Life in Salt: Tom Neale – A Look Back at his Sixteen Years on a Deserted Island in the South Pacific

by Carolyn Sotka

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Tom Neale. Image from his book An Island to Oneself.

In 1952, a man left his life of wanderlust to settle down. At fifty years old, it was time to lay some roots. After all, Tom Neale had been traveling the South Pacific for close to thirty years. But his new, domesticated life would be far from typical. Rather than a house in the suburbs and a white picket fence, Neale intentionally ‘stranded’ himself on an uninhabited coral atoll in Suwarrow, Cook Islands. He lived there, on and off for sixteen years.

The idea of living on the deserted Anchorage Island was seeded by an American travel writer, Robert Frisbie whom Neal had met while bouncing around the South Pacific. Frisbie had written extensively about Polynesia and the South Pacific. After years of living in Tahiti and then losing his wife, he and his five children fulfilled his lifelong dream by calling the tiny Anchorage home.

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Anchorage Island in the Suwarrows today. Screen grab from the video compilation on the life of Tom Neale. Video by Hajnács Tamás

The family spent a year on the island and their story of surviving a typhoon by lashing themselves to tamanu trees that bend, rather than break, became serialized in The Atlantic Monthly as The Story of an Island: Marooned by Request in 1943 and later in the novel The Island of Desire.

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Map of the Cook Islands. Image from World Atlas.

Even though the Frisbie family had faced a life-threatening storm, Robert’s passion for the island and its isolation was unwavering. When Frisbie met Neale, he shared his experience and convinced Neale to go for the ultimate solo journey. To make a life on a deserted island, hundreds of nautical miles from its nearest neighbor.

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Image of Tom Neale taken from his book An Island to Oneself.

Neale would spend a total of sixteen years living solo on the island, during three different stints, until his death in 1977. He repaired a broken down shack left from Coastwatchers during WWII as his new home. He planted a garden and pollinated the plants by hand because there were no bees. He hunted, fished, trapped lobsters, and collected seabird eggs to survive.

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Image of Tom Neale taken from his book An Island to Oneself.

After returning to civilization following his second stint in 1964, Neale wrote the book An Island to Myself which he credits Frisbie for the inspiration. Afterward, he became a celebrity among water people. Yachters and journalists occasionally ventured out to pay him a visit. Soon he was appointed ‘postmaster’ of Suwarrow and received fan mail from all over the world.

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Book cover of Neale’s memoir. 

Neale came to be known as “The Hermit of Suwarrow” but debunked that nickname in an interview. “I’m not a hermit.” he told Kenneth Vogel, a journalist from Islands Magazine. “Hermits don’t like people but I do. I just live here because it suits me. I can do what I want to, when I want, without being beholden to anyone. I’m free!”

In An Island to Oneself, Neal describes his logic for settling on Anchorage. “I chose to live in the Pacific islands because life there moves at the sort of pace which you feel God must have had in mind originally when He made the sun to keep us warm and provided the fruits of the earth for the taking.”

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Video compilation of the life of Tom Neale. Video by Hajnács Tamás.

It wasn’t until he was near the end of his life that Neale sought out company. He didn’t want to die alone and was brought back to Rarotonga for his final days. Eventually he would lose the battle to stomach cancer.

Over the years, others have tried their own hand at island survival, but none came close to matching Neale. Today, the Suwarrow Islands are protected as a national park.

To read more about Neale’s remarkable story, check out his memoir An Island to Oneself and Kenneth R. Vogel’s article, Tom Neale: A Remembrance, published in 1987 by Islands Magazine.

If you are in the market for finding your own blue lagoon, Wikipedia has a great list for you to ponder! –CS

Read more salty survival stories on The Scuttlefish:

Life in Salt: Sailor and Author Steven Callahan on How Paper, Rope and Knives Pulled Him Through 76 Days Adrift

Last Man Off: Author and Shipwreck Survivor Matt Lewis Discusses Disaster, Survival and Regret in the Southern Ocean.

HMS Friday – The Longest Survival At Sea.

Skepticism Arises While Details Emerge of Carolina Sailor’s 66 Days Lost at Sea, But Why?

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