Norfolk is full of friendly, welcoming characters who enjoy being part of a small, close-knit community. Newcomers are amazed when Island drivers give a cheery salute to everyone they pass, or pause to have a friendly chat with them in shops and cafés. Long-time residents are happy to answer questions from visitors, and willingly direct them to scenic lookouts, restaurants and historic sites. Tourists who misplace sunglasses or lose a purse, are grateful when their belongings are quickly found, and returned with a minimum of fuss. Cars and homes are left unlocked, and the pace of life is genuinely relaxed and laidback.
As you drive along Norfolk’s scenic, winding roads you’ll encounter pedestrians, cyclists, many small cars and buses, and even the odd person on horseback. One white mini-truck bears a sign saying, ‘Mesta Plun’, with a bright yellow banana beside it. ‘Mesta’ is ‘Mr’ in Norf’k language, while ‘Plun’ is the word for bananas – from ‘plantain’ – and the owner does indeed grow, and sell bananas. Look out for his well-known vehicle and you’ll see a smiling, white-haired man waving to you from behind the wheel.
‘Mesta Plun’, aka Roy Nobbs, is a popular local identity and Norfolk Elder. He’s 84 but not planning to slow down yet. His mother, Sylvia (Girlie) Nobbs, nee Robinson, was nearly 103 when she died, and his aunt, Audrey Scott (Girlie’s sister), almost made her 101st birthday. Their mother, Roy’s maternal grandmother, Jemima, was the first Norfolk Islander to reach 100 – back in September 1970. So, Roy has good genes, and like many older people here, is fit and active with an undimmed enthusiasm for life. He’s ‘always on the go’: building, hand-crafting ukuleles, gardening, mowing, growing and harvesting bananas, milking cows, swimming, reading, playing tennis, dancing, singing, playing ukulele and harmonica, and looking after his Rocky Point ‘side’ (home).
Roy is a direct (5th generation) descendant of the seafarer and adventurer George Hunn Nobbs, who came to Pitcairn Island in 1828 and married Fletcher Christian’s granddaughter Sarah the following year. George Hunn Nobbs became the spiritual leader of the Pitcairners – the offspring of Tahitian women and Bounty mutineers – and he petitioned Queen Victoria to allow the entire community of 193 people to move to Norfolk Island in 1856. Roy serves as a spokesman for the Nobbs clan on the Council of Elders, which has links to the eight original Pitcairn families: Christian, Quintal, Young, McCoy, Adams, Buffett, Evans and Nobbs.
Roy is the fifth of Dick and Girlie Nobbs’ seven children, and was born on Norfolk in August 1936. The Depression and World War II brought tough economic times to the Island, so his family worked hard and learned to ‘do without’. Despite this, Roy remembers lots of good times with his only sister Ruby and five brothers out at Rocky Point. They went swimming in Crystal Pool, wandered the beach at Bumboras, picked wild ‘porpay’ (cherry guavas) and listened to his mum and dad’s home-made music – Girlie on piano and Dick playing button accordion.
His grandparents, ‘Cobby’ and Jemima Robinson, were just down the road, and as a youngster Roy lived with them. Cobby had quite a few cattle, and Roy began milking cows, by hand, at the age of seven. This morning chore often made him late for school, and he’d get a whack from the teacher for his tardiness. Roy usually walked to school at Middlegate, but sometimes rode a horse. Once, while trying to race the bus, he fell off his mount and, luckily, didn’t break his neck.
Although he loved reading Roy hated school, with its rules and restrictions, so at fifteen he went to New Zealand to find work. He was employed at Whakatane with other Norfolk Islanders – including his dad, brother ‘Short’ (Les), ‘Plute’ Snell and Sid Christian. There he helped build homes, and learnt carpentry and other skills. Roy later went to Auckland and was introduced, by the couple he stayed with, to Competition Ballroom dancing. They taught him the fancy footwork and graceful moves that a good dancer needs to impress the judges.
He met Mai, a shy, petite girl from Kaitaia, at a dancehall and they married in 1957. They both loved dancing and music, and happily settled down together in Auckland. Roy stayed in the building trade, but after coming home for a holiday in 1963, he and Mai decided to move permanently to Norfolk. They returned in 1965 with their five children: Stephen, Joy, Debra, Michael and Darrin. Gaelene and Michelle were born later on Norfolk Island. There was plenty of construction going on, so Roy worked for Jimmy Gardner before eventually starting his own business, Rocky Point Joinery, in 1968.
Roy, Mai and the kids lived in Cobby’s old place but the conditions were definitely more primitive than New Zealand. There was no electricity – mains power didn’t come until the 1970s – so Mai, like other Island housewives, dealt with kerosene fridges, wood stoves, lanterns, candles, generators and hoisting water from the well. Despite the lack of labour-saving devices, they had a lot of fun bringing up the kids and enjoying card nights, musical evenings and church gatherings with Roy’s extended family and friends.
Roy and his team erected many houses and other structures on Norfolk, and the Joinery employed eighteen men in its heyday. He raised his family, built a new home for them, supplied vegetables and bananas to the Norfolk community, and kept milking those damn cows! Along the way he danced, travelled and played music. Like many Islanders, Mesta Plun is self-reliant and draws on his faith to sustain him. Roy attends the Seventh Day Adventist Church every Saturday and finds solace in the music and fellowship he finds there.
He’s an early riser and hard worker, swims almost every day, and goes to bed with the sun; but he’s also an intensely curious man. He reads voraciously and has travelled the world. With his friend, and former SDA minister, Ray Sills, Roy has been to 245 countries including North Korea, Afghanistan and Somalia. Roy and Ray have ‘roughed it’ in cheap backpacker hostels, caught ramshackle buses and crowded trains, and had some wild experiences – mugged in Rio de Janeiro, detained by warlords in Ethiopia and threatened in Haiti. Over the years they’ve gone to every corner of the globe, and until Covid-19 disrupted everyone’s plans, Roy and Ray were hoping to visit Mongolia next.
Music is particularly important to Roy – he never misses the Country Music Festival and loves to ‘crank up’ the radio when he’s driving around town. For decades he sang and played harmonica, and ukulele in the Nobbs family band with ’Short’ (Les), Alex and Ken. At home, church, festivals, dances, hospital sing-songs and funerals, Roy continues to perform with Alex, ‘Wiggy’ Knapton, the Bumboras Ukulele Band, nephews, nieces, children, grandchildren and a host of local entertainers. Twenty years ago, he began making traditional Island ukes from Norfolk pine and other beautiful woods, and these handsome instruments are now highly prized by collectors and musicians. Roy has also written a song, ‘G’wen Hoem’ (Going Home); composing lyrics in Norf’k to accompany Don Christian-Reynolds’ jaunty music.
Roy’s had ‘more lives than a cat’ – whether he’s flipping a bulldozer or surviving a bad bout of flu, nothing seems to faze him – but there has been sorrow, as well as joy in recent years. Mai, his beloved wife, died in 2011 and he lost his eldest son and great mate, ‘Snobbles’ (Stephen) to cancer in 2018. His mother, aunt, three brothers and many friends have gone too, but Roy continues to stay positive and keep busy. He’s forever planning new projects and adventures, and still enjoys a joke with his grandsons during morning ‘smoko’ at the Rocky Point shed.
There’s always time to share ‘dem tull’ (gossip), old stories, hearty sandwiches and endless cups of tea with his loved ones. He and Mai supported their family and now, with his partner Yvonne at his side, Roy is proud of everything his 7 children, 22 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren have achieved. On Sunday afternoons he plays tennis with his brothers, Alex and Joseph, and is happy to welcome friends or family members who come along for a hit, or stay to enjoy Jan Nobbs’ scrumptious afternoon tea.