Suwarrow Atoll – Cook Islands - Atlas Obscura

Suwarrow Atoll

Cook Islands

A desert island with both a buried treasure and a famous castaway. 


In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a little atoll where one man spent almost two decades living alone.

There’s evidence Suwarrow was inhabited by Ancient Polynesians, but by the time the Russian ship Suvarov (which the atoll derives its name from) arrived on its shores in the 19th century no one was living there. It became a stopping point for ships traversing the Pacific, and the lore surrounding it contributed to the platonic ideal of a desert island.

In the mid-19th century, there were two separate occasions of treasure discovery. The first was when sailors making a pit stop discovered a box containing NZ$15,000 in coins. The second was when a New Zealander found Spanish pieces of eight buried in a turtle’s nest. After a fight, the finder was forced to leave the coins behind on the atoll, and they have never been found again. Later, during World War II, the island was a station for coastwatchers. They were evacuated during a hurricane, but not before author and coastwatcher Robert Dean Frisbie wrote about isolated life on the island in the fantastically-named Island of Desire. The evacuation had been hurried, so water tanks, shelters, pigs, and chickens were left behind.

It was Frisbie’s book that inspired Tom Neale to undertake his castaway quest. He was dropped off on Suwarrow in 1952 with all the provisions he could carry and two cats (to catch Polynesian rats). He lived there for 16 years in several incremental stays, each one longer than the last. Neale’s life was as plagued by difficulty as one might imagine. After spending six months repairing a military pier his work was destroyed by a storm overnight. Neale was once semi-paralyzed by arthritic pain for four days before being rescued by passing yachters. But he kept returning to Suwarrow, ultimately completely a decade-long stay between 1967 and 1977. His memoir, An Island To Oneself, detailed his self-sufficient life on Suwarrow, gardening, fishing, building, domesticating animals, and hosting various shipwrecked castaways. The book inspired several to follow in Neale’s footsteps, visiting him on Suwarrow and even staying there when he was away.

But Suwarrow’s days as a desert island paradise aren’t over. In 1978 it was declared a national park of New Zealand. Every five years the government hires two caretakers for the atoll who live on the atoll six months a year, tending to the plant and animal life there and residing in the huts left behind by Neale.

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