Norfolk Island

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore Norfolk Island with Heritage Expeditions

Norfolk Island is an island of unspoiled natural beauty approximately 1,000 kilometres east off the Australian coast. The elegant convict-built Georgian buildings are still in daily use and the Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area (KAHVA) is now World Heritage and listed as part of the Australian Convict Sites inscription. Time moves slowly here.

An old volcanic outcrop, Norfolk Island has twon uninhabited neighbours just off its southern shores; close by lies Nepean Island - a small islet of coral and sandstone which provides a haven for thousands of seabirds and Philip Island - south of Point Hunter- is a volcanic mass rising to 300 metres at its highest point.

Norfolk Island's Botanical Gardens house a collection of specimens of plants endemic to this island. Endemic bird species to Norfolk Island include the Norfolk Island Parakeet and the Norfolk Gerygone.

Norfolk Island is a tax free haven of Australia, uses Australian currency, has Australian police and an Australian postcode but is very different from its giant neighbour. On Norfolk Island, animals roam free and have right of way on the roads here, and nicknames are listed in the official phonebook!

Besides English, the 1,900 Norfolk Islanders also speak Norf'k, a mix of Tahitian and 18th century seafaring English. The language originated from the Bounty mutineers whose descendants brought their wives and children to Norfolk Island from their original refuge in Pitcairn Island.

Norfolk Island has its own nine member government, stamps and customs and immigration regulations.


Norfolk Island can be visited on Heritage Expeditions' Western Pacific Odyssey voyage.


Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Norfolk Island is a volcanic outcrop, just 8km long and 5km wide with two smaller islands, Nepean and Philip, to the south. About 1/3 of the island's area is in National Parks and Reserves. The island's highest point is Mount Bates at 319m above sea level. The main township of Burnt Pine is at the centre of the island. There are no safe harbour facilities on Norfolk Island, so loading jetties have been built at Kingston and Cascade Bay. The climate is subtropical with temperatures ranging from 19 to 28 degrees C in summer and 12 to 21 degrees C in winter. The water temperature is around 18 degrees C all year round.



The earliest human inhabitants of the island were most probably East Polynesian seafarers who arrived in the 14th or 15th century, stayed for a few generations and departed again. Captain Cook, travelling on his second voyage around the world on the HMS Resolution, recorded encountering Norfolk Island in 1774. He was obviously taken with the place, describing the uninhabited island as "paradise" and naming the island after his patron, the Duchess of Norfolk.

It is somewhat ironic that this island paradise became a penal colony under Governor Arthur Philip in 1788. Prisoners convicted of second offences in the colonies and Britain were sent here to be punished. The convict era lasted until 1856, and there are many harrowing tales of the harsh conditions endured by those unlucky enough to be banished here.

In 1856 survivors of the 'Mutiny on the Bounty' and their Tahitian wives and families were relocated from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island and their descendants, with names such as Christian, Adams, Youngs, Nobbs and Evans, remain there to this day.

After the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, Norfolk was placed under the authority of the new Commonwealth government to be administered as an external territory. Government House, built in 1804, is the official residence of the Administrator and the oldest public building in continuous use in Australia. The ruins of the convict era can be seen all across the island at places such as Cascade, Longridge and Kingston.



Flora and Vegetation

Norfolk Island has 174 native plants, of which 51 are endemic. At least 18 of these endemic species are rare or threatened. The Norfolk Island Palm (Rhopalostylis baueri) and the Smooth Tree-fern (Cyathea brownii), the tallest tree-fern in the world, are common in the Norfolk Island National Park but rare elsewhere on the island. Before European colonization, most of Norfolk Island was covered with subtropical rain forest, the canopy of which was made of Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island Pine) in exposed areas, and the palm Rhopalostylis baueri and tree ferns Cyathea brownii and C. australis in moister protected areas. The understory was thick with lianas and ferns covered the forest floor. Only one small tract of rainforest remains, which was declared as the Norfolk Island National Park in 1986.

This forest has been infested with several introduced plants. The cliffs and steep slopes of Mount Pitt supported a community of shrubs, herbaceous plants and climbers. A few tracts of cliff top and seashore vegetation have been preserved. The rest of the island has been cleared for pasture and housing. Grazing and introduced weeds currently threaten the native flora, displacing it in some areas. In fact, there are now more weed species than native species on Norfolk Island.



Norfolk Island has only one native mammal, Gould's Wattled Bat (Chalinolobus gouldii). It is very rare and may be extinct on the island.


Birding Highlights

As a relatively small and isolated oceanic island, Norfolk has few land birds but a high degree of endemicity among them. Many of the endemic species and subspecies have become extinct as a result of massive clearance of the island's native vegetation of subtropical rainforest for agriculture, hunting and persecution as agricultural pests. The birds have also suffered from the introduction of mammals such as rats, cats, pigs and goats, as well as from introduced competitors such as Common Blackbirds and Crimson Rosellas.

Extinctions include that of the endemic Norfolk Kākā and Norfolk Ground Dove along with endemic subspecies of pigeon, starling, triller, thrush and boobook owl, though the latter's genes persist in a hybrid population descended from the last female. Other endemic birds are the White-chested White-eye, which may be extinct, the Norfolk Parakeet, the Norfolk Gerygone, the Slender-billed White-eye and endemic subspecies of the Pacific Robin and Golden Whistler.

The Norfolk Island Group is also home to breeding seabirds. The Providence Petrel was hunted to local extinction by the beginning of the 19th century, but has shown signs of returning to breed on Phillip Island. Other seabirds breeding there include the White-necked Petrel, Kermadec Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Australasian Gannet, Red-tailed Tropicbird and Grey Ternlet. The Sooty Tern (known locally as the Whale Bird) has traditionally been subject to seasonal egg harvesting by Norfolk Islanders.

Norfolk Island, with neighbouring Nepean Island, has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area because it supports the entire populations of White-chested and Slender-billed White-eyes, Norfolk Parakeets and Norfolk Gerygones, as well as over 1% of the world populations of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Red-tailed Tropicbirds. Nearby Phillip Island is treated as a separate IBA.




Anderson, Atholl J., The Prehistoric Archaeology of Norfolk Island, Southwest Pacific, Canberra, Australian National Museum, 2001.

Andrew Kippis, The Life and Voyages of Captain James Cook, Westminster 1788, Reprint London and New York 1904, pp. 246 ff

Nobbs, Raymond, Norfolk Island and its Third Settlement: The First Hundred Years 1856-1956 Sydney, Library of Australian History, 2006.

Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death: a history of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island, Melbourne, Hyland, 1984. (ISBN 0-908090-64-1).

Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, London, Pan, 1988. (ISBN 0-330-29892-5).


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