Trainee's trip to the end of the world

Thomas Martienssen filming a child in the local school Thomas Martienssen got the idea for a radio documentary in the pub

Thomas Martienssen arrived uninvited and unannounced at one of the most remote places on earth, a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific. Five days later he'd been offered a visa for life.

Palmerston, in the Cook Islands, is a tiny patch of land almost entirely swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean. It's an island so remote that its 62 inhabitants - all descendents of Englishman William Marsters, who arrived 150 years ago - have to wait anywhere between about six and 18 months for a supply ship to pass by.

Getting there involved a flight to Tahiti, sailing for nine days with a skipper and weathering a bad storm during which the tiller snapped.

'So basically we were stuck in the middle of a Pacific squall with no steering,' says Martienssen, who wanted to get to the island to make a documentary for Radio 4.

The trainee journalist eventually turned up in Palmerston unannounced and had to do deal with some rather unexpected red tape.

'They didn't have a clue I was turning up. So when I turned up and said I wanted to film them and make an article on them, and a radio documentary about them, they said basically, "That's fine but you can pay us 10,000 New Zealand dollars (£4,922) for the privilege", which was a bit of an issue.'

Palmerston island

He managed to talk them down to 1,000 New Zealand dollars (£492), but wasn't allowed to do anything until all of the island's council members agreed to it.

On an island of 62 people, with three families, and two council members from each family, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there could be a relatively swift resolution. Not so.

'It's really weird on the island because everyone lives within about 50 metres of each other and they could literally stick their head out of the door and shout to the other council members and just get them all together on the beach. It would take two seconds.'

But in a process that would make bureaucrats the world over proud, first a big report had to be written, a meeting agenda drawn up, and then circulated to each council member. Plus it was a Saturday, and Palmerstonians don't work on a weekend.

Thomas Martienssen recording someone playing guitar

'They never really work during the week, but on Saturday and Sunday it's an [extra] excuse not to work, so they wouldn't have a meeting until Monday.'

As Martienssen waited for approval, there was the possibility that the trainee - who joined the BBC last spring - would have to return to London empty-handed. The genesis of the trip itself had originated at the well of all good ideas, over a drink in the pub.

'I got talking to a guy who sailed around the world a couple of times and when I [asked] him "where's the best place you've ever been?" he started talking about Palmerston.'

Martienssen decided to act on this tip, eventually getting a commission from Crossing Continents, with interest from On Demand, the online magazine, and TV News.

Tours in Afghanistan

If there was any trepidation about sending a 23-year-old trainee journalist off to the far side of the world, a glance at Martienssen's CV should alleviate most fears.

He served almost six years in the RAF, completing two tours of Afghanistan, primarily on the emergency medical response team. 'You basically hang around, someone gets blown up or shot and you jump on a Chinook, drag them out of the field and try [to] bring them back to life again.

'I think people trusted me because they'd know that I'd be able to go to Damascus and survive. Might not survive very well, but I'd actually come back.'

So it was with a suitcase full of cameras and 'more microphones than you can possibly imagine' that Martienssen awaited the verdict of whether he'd even be able to use them. 'I didn't have room for clothes in my bag, I literally had a pair of trousers, a pair of shorts and two t-shirts.'

For two days he met the extremely friendly locals, having to pretend he was just a 'bloke with a nice camera' and missing out on recording some conversations that were 'absolute gold dust'.

But when the council met they quickly agreed to give their permission, and even dropped the fee they'd initially asked for.

Inhabitant of Palmerston island
Queen's favourite

'They are really royal-friendly. They fly the union flag. They love the Queen, because Queen [Victoria] gave William Marsters possession of the island years and years ago.'

So when he suggested that Radio 4 is the Queen's favourite radio station, an educated guess at best, they said he could film for free. It also didn't hurt being hosted by the mayor, Bob, who knew the skipper who'd got Martienssen there.

He spent the next few days gathering enough material for the radio documentary, a video package, as well as 'a thousand pictures'. He also went fishing with the locals, who insisted on offering him numerous lunches a day. 'Bob was trying to fatten me up, so I couldn't get on the boat and he could keep me there longer,' says Martienssen.

Staying longer, however, wasn't an option.

Dry land

The tropical storm season was approaching, and typically lasts for five months. So Martienssen and his skipper made their exit just as the winds started to change, and even that didn't prevent them getting caught in a force 10 storm (force 12 being a hurricane) and having to 'hide' behind another island.

Martienssen recalls lying on his bunk at the top of a wave and then being suspended above the bed as the boat went down, and enduring this over and over again.

Now safely back on dry land, Martienssen's plan is to remain on it for as long as possible. His next idea is to track down a British Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike (now only manufactured in India) and driving it all the way back from the production line in Chennai to Britain.

  • You can hear The Island at the End of the World by going to the Radio 4 website.

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