The king of hard currency

The island of Yap from the air: a wester Pacific paradise where almost everything needed to sustain life grew comfortably to hand.

The island of Yap from the air: a western Pacific paradise where almost everything needed to sustain life grew comfortably to hand.

It was a typhoon, or so it’s said, that cast up David O’Keefe on Yap in 1871, and when he finally left the island 30 years later, it was another typhoon that drowned him as he made his way home to Savannah.

Between those dates, though, O’Keefe carved himself a permanent place in the history of the Pacific. So far as the press was concerned, he did it by turning himself into the “king of the cannibal islands”: a 6-foot-2, red-haired Irishman who lived an idyllic tropical existence, was “ruler of thousands” of indigenous people, and commanded “a standing army of twelve naked savages.” (“They were untutored, but they revered him, and his law was theirs.”) [New York Times; New York Tribune; Watchman & Southron] It was this version of O’Keefe’s story that made it to the silver screen half a century later in the forgettable Burt Lancaster vehicle His Majesty O’Keefe (1954), and this version, says scholar Janet Butler, that is still believed by O’Keefe’s descendants in Georgia. [Butler pp.177-8, 191]

The reality is rather different, and in some ways even more remarkable. For if O’Keefe was never a king, he certainly did build the most successful private trading company in the Pacific, and—at a time when most Western merchants in the region exploited the islanders they dealt with, then called in U.S. or European warships to back them up—he worked closely with them, understood them and made his fortune by winning their trust and help. This itself makes O’Keefe worthy of remembrance, for while the old sea-captain was most assuredly not perfect (he had at least three wives and several mistresses, and introduced the Yapese to both alcohol and firearms), he is still fondly recalled on the island. It doesn’t hurt, so far as the strangeness of the story goes, that O’Keefe ingratiated himself on Yap by securing a monopoly on the supply of the island’s unique currency: giant stone coins, each as much as 12 feet in diameter and weighing up to four and a half tons.

But wait; we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the convoluted history that brought O’Keefe to Yap. More

The Old Man of the Lake

Crater Lake

It would not be difficult to argue that Crater Lake, in central Oregon, is the most beautiful body of fresh water in the world. The lake, which is almost perfectly circular in shape, in unquestionably startling. It sits at the top of a 7,000-foot-high dormant volcano and fills its crater. It is about six miles from side to side, a remarkable 1,950 feet deep (ranking it ninth in the world in terms of depth), and is almost entirely surrounded by cliffs that rise to heights of nearly 2,000 feet above its chilly waters. No rivers or even streams flow into it; the lake is filled entirely with snowmelt and rainwater, and though it practically glows indigo in the North West’s summer sunshine, its water is actually so crystal clear that plant life has been found merrily photosynthesizing on the bottom at depths of 350 feet.

What makes Crater Lake unique, though, is its most celebrated occupant: not a fish, not a bird, but a floating tree trunk known familiarly for decades as the Old Man of the Lake. More

An abandoned lifeboat at world’s end

Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, 17-20 March and 9 April 2016.

The unidentified whaler or ship's lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

The unidentified whaler or ship’s lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

LongreadsThere is no more forbidding place on earth.

Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.

What it does have is a mystery. More

The loneliest shop in the world

The view from the Birdsville Track.

The view from the Birdsville Track.

Harrods, in the bustling heart of London, is in a good location for a shop. So, for that matter, is Macy’s, which boasts of serving 350,000 New Yorkers every day at Christmas time. Whereas down at the Mulka Store, in the furthermost reaches of South Australia, George and Mabel Aiston used to think themselves lucky if they pulled in a customer a week.

Mulka’s proper name is Mulkaundracooracooratarraninna, a long name for a place that is a long way from anywhere. It stands on an apology for a road known as the Birdsville Track – until quite recently no more than a set of tyre prints stretching, as the locals put it, “from the middle of nowhere to the back of beyond.” The track begins in Marree, a very small outback town, and winds its way up to Birdsville, a considerably smaller one (“seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts”) many hundreds of miles to the north. Along the way it inches over the impenetrable Ooroowillanie sandhills and traverses Cooper Creek, a dried-up river bed that occasionally floods to place a five-mile-wide obstacle in the path of unwary travellers, before skirting the tyre-puncturing fringes of the Sturt Stony Desert.

Make your way past all those obstacles, and, “after jogging all day over the treeless plain,” you’d eventually stumble across the Mulka Store, nestled beneath a single clump of pepper trees. To one side of the shop, like some ever-present intimation of mortality, lay the lonely fenced-off grave of Edith Scobie, “died December 31 1892 aged 15 years 4 months” – quite possibly of the sort of ailment that is only fatal when you live a week’s journey from the nearest doctor. To the rear was nothing but the “everlasting sandhills, now transformed to a delicate salmon hue in the setting sun.” And in front, beside a windswept garden gate, “a board sign which announced in fading paint but one word: STORE. Just in case the traveller might be in some doubt.” More