do."
On April 6, just a year after the cyclone, the long-awaited Government steamer Tutanekai at last dropped anchor in Denham Bay.
"The ship is leaving in half an hour," runs the last pathetic entry in the diary. "We had only managed to get half our stuff aboard when we had to stop. The rest must be left until next year, as we now have to go on board.
"Sunday Island has treated us very badly, and I am not sorry to be leaving.